Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday 5 February 2017

Why is no one talking about the angry Remainers?

I would not normally write this kind of post, but I couldn’t find anything on this by searching so I wrote it myself.

One very good answer to the question posed by the title would be if they did not exist, or more specifically that they might make a lot of noise in certain circles but in electoral terms do not amount to much. The main evidence we have that might raise doubt about this explanation is a series of remarkable by-election results for the Liberal Democrats. Everyone knows about Richmond, and earlier they had done very well at Witney, but their gain in vote was much more modest at Sleaford. What is less known is their steady success since the referendum in council by-elections. Each council by-election involves small numbers compared to Westminster seats, but there have been many more. What is interesting at this level is that the LibDems have been winning seats from both Labour and Conservatives, and in both Remain and Leave areas.

So why are political commentators continuing to talk about the UKIP threat to Labour much more than the LibDem threat to both main parties. Part of the answer is I’m sure the importance of the Brexit tabloids in influencing the Westminster bubble. But I think there is also some legitimate caution in not reading too much into these by-election results. First, the national polls have shown much more modest gains for the LibDems. Second, the power of the LibDem by-election machine is well known, and those with long memories know that spectacular by-election victories can come to nothing when we move to a general election. This would also help explain the non-uniform nature of the victories: for nearly every success you can find a relative failure.

While all that justifies caution, it does not provide any evidence against the angry Remainer idea. Nor does the fact that victories have happened in Leave constituencies, for two reasons. First, even if a constituency voted 60% for Leave, that still leaves 40% who voted Remain, and council elections in particular are where genuine anger is likely to motivate people to vote when the turnout is typically low. Second, quite a few people may have voted Leave but do not want a Hard Brexit.

The first factor may also help explain the discrepancy between local election results and the small movement in the LibDem’s national poll ratings. But, for Remainers, there may be a potentially more optimistic explanation. Responding to opinion polls may involve little thought. In an election people can read election leaflets, and they may think more before casting their vote. If so, local election results could be what economists would call a leading indicator of national polls in this particular case.

However, I say potentially because there is a less optimistic interpretation. In individual local elections the national media is not in election mode, and so local election literature may be unusually persuasive. In a national election, as we saw with the referendum itself, the broadcast media allows itself to be influenced by the pro-Brexit press. The LibDems may also be given little airtime as a small party, so there will be an automatic Leave bias.

For reasons like this, I’m afraid I find the outlook for Remainers like myself pretty grim. I can see one possible way of avoiding leaving the EU, but it requires a number of things to all work out. First, the march on 25th March is really, really big. Second, the LibDems make very large gains in the local elections in May. The combination of these two events could put the idea of the angry Remainer on the map. It might start encouraging some psephologists to speculate on which politicians would be vulnerable to a LibDem surge.

Third, the Brexit negotiations have to be seen as going badly. If ministers start blaming the EU for their intransigence, that is a good sign. Fourth, Labour keep Corbyn as leader. Fifth, it becomes clear that Article 50 can be revoked. Sixth, a run of polls have clear majorities for Remain over Leave. All that might just start making enough MPs seriously worried about keeping their own seats that they finally get the courage, and by some means a way, to vote to stay in the EU, or to call a second referendum. I have not tried to work out the probability of all those things happening, but as a fictional dwarf once said: “Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?”

For those pining for a more macro post, the next one will be on the Bank of England's forecasts


  1. I think a second referendum is possible if the negotiations go very badly. It would be stupid to promise this in advance because it would affect the negotiating position. Trump has suddenly made the arguments for remaining in the EU more forceful as the consequences become more become more apparent. Corbyn is the big problem. To be anti Trump means being pro EU. If we get a poor Brexit deal and May feels under pressure, she could decide to go for a second referendum on accepting the Brexit terms but this cannot be revealed in advance. Any threats from Putin may help persuade EU leaders to grant some concessions if the UK remained in the EU, making an even better case for remaining.

    Another factor is that, as Steven Crabb explained, Brexit is unlikely to reduce migration very much. This would require vast expenditure on training and improving work force participation. The government is not going have the stomach to do this as there are too many vested interests and the time frame would be too long.

    Your preferred Free Trade Area solution is politically completely unrealistic.

    1. My referred option is staying in the EU. I cannot see May ever agreeing to this unless enough MPs force her. As with many things, the idea that allowing a 2nd ref. in advance would be bad for negotiations is I think wrong. The EU will do what they think is best for the EU. Having seen the UK vote Out once, they are not going to start gambling that it might be different a second time.

    2. It is neither feasible nor right for Remainers, whether within or without the Labour Party, to attempt to reverse the decision at this stage, regardless of either the distorting influence on the decision of that media bias or of the broadcasting public service failure to distinquish between fact and claim and to analyse the considered 'economist' view of the consequences of Exit, or, because the 'Leave' voters would not necessarily have voted as they did in larger enough numbers to secure a majority if they were aware that leaving the Single Market will almost certainly result in a significantly lower national income in the medium term, with resultant implications for their own incomes future public spending on health and other public services.

      A case for a second referendum can be made in the eventuality of the final negotiated position reflecting May's current position,including UK departure from the Single market and Custom Union, with their economic consequences.

      It is and would be politically sensible for the Labour Party to focus on the requirement for a final deal to protect and promote the UK's economic future, as well as economic and social rights connected with membership, using the opportunity to hammer home the economic consequences of Exit in a more focused, accurate and effective way than did mark the referendum campaign.
      Faltering economic growth as is forecast for the next few financial years by the Bank of England, Oxford Economics, and others, is likely to concentrate minds on the future impact of Brexit.
      The EC itself, hopefully, will use the train crash of the Brexit vote as a catalyst to review in parallel how it can allay citizen concerns on free movement without disproportionate trimming of base principles, and reflect that in its negotiating stance on the UK remaining within the Single market, for example.
      It should also reserve the right to campaign for, and to put down a vote rejecting ratification of the negotiated terms until agreed, by a second referendum, in the event of those terms not meeting the future needs of the UK.

  2. Definitely worth looking at polling results also. Yougov has been helpfully doing crosstabs by referendum vote/voting intention.

    April 2016 (final poll before referendum)
    Remain: Con 24% Lab 52%
    Leave: Con 33% Lab 15%

    July 2016 (just after May became PM)
    Remain: Con 28% Lab 41%
    Leave: Con 52% Lab 16%

    Jan 2017 (newest)
    Remain: Con 30% Lab 35%
    Leave: Con 51% Lab 16%

    It's clear to me that Labour is pretty much being slaughtered by Remain voters, and this accounts for most if not all of their loss in fortune.

  3. If you look past some of the language used, this is an interesting piece on Remain anger.

    I'm curious that Corbyn remaining Labour leader is on your wishlist for maximising Remain discontent. Is this on the basis that
    a) he's the best of a bad lot - there isn't a more Remain-friendly candidate, and most of the obvious alternatives have gone further down the 'real concerns' route; or
    b) we'll ultimately need Labour to be mobilised for Remain, and nobody mobilises the Labour membership like Corbyn; or
    c) we'll need Labour to be marginalised, and nobody marginalises Labour as a political force like Corbyn?

    1. What's your problem with the language used?

      Its (c). The LibDems have the biggest threat if they are the only party (Greens apart) for the angry Remainers, and the Labour leader is hopeless.

    2. Some might find the effing and jeffing a bit de trop.

      I take your point re option c), but I think relying on the LDs is a counsel of despair. Third parties don't tend to make the weather here - even in 1982-3, with a third-party surge that achieved 50% poll ratings, the end result was a weakened opposition and a strengthened Tory government.

      I would split my own bet between options a) and b) - there isn't a better and less compromised candidate, and Corbyn does mobilise the members. That is, I would, if I hadn't come to the reluctant conclusion that Labour aren't going to be coming back under his leadership. (The parliamentary party's against you? Whip them! The staff are undermining you? Purge them! Stalin wouldn't have stood for it; neither would Ken Livingstone, come to that. Corbyn's just not a political animal in that sense.)

      But I still think the Remain effort is going to need Labour; we just have to hope that they can pull a red line out of the hat and turn the ship around some time in the next six weeks. I know, it's an even slimmer chance than your original scenario.

    3. With you otherwise, but I don't follow your logic on (c). Sure, with a genuinely effective Brexit-embracing Labour leader, we'd be in even more trouble. But I really don't think that's going to happen. Brexit is the one policy on which Corbyn is parting company with his base, who are young, idealistic, and staunchly pro-Remain. If he does get decapitated, it will be to a Remainer. Which would surely be better?

  4. We DON'T want out anymore: Shock poll reveals Express & Star readers have changed minds on Brexit (PUBLISHED: December 24, 2016):

    "The poll – the biggest online news questionnaire this paper has carried out – saw nearly 10,000 people respond to five questions on what readers thought of Brexit since the historic vote.

    Six in 10 said they would now vote to ‘remain’ in the EU, a huge shift from the 80 per cent who said they intended to vote to leave in our original poll in March.

    On June 23, the Black Country and Staffordshire overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU with an average of 59 per cent in the West Midlands backing the likes of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove."

  5. What I find surprising is the complete lack of discussion about Conservative Remainers. All Conservative MP's bar one voted for the Article 50 bill at second reading, yet the majority were for remaining, at least before the Referendum "". Unless those in the Conservative Party who wish to remain are brought onside it matters little what the other parties do.

    1. You should not underestimate that once Corbyn went for triggering A50, the government were always going to win so resistance would have been just for show. Conservatives generally do not do that kind of thing. Had Labour voted against, things might have been more interesting.

    2. While they would have been more interesting, I think this is academic because I expect A50 would still have passed. That is because abiding by the referendum result was a manifesto commitment by the Tories and because if they didn't implement it, UKIP could make gains from it and destroy the Tory majority in 2020.

  6. «I can see one possible way of avoiding leaving the EU, but it requires a number of things to all work out.»

    The most effective stop to Brexit would be a house price crash in the south-east. Between house prices and "independence", most south-east voters will choose house prices.

    But I doubt that many "Remainers" in Westminster or Whitehall or Threadneedle or the City would rather have a house price crash than Brexit, so I guess that anything will be done to ensure one is delayed as much as possible.

    1. That is hilarious, and you're probably right

  7. Frankly I think you are clutching at straws here or whistling in the wind or similar.

    The other factor which you miss out completely is what is already happening in the EU and the EZ. Even if Le Pen does not win the French Presidency (likely), the electoral situation in Italy resolves itself (unlikely) and Merkel is re-elected (likely) then the troubles in the EU are not going to disappear. The dysfunction is all too clear now, even with cheerleaders like the FT and is not going away. This is bound to weigh on perceptions here so your optimism is premature.

    As an economist you must be able to see that the travails within the EZ are getting worse by the day and that it is by no means inconceivable that the structure will fail in the next few years.

    My point here is that the most important condition for you may well be that all is quiet in the EU, a condition that is most unlikely to be fulfilled.

  8. I suppose an alternative strategy might be to abide by the referendum result of last June. Just a thought.

  9. Alexander Harvey6 February 2017 at 10:36

    Quantity is important but Quality matters. Democracy isn't just about simple majorities, committed minorities can influence outcomes.

    If say a few million committed themselves to concerted action not just when it was convenient but when it was painful, and chose to Remain at home for the last working week in March, that would make a difference.

  10. I propose the Will of The People app (VotrR or something else trademarkable). Once every five years with your app you can have a simple choice for a political party that then chooses a PM and ministers. Anything that designated bodies (The Mail, Telegraph etc) decide is important can be voted on with your app which then becomes a Will of The People. As this voting thing is like so tiresome motions will be kept simple and exciting. Ministers will be free to interpret what it was that you really meant when you said yes or no.

    Benefits will include £[insert impressively high number here] a week savings on all the costs of running those pointless and outdated MPs and their expenses and Westminster can be developed as a hotel or sold off as apartments for wealthy foreigners.

    Oh and the savings will of course be used for the NHS
    - probably

  11. Sorry for the Anonymous comment, I'm using a friend's comp and don't want the trouble of logging him out. Speaking as a center-left guy across the pond, Brexit looks like a relatively minor unforced error compared to what's happening here in the US. The president's muslim ban has become like the Boston riot 167 years ago--to paraphrase Amos Lawrence, many of us who were calm, moderate pragmatists were turned in five hours to furious marchers ready to put our careers and bodies between our government and its innocent targets.

    I personally know many who voted for Mr Trump because they wanted lower taxes and cheaper health insurance, many others who wanted fewer regulations in their industry, or lower welfare expenditures. I know of none who were embracing this degree of self-worship and eggregious incompetence. This country is on edg. If our economy falls into recession, as it has under every elected Republican president, I expect it to become a powder keg.

    If I could advise PM May and other UK folks, it would be not to trust overtures from Mr Trump. She still refers to him as Leader of the Free World, a title he clearly abdicated in his inaugural speech. His actions show he means to shirk it entirely. As our international standing suffers so will our economy. Whatever benefits the UK government hopes to get from my country right now are very unlikely to be forthcoming. As a progressive friend of mine said, 9 days ago, "Now do you understand???" Whatever post-Brexit course is followed, hewing tighter to the US at this time is likely to darken it.

    1. Anonymous 1, I sympathise with the innocent victims of the ban especially the refugees. And of course many Trump voters did not take the policy seriously because Trump is unreliable and it may be against the law. However, before the after the ban was implemented polls have shown 50% or more of the public in favour. I think the ban is a double whammy: some people think reducing Muslim immigration is worth it to reduce terrorism, and/or like the ban because it is a reduction in immigration generally.

      I fear liberal opposition will not work, because they are not offering more than Trump on the economy to those voters (actually they had liberal econ policies in the election but Clinton did almost nothing to publicise them, so many voters didn't know). Even worse, that's a double whammy too, because it uses up time and energy that would otherwise be used to attack Trump on the economy. This invites a loss in 2018.

      Hoping for Trump to self-destruct to save Democrats hard work is foolish, because George W Bush (another ignoramus who just wanted a tax cut for the rich) was re-elected in 2004 despite his failure over Iraq.

  12. In a sane world, a news blackout could never occur. The fact of a news blackout itself would receive huge media coverage. However, this is an insane world, and a news blackout is a possible explanation.

    After all, has anyone ever heard the mainstream media's public explanation about why they never publicly mention Lori Klausutis? (Even as the Chandra Levy issue raged in the media?)

  13. From this distance it is not at all surprising that the Lib-Dems are doing better. It is very surprising that they are not doing FAR better, because absolutely all the political stars are aligned for them. Really, all they need from here is to take some tactical risks rather than lazily relying on that alignment to continue. They especially need to look like angry Remainers.

    If they can't from this position force Labour into third party status (something they should know all too well is a hard place to be in in a first past the post system), and split the governing party as well, then they really are politically timid and incompetent. But then they seem to have a history of such timidness and incompetence.

    1. The Lib Dems' vote share will still be suffering somewhat due to 'angry 2010 voters', i.e. people who voted Lib Dem in 2010, but were dismayed at the coalition government's policies in 2010-15 (which were almost indistinguishable from the policies one would expect of a single-party Cameron government). The Lib Dems' credentials as a pro-EU party weren't too damaged by that period, but their more general appeal to liberal left voters certainly was, which limits their ability to persuade Labour voters to switch. By contrast, the 2010-15 period should put them in good standing with 2010/2015 Conservative voters who were happy with the government under Cameron's tenure, but are alarmed by May's shift towards authoritarian populism.


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