Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 31 May 2019

The response to the European elections will define politics for some time

When I woke up on Monday morning and saw the European election results, I wrote this tweet
“Woke up to a triumph for Remain. On latest vote count from BBC, UK clear Remain 40.3%, clear No Deal 34.9%, Lab 14.1% Con 9,1%. Clear Remain even just beat No Deal Brexit in England. If that is not the headline you are seeing, it is another example of Brexit bias I'm afraid.”

For the next two days I got hundreds of messages telling me I was delusional (or worse), and often including a funny picture rather than any kind of argument.

Here is Farage doing exactly the same thing to exactly the same point on television. It is what people like him do when they have no answer. Here is the BBC making the same point, but badly because they mislabel No Deal parties as just pro-Brexit. Both Labour and the Conservatives are pro-Brexit.

Of the responses to my tweet that contained more than half a dozen words, the desire seemed to be to argue that Remain had not beaten abstract Leave. Indeed they had not. According to Ashcroft’s exit poll, 50% of voters backed Leave and 46% backed Remain. The reason why Leave won is obvious if you look at the age breakdown of who voted. In these kind of low turnout elections the old are more likely to turn up than the young, and this was no exception: only 3% of those who voted were between 18 and 24.

Why did I call the Remain vote a triumph? The Brexit party vote was neither unexpected or remarkable. It was clear from the start Farage would get nearly all the UKIP vote, and that he would also capture voters who want Brexit and were fed up that the Tories had not achieved it. He also got a few Labour votes. What was unexpected and I think remarkable that the Remain parties won so many votes. Previously I had hoped that the combined Remain parties vote might equal the combined Brexit party and UKIP vote, so I thought the actual performance was tremendous.

Did it matter that more Leave than Remain voters turned up? I cannot see why. What will shape politics in the months to come is the Tories reaction to Farage’s success, Labour’s reaction to Remain’s success, and whether this victory leads the Remain parties to cooperate in the next general election. The other important point is that abstract Leave totals mean less and less, given the chances of a Brexit deal passing parliament any time soon are zero. Their main relevance right now is whether those voters when faced with a No Deal Brexit back it or prefer Remain.

I have written recently about how the Tories are likely to respond to these results. Labour have already responded by making their support for a referendum unconditional, but they have not said that any referendum would contain a Remain option and they have certainly not said they would always support Remain. Corbyn’s dream of a Labour deal remains alive and party policy, and he seems not to have realised that he could never implement it. Whether what they have already done is enough to win back enough Remain voters in any general election seems 50/50 at best, so their current stance certainly puts an election victory at risk.

Before anyone mentions seats in the North East, according to Ashcroft 15% of European election voters who voted for Labour in the 2017 election voted for the Brexit party. An amazing 45% of Labour voters in 2017 voted for combined Remain parties. That 3 to 1 ratio matches what opinion polls have been saying, but it is one thing to say it to a pollster and quite another to break in many cases a habit of a lifetime and actually vote against Labour. And to those who say Labour cannot desert its heartlands, what about those in the North East that want to Remain? Ashcroft suggests that 42% of voters in the North East think they voted Labour in 2017, and 38% of voters in the North East want to remain in the EU. See this post on how attempts to attract Brexit voters in Brexit constituencies are more likely to push away the considerable number of Remain voters in those constituencies.

Labour’ choice is do they keep being a Brexit party and stay an opposition party with a romantic dream of becoming once again being a party of the working class, or do they follow their voters and members and become a Remain party that can win an election and actually do something for the working class. The European elections showed up a fundamental imbalance. Brexit is the policy of both major parties, so no major party supports Remain, and that is a vacuum that will be filled. (The Tories got punished because they failed to deliver Brexit.) Hence Labour should support Remain.

Right now we want a Labour leadership that is actively campaigning against a No Deal Brexit, telling people how a No Deal Brexit Britain would become an impoverished and powerless satellite of the USA like Puerto Rico but with a tax haven status for the rich. We do not want a Labour leadership who spend whatever air time they get explaining what their Brexit policy actually is.

If Labour think things can only get better, they may have already inspired what could be a sea change in any general election. The lesson for the Greens and the Lib Dems is that if they cooperate they could do remarkably well in a future general election, particularly if the Conservatives go for No Deal and Labour stay a Brexit party. Cooperation would involve the LibDems giving way in some seats where both they and the Greens are strong, but in exchange being the only party of Remain in most other seats.

If that happened, it would be a disaster for Labour. I have made it no secret that I believe the next government must be a radical party that can challenge neoliberal hegemony and also do something about the sorry state of our media, and I do not think the LibDems are there yet, although they are moving back to their traditional left of centre position. I therefore view anything that could stop the next government being Labour as a disaster. It would be tragic if that was to happen as a result of Brexit.


  1. I agree with 90% of what is said in this post but isn't 'a No Deal Brexit Britain would become an impoverished and powerless satellite of the USA like Puerto Rico but with a tax haven status for the rich. ' a little bit alarmist ?

  2. On every calculation you are wrong, 63% of the electorate did not vote in the Euro elections, but extrapolate what you like about the so called result, but Remainers did not win.

    Secondly some are predicting that those that voted Leave will return to Labour, for one simple reason, Neo-Liberal policies are hurting them and only Labour will change that, so dream on as much as you like, the Libdem Tory enablers are dead ducks only revived by a single issue policy. We won't let the public forget the damage they have inflicted on the people of this country, and of course they support the Neo-Liberal corporate states of Europe.

  3. LibDem party is arguing a position and trying to persuade voters of a mechanism to achieve unity. This has some chance of resolving our country's generational schism.

    Of course you are correct that "Remain As Is" would be clearer choice that either "No Deal for now" or "May's Deal with tweaks" since those are just sketches .. but in my view having 60:40 one way or the other doesn't make enough people happy to regain stability.

    What radical departure from Neo-liberal economics is compatible with remaining in EU? Will Corbyn get a mandate to be radical from a UK-wide electorate? Are we not already having THE disaster: i.e. uncertainty with no discernable route to closure?

  4. May was a Daily Mail appointment, Boris Johnson like Trump is a Rupert Murdoch candidate.

  5. How is it possible to draw firm conclusions based on Ashcroft polls?
    To me the whole charade of Brexit reminds me of schisms of the Byzantine empire.
    I doubt debating the number of Angels dancing on pins is time well spent.
    Dancing should be fun - with tunes not dictated by the media, who almost always pay the pipers.


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