Friday, 2 December 2016

Implications of the Richmond by-election

The surprise LibDem victory in the Richmond Park by-election yesterday could have considerable significance. Winning on a strongly anti-Brexit platform, it opens the possibility that the LibDems could make further gains in some areas. It also tells us that ‘remain’ voters cannot simply be ignored.

Much attention has focussed on the possibility that pro-Brexit MPs (especially Labour) might be vulnerable, especially to UKIP, in constituencies that voted to leave the EU. I am not entirely convinced by that because voting patterns in the referendum were different to those in parliamentary elections in that many who voted leave do not normally vote at all. In any case, about two-thirds of habitual Labour voters voted remain, so the idea that Labour’s core vote is capturable by UKIP is unlikely. Nevertheless, there are important issues for Labour in all this: are they going to be an anti-Brexit party or not? If not, they will lose out in their London heartlands; if so, they will have to struggle with UKIP in their Northern heartlands. My feeling is that the Brexit vote in combination with Corbyn’s agnosticism on the EU means that Labour are finished as a political party.

However that may be, the neglected issue is what remain voters now do. With Brexit now being the dominant political issue and voter cleavage predictions are difficult. From Richmond, it seems that the one third or so of voters who are habitually Tories but who voted remain might be willing to support the LibDems, as, in certain constituencies, might be Labour Remainers. So although the national opinion polls show the LibDems at something like 8-10% in places like Richmond where the remain vote was high the picture could be different. That would be relevant in several parts of London, as well as Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, Exeter etc. and could translate into several seats at a future General Election.

Regardless of electoral arithmetic, Richmond is important in another way. It’s a reminder that the country is bitterly split on Brexit, and that there is no mandate at all for a hard Brexit (it appears that many Tory Leave voters supported the LibDems in Richmond). If the government try to force a hard Brexit in order to appease one (minority) group of their backbenchers, there will be an electoral price to pay. Equally, or more, significant the traditional financers and supporters of the Tory Party in business and the City will strongly oppose it.

Underneath all this there is a harsh and controversial truth – controversial, that is, within the prevailing discourse that the Brexit vote was ‘the will of the people’. Because the demographics of the vote show very clearly that those who voted Brexit were more likely to be economically inactive and/or in lower social classes. Now of course everyone’s vote is worth the same – but is a Tory (or any) government really going to prioritise the wishes of the demographic that voted leave over the professional and corporate middle class? At the end of the day, like it or not, pensioners in Lowestoft are not going to be the cultural or economic future of the UK; young pan-European teams of scientists spinning businesses out of Cambridge University are. So although everyone’s vote rightly counts for the same in a referendum, there has to be a realism beyond that piety, at least for any half-way sensible government.

That ‘realeconomic’ has its counterpart in the realpolitik of what kind of Brexit can be achieved, and in the last couple of days there have been signals from the British government that a soft Brexit is in prospect. I don’t attach much meaning to that, because the government are sending out so many contradictory messages. Even so, some kind of EEA deal would seem to be the most obvious way out of this situation, both as regards negotiations with the EU and also as regards the British electorate. That is to say, about half of the country don’t want to the leave the EU but almost all of them could probably just about be satisfied with EEA membership; just about half the country want to leave the EU and some of them would be happy with EEA membership. So, if we are really concerned about the ‘will of the people’ then EEA membership is probably about the best way forward. And in a way it would, actually, reflect where the UK has always been, ever since accession in 1972: a kind of semi-detached member of the EU.

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