Tuesday 25 April 2017

The Brexit election: where the opposition parties stand

It seems almost inevitable that the Tories will win the election and, probably, with an increased majority. But that is not certain. This is an election like no other, for many reasons. The scars of the referendum are not healed and, as happened in Scotland after the independence referendum, that can have big effects. Moreover, each of the main parties is positioning itself away from key elements of its core support: Tories by pursuing a Brexit agenda that liberal and pro-business Conservatives don’t endorse; Labour with a hard Left and apparently Brexit-acceptant agenda that centrists don’t want. The statistics are clear enough – 40% of 2015 Tory voters voted remain (and more than that will have envisaged soft Brexit); 65% of 2015 Labour voters voted remain.

There are many other factors in play. Party allegiance amongst voters has been breaking down for years. Some potential Tory voters will be upset by May’s reaffirmation of the overseas development budget and lack of reaffirmation of the pension triple-lock and the commitment not to raise taxes. Others will assume a Tory victory is inevitable, and so will not vote. Others still may find May’s socially awkward and distant campaigning style unappealing and, possibly, the prospect of a triumphalist win against the Labour underdog distasteful. Then again, many who voted leave are not habitual voters at all – some even believe that the referendum means that Britain has already left the EU - whereas many who voted remain are highly motivated to vote in this election, and will do so tactically to bolster their cause. It’s also unclear to what extent 2015 UKIP voters will switch to the Tories in support of hard Brexit, stick with UKIP out of mistrust of Tory Brexit credentials, or just not vote at all.

There are many possibilities and permutations, but my sense is that it is just possible that the result will not be the Tory landslide expected (we’ve certainly seen enough in recent months, from Brexit to Macron, to be wary of predictions). Whether this is true or not, what is the case is that those elected to the new parliament will be able to claim a mandate to argue for the policies they were elected on. This means that it matters what stance they take in their manifestos as it will shape what kind of freedom of action they have in the new parliament, whatever its composition.

For Tories – depending on what they say in their manifesto – that may mean being tied to the White Paper version of Brexit and make it more difficult for them to argue for a ‘no deal’ crash exit, as I argued in my previous post. Labour’s position is much less clear and – surprisingly, given the recent history of the Tory party – much more anguished. Today, their Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer has tried to clarify it, but it remains obscure and muddled (see this excellent analysis from Ian Dunt) except for offering an immediate guarantee of rights to remain for EU nationals in the UK and commitment to some of the non-market EU institutions such as Euratom.

Starmer appears to be saying that Labour would leave all negotiating options on the table, rather than following the government’s policy of ruling out single market and customs union membership. That is not unreasonable, but at the same time he is saying that Freedom of Movement of people must come to an end. If so, that makes single market membership impossible. It is just possible that what he has in mind is some negotiation of more stringent EEA emergency brake rules on immigration. That is a possibility that I outlined in an early post on this blog and, even now, it may have some mileage. Then again, the EU’s position is probably harder and less flexible than it was – partly because of the way the government has conducted itself, although a new government might have space to shift that. But Starmer isn’t, in any case, saying in terms that this is what a Labour government would seek and it’s only a possible reading of what he is implying.

Moreover, it remains very unclear whether Corbyn and McDonnell are on board with it. Corbyn says virtually nothing about Brexit and last week McDonnell was waffling on about seeking ‘tariff free access’ to the single market which goes nowhere near the issues that even the government seems, belatedly, to have understood about non-tariff barriers and regulatory harmonization. Starmer at least seems to understand what the issues are even if his articulation of them is so strangulated as to be all but incomprehensible – presumably precisely because his party leadership either does not endorse or does not understand those issues. The strong suspicion is that the leadership retain the traditional Bennite hostility of their wing of the Labour Party to the single market. And whatever their policy now, having voted to trigger A50 their anti-Brexit credentials are weak.

The LibDems Brexit policy is much clearer, but it has its own problems. They want a referendum on the final deal with the option not just of seeking a further negotiation but of reverting to EU membership. But this is less plausible than it seems. Firstly, because at the moment it is not clear whether A50 is reversible. And even if it turns out, legally, to be so, what would that mean politically? Could either the UK or the EU at the end of a long, complex and very likely acrimonious set of negotiations simply go back to the status quo ante of not just EU membership but all of the particular UK aspects of it (e.g. exemptions from Euro, Schengen)?  So even were there to be such a referendum, then assuming a Tory government the choice will be between the deal on offer or no deal at all. Since no deal at all would be catastrophic, the only viable option will be to vote for the deal on offer, no matter how bad for the UK it may be.

Thus a far more viable position to argue for would be a second referendum before negotiations get started. The argument would be something like this: ‘in June 2016 the British people voted to leave the EU. Even when you buy an insurance policy you are allowed a cooling-off period. The decision to leave the EU is a major one for our country. So we want to check that it is the decision you want and will hold a second and final referendum asking you again. But, also, last year's referendum did not ask you what you wanted to happen afterwards, so we are asking you that as well: specifically, do you want to stay in the single market or not?’

If that seems impossible given what the LibDems have already said about accepting the result of the 2016 vote then, at the very least, a more viable position than the current one would be to say: ‘in June 2016 the British people voted to leave the EU and this will be happen. But you were not asked what you wanted to government to negotiate for you after leaving, so we are asking you now whether you want to leave the single market or not?’

Clearly it is implausible that at this stage, when manifestos are being drawn up and their message has already been framed, the LibDems will change their policy in this way. Nevertheless, seeking an early vote on whether to pursue single market membership makes more sense than a late vote on exit terms. The same applies to the Greens, the SNP (although for them the issues involved are different and, in particular, bound up with the case for a second independence referendum) and other parties (such as Plaid Cymru, UUP, SDLP) which seems to want to retain single market membership on leaving the EU.

The tragedy in all this, as I have argued many times before on this blog, is that remaining in the single market and customs union would have been the most consensual and sensible way of responding to the very close referendum result whilst also honouring it. If David Cameron’s decision to call the referendum was the greatest strategic error of any modern British Prime Minister, Theresa May’s decision to interpret the result in such a partisan and damaging way must run it a close second. This election will - most likely - cement that decision, but the way that the other parties frame their stance now will shape what kind of opposition she faces.


  1. Some quick thoughts.

    I don't think a second referendum now or in the future is viable. The question is too complex for a simply binary choice. Better to use this election as the proxy second referendum (and in the process re-establish the principle of a sovereign parliament and a representative democracy).

    The LibDems should say, we recognise the referendum result but we don't recognise the government's chosen negotiating position. We accept that we are leaving the EU, the question is now on what terms. We will fight to maintain as many of the benefits as possible of EU membership, particularly the Single Market (which the UK helped create) and the customs union.

    We will oppose the government if it dilutes citizens' rights or threatens to damage our nation's economic and diplomatic interests. We will oppose the Brexalots demanding a hard Brexit - because this would be a disaster for millions of people in our country and thousands of businesses as well as damaging to our security. We will work to ensure we stay as close to the European Union as possible while recognising the current desire to leave the club.

    Our intention is to leave the door open for future generations to seek a closer relationship if they choose. Theresa May is being pushed by the Brexalots to burn all our bridges and boats. We won't let her. However, if she works with us and moderate Conservatives (who voted remain) we will ensure she delivers a deal that does the least harm to the UK and maintains cordial relationships with our neighbours. We will also work with her to maintain the unity of the UK while recognising the desire of the Scottish people for greater autonomy within the Union.


  2. Thanks. I get what you are saying and of course a particular problem is that there are so many versions of what Brexit could mean, so it can't just be a binary (e.g. SM or not). OTOH I suppose that now that the referendum genie is out of the bottle, it would be difficult to put it back without another referendum of some sort, one some terms. Thanks again, Chris.

    1. Point taken but I suspect most people have had enough of referendums and elections. The threat of one is probably off-putting to even many ardent remainers (and might well make life even more complicated). This way we build the LibDem's reputation for pragmatic, cross-party bridge building - bringing the nation together on common ground (a desire to make the best of a bad hand). Not ideal (I'd sooner we weren't starting from here) but probably the best we can do.

  3. "I suspect most people have had enough of referendums and elections"

    Yes, doesn't a new Parliament allow us constitutionally to disconnect from the referendum result in the current one?

    I wonder if the Lib Dems might have done better using this election as a chance to ditch the "referendum on the terms" policy and just say plainly they are the party of Remain; ie revoke A50 asap, or failing that begin the re-accession process.

  4. Thank you very much for this blog. I am a EU national living in Spain, and it is very helpful to know the thinking of a British expert in Social Sciences.

    I would like to know your personal view in two subjects:

    1) British people living in Spain. I live in a residential area in Valencia Community. One of my neighbours in British and another German. We are close friends. You cannot imagine how enriching was looking at our small children playing together in an unrecognisable language…. But they understood each other. We, Spanish people will fight for the rights of our British friends living in Spain no matter politics say. Mediterranean stupidity, maybe, but they are our friends and this tie will not be broken ever.
    2) EU Medicine students in UK. To complete its training they must work one year in NHS as trainees in a Foundation Program ( named F1). If as a result of Brexit they are not allowed to work in the UK at least to complete this training, their studies would not be approvable to work in the EU. So they would be trapped: not being able to work in the UK because of political issues; not being able to work in EU because of academic reasons. UK Government would be throwing to the dirt all the money invested in them, what I cannot understand in this case of a very skilled students. I suppose the situation in other academic studies could be similar. That’s the reason not only academic staff is thinking on leaving the UK ( I know doctors and nurses that already left), but also students whose studies validity is at risk.
    Just two issues that concern me.
    Again, congratulations for your work.