Saturday 5 May 2018

The Local Election results and Brexit

You would probably have to be a morbidly good citizen to feel any great excitement about the overall outcome of the Local Elections (LEs). Many commentators are reaching for metaphors of punch drunk boxers or the Western Front to capture the war of attrition between the two main parties. But perhaps even that is to overdramatise things: a better comparison (at least for those who like cricket metaphors) would be a lumbering medium pacer bowling repetitive line and length to a batsman who has mastered a solid forward defensive shot and not much else. Even so, there are implications – some obvious, some ambiguous and speculative – of Brexit for the results and, which is a different matter, of the results for Brexit.

Most obvious of the consequences of Brexit for the results is the way that the Conservatives have hoovered up the UKIP vote, leaving the Black Death party all but, well, dead. If what set the Referendum and hence Brexit in motion was David Cameron’s desire to see off the Tories’ upstart rival then it could be said that it has been successful. Unfortunately at the cost of economic and geo-political disaster for the country. Meanwhile, May’s uncompromising and unconsensual hard Brexit approach has made her party unappealing to liberal and business-oriented Tories.

Equally obvious is that the LibDems, and possibly though less certainly the Greens, are reaping some dividends for their consistently anti-Brexit position, very likely aided by the votes of EU citizens who, of course, were not able to vote in the General Election (GE) nor, notoriously, the Referendum. It is a vindication of the LibDem stance in the face of those who have called for them to soften or at least not to foreground their Brexit position. There’s clearly a limit to the parts of the country where this is going to be successful, but there’s also clearly a significant pool of support from those erstwhile Tory and Labour voters from whom Brexit continues to be the central issue. If, as seems highly likely, the damage of Brexit becomes more obvious, and the political chaos around the process increases, the LibDem strategy should pay longer-term dividends, rather as their consistent opposition to the Iraq War did.

The Labour result shows the crippling limitations of their slippery and ambiguous stance on Brexit. Were it not for that, they would be very likely to have a weak and divided government on the ropes. As it is, they are too Brexity to pick up committed remainer votes and insufficiently Brexity to attract committed leavers. I have never bought into the analysis that says that being anti-Brexit – or, at least, anti-hard Brexit – would be a problem in traditional Labour heartlands in the North and Midlands of England.

The fact that those areas mainly voted leave doesn’t mean that the leave voters in those areas were mainly Labour voters. Nor does it mean that most Labour voters in those areas voted to leave. And even for those who did, it does not follow that they want hard Brexit nor does it follow that Brexit is the be all and end all issue for them. In fact, there is some evidence that for voters in social classes C2DE Brexit is a far less important issue than it is for those in social classes ABC1. Taking that with the social class pattern of the Brexit vote itself, it suggests that Labour’s pro-Brexit stance will hurt it more amongst remainer voters than it can help them amongst leave voters. Of course there will certainly be some traditional and potential Labour voters for whom Brexit, and hard Brexit at that, is the key, overwhelming issue. But those voters will not be attracted by Labour’s ambiguous and (compared with the Tories) very slightly softer approach anyway.

So whereas both the Tories and the LibDems have derived some electoral advantage from their respective approaches to Brexit, Labour’s stance has done them no good at all, and has almost certainly done them harm. Amongst remain voters especially within remain areas the LibDems are a better bet; amongst leave voters and especially within leave areas, the Tories are a better bet. Of course people vote for all kinds of reasons other than Brexit, but on the Brexit issue Labour have in effect made themselves the ‘centre party’ (in a very narrow and specific sense: I don’t mean they are centrist in general, nor that their Brexit stance represents the centre ground of public opinion; I just mean their approach is a wishy-washy fudge) and as a result are squeezed from both sides.

All of this is to do with what Brexit might have meant for the outcome of the local elections. The more urgent and important question is what that outcome might mean for Brexit. One possibility is that, in line with the analysis above, it could prompt Labour to shift to an anti-Brexit or at least a clearly soft Brexit position. That would be a significant game changer, although it does not seem very likely at the moment.

Another important issue is whether the results make rebellion from Tory remain backbenchers more or less likely. One of the main threats used to deter such rebels is that if they defeat the government it will lead (somehow: the route is not entirely clear given fixed term parliaments) to a GE which Labour might win. Thus: vote with the government or get Corbyn. How much traction that has varies. Some Tory MPs might agree with Lord Heseltine that Brexit would be worse than a Corbyn government, but that proposition is itself weakened by Labour’s Brexit stance: the outcome might be to get both Brexit and Corbyn.

That detail aside, the LE results suggest that Labour wouldn’t win a GE, ergo that argument against Tory rebels is weaker. Against that they also suggest that the Tories wouldn’t win. A hung parliament would be the probable outcome. Moreover, on some projections, Labour would be in a stronger position to form some kind of coalition (with the increased LibDem seats implied by the LE*, and the SNP). This puts the ‘rebel and get Corbyn’ argument back on the table but, since the assumption is that the LibDems and SNP would make a soft Brexit and/or second Referendum a condition of coalition, it takes away, or reduces, the ‘get Brexit and Corbyn’ fear.

Ultimately the question is, as it has long been, whether those Tory MPs who think (hard) Brexit is a disaster are willing to be as ruthless as their Brexiter colleagues. The jury is still out, although – perhaps having waited until the LEs were over – it may be significant that Justine Greening has notably hardened the rebels’ line.

With all of this said, there is a sense that British domestic politics is fiddling while Rome burns. Parliamentary votes are very important – although, recent reports suggest, may also be delayed precisely because the government fear losing them – but there are bigger realities. The biggest is the inexorable ticking of the Article 50 clock and the fact that neither of the main parties has developed anything approaching a realistic plan either as to how to undertake Brexit without disastrous economic and political consequences or as to how to avert Brexit altogether.


*I do wonder, though, whether the projections of GE vote from LE vote have factored in the fact that EU citizens were able to vote in the LE but won’t be able to vote in the GE.

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