Monday 27 May 2019

Interpreting the UK European Election results

At one level, the explanation of the UK’s European election results* is entirely simple. If you are in favour of Brexit, you see the Tories as not delivering it, or not delivering it ‘properly’ and so voted for the Brexit Party. If you are opposed to Brexit, you see Labour not opposing it, or not opposing it ‘properly’, and so voted for one of the anti-Brexit parties.

Nested inside that broad explanation are several interesting sub-themes, which may have considerable bearing on what happens in the coming months and even years.

The rise of the Brexit Party

The most attention grabbing, and most widely-trailed, development was the rise of the new Brexit Party. But it’s important not to allow Farage’s interpretation of what this means to become the received wisdom (and, most certainly, the idea it gives him a right to be involved in Brexit negotiations is drivel, the more so since he proposes simply to leave without further negotiations).

For one thing, the result wasn’t nearly as dramatic as it seemed, in that it was achieved primarily by the near total cannibalization of the UKIP vote (currently down 24.2% compared with 2014). So although the new party surpassed UKIP’s 2014 vote by some margin (at time of writing, 31.6% of vote share compared with UKIP’s 26.6% in 2014), it should not be read as a massive ‘swing to Farage’. Some headlines this morning are suggesting that it is the Brexit Party that has sent the main two parties into meltdown (£), but it is abundantly clear that the collapse in their respective votes (Labour down 11.3%, Tories down 14.9%) cannot adequately be explained in that way.

Moreover, the widespread interpretation that the votes for the Brexit Party translate into support for no-deal Brexit should be treated with huge caution. As with the Leave campaign during the referendum, but even more starkly, the Brexit Party did not campaign on a detailed manifesto (on any manifesto at all, in fact), so whilst of course it is fair to assume that everyone who voted for them supports Brexit it certainly isn’t possible to infer what sort of Brexit they favour. And even those who might currently want no-deal will not necessarily be supportive of it were it to happen, and the consequences become obvious.

Tory Party: immediate issues

So whereas the main focus of attention is on the Tory Party losing pro-Brexit voters, it is clear that it is also losing centrist, pragmatic, pro-business, socially liberal (and, of course, anti-Brexit) voters. Michael Heseltine’s announcement that he would be voting for the LibDems is emblematic of the situation of this group of voters.

At one time, such voters were the bedrock of Tory electoral support and are still spoken for by ex-politicians like John Major and, indeed, Heseltine as well as, currently, the new One Nation Caucus. Crucially, though, they are not any longer the bedrock of the party membership. So it seems inevitable that the next Tory leader will be a hard Brexiter, and will further alienate this segment of the electorate which will drift off to the smaller parties or to not voting at all.

The new leader will instead chase those who have just supported the Brexit Party. The irony is likely to be that significant numbers of them will probably not be amenable to being pulled back. That might be especially true if the current front-runner, Boris Johnson, is successful because he has long been regarded with contempt by hard core Brexiters. That’s not surprising, because Brexiters are quite as capable as anyone else of recognizing Johnson’s opportunism and dishonesty, which are not, after all, exactly difficult to spot.

At all events, with the genie of populism out of the bottle, anything the Tories now do on Brexit will be liable to be called betrayal. That would include a no-deal scenario because, as pointed out in a previous post, no-deal will immediately and necessarily be followed by a new negotiating process which will bring new compromises and concessions that a substantial chunk of the Brexit Party vote will not accept. As Theresa May found, however hard a Brexit is pursued the Ultras will always call for it to be harder still.

Labour Party: immediate issues

As for Labour, they have paid the price of all the ambiguities of their Brexit policy since 2016. In facing both ways - or neither way - they have alienated both sides.

The standard analysis that because the majority in many Labour constituencies, especially in the English Midlands and North, voted to leave this should frame Labour’s position was always flawed. Many of those who did so were not necessarily Labour voters anyway. Those who were do not tend to strongly prioritise Brexit above all else (and do so far less than non-Labour leave voters) and are more likely than many groups of leave voters to have subsequently changed their minds. And those who do prioritise Brexit and haven’t changed their minds won’t be satisfied by Labour’s mealy-mouthed position and will have been snapped up by Farage anyway.

Plus there is a deeper and more unpalatable issue for Corbyn and his supporters. Even if Brexit hadn’t happened, the kind of traditional Labour voters who supported it (apart from a smallish group of far-Left Lexiters) are probably alienated by Corbyn anyway. Not because he is ‘too left-wing’ per se, but because he is the ‘wrong sort’ of left-wing: perceived as unpatriotic, soft on defence and security, too liberal on social issues, too pre-occupied with minority rights. That may be unfair or misguided – I make no comment on that - but it means that those voters would be hard for Labour to attract under his leadership however hard a pro-Brexit stance he took, let alone with his ‘yes but not a Tory Brexit’ approach.

In the meantime, Labour’s ambiguity – especially about when its theoretical support for another referendum would come to override pursuit of the ‘preferred option’ of a General Election – has run out of road for many of the majority of its voters and members who are pro-remain. They lived with that ambiguity in the 2017 General Election only then to be continually told that in supporting Labour they were part of the 80% who, with those who had supported the Conservatives, had voted for hard Brexit. They lived with it, to a much lesser extent, in the recent Local Elections only then to be told by Corbyn that the results were a message to ‘get on with Brexit’. In the European elections, large numbers of them have shown that they have had enough of the mixed messages.

Remain parties

Unlike Brexiters, who have had a single party to flock to, disaffected remainers from both Tory and Labour parties had multiple possibilities for where to place their vote and, except perhaps in Scotland, it was difficult for them to judge which to choose for the most effect.

Building very substantially on the momentum of the local elections, the LibDems have emerged as the clear front-runners to represent the remainer vote. That is something which has been on the cards since the Richmond by-election of December 2016, but has only now begun to take off. With Vince Cable’s resignation, a dynamic new LibDem leader would have a real chance to build on it.

Even so, one of the most striking features of the present landscape is the failure of remainers to construct a unified political movement or party. It will be a key challenge in the coming weeks and months to do so. There is already talk of Change UK, who failed their first electoral test, merging with the LibDems.  Again, a skilful new LibDem leader could play a pivotal role in fashioning a ‘Remain Alliance’ with perhaps some form of agreement with the Greens who achieved a good, if not quite spectacular, result.

The failure of the ‘remain community’ to fashion a remain political alliance has diluted its impact in terms of MEPs elected and that matters in two ways. First because it somewhat masks the extent to which Britain really is still split down the middle, by making it possible for the Brexit Party to have been said to have ‘won’ the elections on the basis of having the largest share of the vote and the most MEPs. Trying to counter that by analysing cumulative vote shares of various parties inevitably has less clarity and cut-through.

Second, and much more important in the long run, it matters because if we do end up staying in the EU we really need to re-build relationships and this will be much harder without a unified remain group to counter-balance what will undoubtedly be the embarrassing antics of the large bloc of Brexit Party MEPs.

Indeed, it can only be a matter of national shame to be represented in such numbers by this motley ragbag of freaks, demagogues, fantasists and charlatans, elected with no manifesto and with no care for, or even understanding of, the damage their faux-patriotism will do to our country.

Beneath Brexit

The big question now is whether these election results are transient, the result of the particular moment they were held – including the unpopularity of Theresa May - and the fact that voters have always treated European elections differently to General Elections not least in terms of turnout, or whether they betoken the beginning of a significant realignment?

With all the caveats implied, there are good reasons to believe the latter, partly because ‘remainer’ and ‘leaver’ have now become defining political identities for a large section of the population.

A few days before the elections Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that “the real divide in our country is not between those who voted Leave and Remain three years ago”. That is a profound misreading: it is precisely the divide. To ignore it is as mistaken as the claim from May (when calling the 2017 General Election) that the country was coming together about Brexit, even if politicians were not.

But more significant is that commitment to one or other side in the Brexit debate codes many things which go well beyond UK membership of the European Union. This was clear from the polls in the immediate aftermath of the referendum showing how the way people voted correlated strongly with attitudes to feminism, environmentalism, social liberalism, globalization and, of course, multi-culturalism and immigration.

Ever since then, as I argued in an academic article, and as of course many others have said, a re-alignment of parties to reflect this repertoire of linked beliefs and values has been on the cards. These European election results may be evidence that it is beginning to happen, or at the least that it has the potential to happen.

Tory Party: deeper issues

If so, it shatters the electoral coalitions which are necessary for all political parties, especially in a first past the post system. The contradiction of the Tory amalgam of traditionalism and nationalism on the one hand and globalised free markets on the other is really being tested to destruction. It was the basis of Thatcher’s electoral success but has been strained ever since, with European policy the key fault line.

In relation to Brexit that became obvious when a vote for a campaign whose central message was about immigration control and national self-determination was suddenly re-interpreted as one for turbocharged global free markets. Or, in a more muted way, it is present in May’s realisation that a ‘clean Brexit’ would be economically disastrous and in some form or other there would have to be a continuing ‘deep and special partnership’ – that distinction is now at the heart of the battle between the Tories and the Brexit Party.

That battle will frame the choices the next Tory leader makes. It is all but inevitable that, both in order to fight off Farage and to satisfy its own membership, this leader will adopt a policy of seeking to renegotiate the backstop and, when that fails, try to take the country to no-deal. If so (leaving aside the far more important question of the damage to the country) the electoral coalition which has sustained the party will totally and irredeemably break down. There are already intimations of that in statements by Philip Hammond over the weekend (£). The same will happen if, at the last moment, the new leader pulls back from the ruin of no-deal but in that scenario because of the rage of the ERG wing.

It would be a bold prediction that the Tory Party will be destroyed by Brexit. But almost a truism that it will be traumatised by it for years and probably decades.

Labour Party: deeper issues

Labour as a party and as an electoral coalition is challenged in similar ways by the cleavages underlying Brexit. Even before the referendum they faced difficulties in holding on to their traditional heartlands which, in Scotland, had already been lost. Labour, too, face contradictions between socially liberal, globalist internationalists and socially traditionalist, protectionist nationalists. That tension (which, arguably, has been present since the birth of the Labour Party) was very clearly in evidence throughout the Blair years and fed through into the divisions over Brexit.

Even so, unlike the Tories, EU membership has not been a schismatic issue for Labour, at least since the 1980s. Thus, potentially, Labour could have been better placed to deal with Brexit than has proved the case. It may still be possible but is now much harder. In the early days, Labour could have adopted a clear ‘soft Brexit’ policy of single market membership that, arguably, could have been the basis for a consensus. Instead they talked meaninglessly, as they still do, about single market ‘access’ or a ‘strong single market deal’. Even if that now changes, the growing hardening of pro- and anti-Brexit positions amongst the electorate means that soft Brexit has far less chance of providing that consensus.

Now, Labour has to pick a side**. It is no good saying, as the Labour MP Lisa Nandy recently suggested, that Labour must ‘bridge the divide’ between leave and remain positions – and notably, she did not say how this could be done. There is no middle ground anymore and, although in the long run it is surely right and vital to seek to heal the divisions caused by the Brexit vote, there is no way in the immediate term of doing so by refusing to take a clear stance on what should be done about Brexit.

At the time of writing, there are signs that, in the aftermath of Theresa May’s resignation as well as these election results, Labour might move to a firm position in favour another referendum. But there have been lots of false dawns on that, and many influential figures oppose it. If it is going to happen, it needs to happen quickly and decisively with Corbyn emphatically supporting it. Winks, nods and hints are no longer enough.

Nevertheless, since such a recalibration is possible for Labour it follows that they, unlike the Tories, do at least have the possibility of avoiding being permanently traumatised by Brexit.


These European election results are the first electorally tangible crystallization of the harder and more polarised divisions which have grown since the 2016 Referendum. They unequivocally give the lie to the absurd claim that the 2017 General Election meant that ‘80% of voters’ had given their support to Brexit. They also undermine the idea, based on that General Election result, that the dominance of the two main parties had been reasserted. In that sense, the results point to an underlying, potentially structural, shift in British political culture.

Such shifts are easy to ignore when the focus is mainly on the daily unfolding events of Brexit. But they are crucial to those events. Indeed, in some ways, the entire Brexit process can be read as a manifestation of those structural shifts, rather as earthquakes are manifestations of the underlying movements of tectonic plates. What happens in the next few months will determine whether the Brexit earthquake turns out to be ‘completely devastating’ or merely ‘very damaging’.


*N.B. this post was written after the results in England and Wales were announced, but before those for Scotland and Northern Ireland were available.
**For a more detailed, and highly insightful, analysis of Labour’s Brexit position to date see Simon-Wren Lewis’s recent blog post on the topic.

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