London4Europe Committee Member Michael Romberg looks at the complexity of the issues, including that the latest by-election shows that the country has not moved on since 2016; official Labour is not a Remain party though it may be a referendum party; and asks what we do about pro-Remain MPs in pro-Leave parties.
What we learned from Brecon and Radnorshire
The latest electoral information that we have is less encouraging than it sounded. In the referendum, Brecon and Radnorshire had voted by an estimated 52% for Leave. In the 1 August 2019 by-election, the pro-Leave parties (The Brexit Party, UKIP, Conservative, Labour) polled 57%. So no swing to Remain. Even if you exclude Labour, the figure was 51% - unchanged from 2016 after three years of relentlessly bad news about Brexit.
But a win is a win. The Liberal Democrats increased their share of the vote from 32% in 2017 (including Plaid Cymru's share) to 44% in 2019 though on markedly lower turnout. That's good; but not good enough. It does however show what a Remain Alliance can achieve when the Brexit vote is split.
I am in two minds about a Remain Alliance
Once you look beyond Brexit there are real policy differences between Liberal Democrats, Greens and the Independent Group for Change. The SNP is a nationalist party; because they are largely pro-EU we tend to overlook that they are just the equivalent of the Brexit Party north of the Border. The same applies though to a markedly lesser extent to Plaid Cymru. So it is right that voters are offered a choice of Remain parties.
On the other hand we have to deal with First Past the Post and the national crisis that is Brexit. Perhaps a Remain Alliance could set out clear and limited objectives, say: referendum, Remain, proportional representation and a new general election once a new voting system was in place. Then the harms that come from depriving voters of choice would be mitigated. But even such a programme would take several years to implement. Any government based on it would still have to make political choices when acting day be day and would struggle to offer and implement a coherent programme.
Heidi Allen MP (independent, formerly Leader of Change UK) is seeking to build a Remain Alliance through her platform Unite to Remain where you can subscribe for updates.
For the advocates of a Remain Alliance there are the complications of what Labour's Brexit policy will be, what it will be perceived as being, and whether Labour voters will care what it is.
Probably a referendum party
He went on: “Labour believes the decision on how to resolve the Brexit crisis must go back to the people. And if there is a general election this autumn, Labour will commit to holding a public vote, to give voters the final say with credible options for both sides including the option to remain. … I believe no outcome will now have legitimacy without the people’s endorsement.”.
That is a reasonably clear commitment to a referendum on any deal. But given Corbyn’s record of evasions and retractions one has to take it with a pinch of salt. But if the position is cemented then one could see Labour as a referendum party.
Official Labour is probably still a Brexit party
For as long as Jeremy Corbyn is leader, I find it hard to believe that Labour would adopt a full-on Remain policy. We need to be absolutely clear: even now in a referendum on the Conservatives' deal or no-deal the official Labour position is not to campaign for Remain as such; it is to campaign regretfully for Remain because what it sees as the right answer - Labour's Brexit deal - is not available. That would kill the Remain campaign.
I would assume that Labour would campaign in an election to negotiate its own Brexit deal. That should be easy to do: it’s Theresa May’s deal with the non-binding Political Declaration tweaked to say that the parties wish to head to a customs union.
Official Labour would then presumably campaign in the referendum for its deal. After all, how could they argue against it?
- That EU membership was better than any Brexit – if so why did they advocate Brexit and spend time negotiating it?
- That they were unable to negotiate a good deal because they were incompetent negotiators with unrealistic objectives – an unlikely line to take;
- That the EU are such scoundrels that they would not give the UK a good deal – an argument for Leave.
(The interesting question would be whether the Conservatives and the Brexit Party would follow Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to May’s deal and reject Corbyn’s deal on party political grounds or whether they would go with it on the basis that any Brexit is better than none.)
Perhaps Labour would repeat the approach from 1975 and allow individual MPs to choose which side they campaigned on. Jeremy Corbyn could then advocate his Brexit and be challenged for it; the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs, members and supporters would support Remain. Another possibility is that Jeremy Corbyn would demand loyalty to his line.
But Labour Remainers will see the party as pro-Remain
In 2017 when the manifesto was clear that the party's official line was for a hard Brexit many Labour Remainers nonetheless convinced themselves that the party was for Remain really. We have to assume that not all will follow Alastair Campbell's rigorous appraisal of Labour's position. For many left-leaning Remainers, commitment to a referendum will be good enough.
Finally, for many Labour voters support for the Corbyn project, ending austerity, tribal loyalty or dislike of the Liberal Democrats will be more important than stopping Brexit. Or they will be mesmerised by No-Deal and vote for Labour's Deal as a way of stopping it.
Remain MPs in Leave parties
Both of the main parties have MPs who unequivocally back Remain/ referendum irrespective of their party's position (you can see where your MP stands here). These MPs have performed brave and great services in the current Parliament.
However, in an election Remain voters in such a constituency would face a difficult choice. A vote for pro-Remain/referendum Justine Greening in Putney would help keep Boris Johnson in Downing Street. Depending on Labour's eventual stance, the same could apply in the case of a Remain-backing Labour candidate: putting Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street to negotiate a "jobs-first Brexit". A vote for a Remain candidate in a Leave party would therefore not be a coherent decision for a Remainer to make if that party won the general election.
Remain voters who normally support a pro-Leave party would face a real dilemma if the party's candidate was pro-Remain. Such voters would find their decision much easier if such candidates had resolved their positions well before the election, deciding to stand as independents or as members of a Remain party or temporary grouping. It would then be easy for a Remain Alliance to back them.
Whether a Remain Alliance should back Remain candidates in Leave parties is a much more open question. An Alliance probably could with a clear conscience support Remain MPs from a party that offered to put the existing (Theresa May) deal to the electorate in a referendum even if its own MPs were free to choose whether to support Brexit or Remain.
But such support should not be forthcoming for a party that intended to negotiate its own Brexit because inevitably it would have to support its own Brexit in that referendum. That is the flaw in the leaked plan of the People's Vote campaign to back Labour candidates who support a referendum where they are best placed to win. A Remain Alliance is not the same as a People's Vote Alliance. A People's Vote where both main parties back Brexit would be something of a struggle to win.
Voters will decide what the election is about
Of course, it does not much matter what I think the election is about. It does not even matter what Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn or Jo Swinson think the election is about. Voters will decide for themselves what the question is. It may or may not be Brexit. It will certainly not only be Brexit. That is why a general election cannot resolve Brexit. What began with a referendum needs another referendum to confirm or change course.
It would be better if MPs moved straight to a referendum without the further distraction and delay of a general election. That - and the necessary Article 50 extension - should be the focus of MPs' cross-party talks.
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