07 Jan, 2019
Chair's message to members - 7 January 2019
Dear Member or Supporter
Parliament's back. Unless yesterday brought an unexpected political epiphany we just resume where we left off. So let's think about the incentives working on Conservative and Labour pro-Remain/ People's Vote MPs - both the similarities and the differences - to see how that should influence our campaigning in these critical few weeks.
Both would be rebels
In each case they would be going against their leader's and their party's policies. That is never easy for a politician. Unity is a more driving force for a government and traditionally for the Conservatives; a Minister who rebels loses a lot - her or his job. So it is probably harder for Conservative MPs. They will not rebel unless they think they can win; otherwise it would be a load of aggro for no purpose. Winning requires Labour and the other opposition parties to be solid for a proposal.
The positions of the party leaders
Theresa May is a Remainer who backs Brexit out of a sense of duty. Her refusal to say that Brexit would be better than Remain tells us what she thinks. On the other hand she is obviously not heart-broken by the chance to end freedom of movement; her deep hostility to immigration has been a constant of her political life.
Jeremy Corbyn is a Leaver who briefly declared himself for Remain for the duration of his half-hearted 2016 campaign. So Labour rebels know that they are really opposing their leader's true wishes, while Conservative rebels are only (only?) opposing her sense of duty.
Theresa May has earned the respect of her party for doggedness, perseverance, sense of duty. Few think that she is doing a good job. There is no May-ite group of supporters who hold her in affection. The Conservatives tend not to do personality cults. Churchill was seen with suspicion as well as admiration; Thatcher was respected and admired rather than loved.
But Labour, having fallen into and then out of love with Tony Blair, has gone for Corbyn bigtime on the delayed rebound. Many of Corbyn's supporters are unwilling to see that he backs Brexit - 16% of those who voted for him think he is just waiting for the right time to come out for a referendum. Or they subordinate their desire for Remain to their support for Corbyn: 79% of those who backed Corbyn in the leadership challenge think he is doing a good job, as do 65% of party members, though only 41% of Labour voters and 24% of the public. "Love Corbyn, hate Brexit" fits on a T-shirt; but it does not work as a policy, since Brexit is the defining issue in UK politics (61% of party members, 60% of all voters, half of Labour voters rank it as the most important issue). This confusion means both that some Remain supporters are not as full-on as is needed to change party policy and that a Remain MP runs real risks from Corbyn supporters on the look-out for dissenters.
Brexit fantasies and realities
The Government has largely ditched its Brexit fantasies, though it is hard to see how the Irish backstop can be avoided by anything that does not include either a permanent UK/EU customs union or a border in the Irish Sea. Few if any Conservative Remainer MPs are seduced by the ERG's no-deal fantasies. For all the Government's planning and spending on it, it is hard to believe that Theresa May is now serious about no-deal being an option - surely her evident sense of responsibility would not let her go down that destructive route.
Jeremy Corbyn is still in Boris-mode, promising a cherry-picking Brexit and not making clear that his also would not meet Labour's six tests. Parties despise each other. Theresa May has made a real hash of the negotiations even beyond the inevitable collision of dream with reality. So believing that Labour would make a better fist of the negotiation is an attractive line of thinking for Labour Remainers: 58% of Labour Party members think that, as against 29% of 2017 Labour voters. That makes a general election plus Corbyn Brexit negotiation seem attractive - though the survey did not ask whether Labour members would actually support a Corbyn Brexit.
Attitudes to a general election
As a general rule parties in government dislike general elections as they have something to lose while parties in opposition like them. Given where the two main parties are on Brexit there would be no point in a general election. But we should expect Labour MPs to seek one anyway, though not all will actually wish to take responsibility for sorting out this mess.
What their parties think about Brexit
Labour is pretty consistently in favour of Remain at the level of voters (around 70%), (members (89%) and MPs. The extreme Lexit or Bennite factions were largely purged from the party or left to form their own groups further left. However, Corbyn and his inner core appear to be for Brexit on ideological grounds; a small number of MPs in Leave seats are for Brexit because they wish to represent their constituents/ be re-elected. So a Labour Remain MP would usually find a local support base - provided that members were willing to be disloyal to their leader. 12 out of 21 Labour borough councils called for a People's Vote - that gives an indication of the difficulties of reconciling pro-EU and pro-Corbyn views.
Conservative MPs' real personal views are probably fairly evenly divided. However, the membership is pro-Brexit, and the active membership of local association chairs more so. Around two thirds of Conservative voters back Leave, about one quarter Remain. So any Conservative pro-Remain MP should expect to be in trouble with their local association.
Are Remainers different from other party members
As a general rule, Conservative Remainers and Brexiters think the same about non-EU issues. Conservative Remainers have little in common with Remainers in other parties. That means that an attack on general Conservative policies will upset Conservative Remainers as well as other Conservatives.
By contrast, Labour Remainers have different views from Labour Brexiters on other issues. Labour Remainers are closer to Liberal Democrats. So party management issues - the need to avoid the party splitting - are more important for Labour than for the Conservatives.
What their voters think
The referendum was normally not counted by constituency, so results have to be estimated, and some are too uncertain to be sure. Applying the methodology to seats won in 2017, 62% of Conservative seats voted Leave, with 21% uncertain and 17% Remain. Labour’s seats, meanwhile, voted 56% Leave, 8% uncertain, and 36% Remain.
Reputable polls tells us that the country is still at half and half on the merits of Brexit. By now Remain is pretty consistently the larger half. But we do not have even as strong and stable a lead as that which Theresa May had when she entered the 2017 campaign. Since many constituencies had only small Leave majorities in 2016, that small change in opinion will have meant that many Leave constituencies are now polling Remain. But the usual question marks about reliability are still there (as a rule of thumb apply a margin of error of 3 percentage points to headline numbers, a larger margin to more detailed analyses).
So Labour MPs are more likely to be representing Remain constituencies than Conservatives.
Traditionally, and allowing for stereotyping, Labour was the party of ideals and visions and the Conservatives the party of the practical, of incremental change. Treating the referendum result as an instruction the party leaders are behaving to type with Theresa May peddling a real world Brexit with all the messy unsatisfying compromises that entails, while Jeremy Corbyn still offers a jobs-first Brexit that is going to be great. So for Conservative Remainers, the question is whether May's deal is real-world enough, compared with staying in; while Labour Remainers have to resist the lure of idealism.
It is hard to believe that Labour could implement Brexit without tearing itself apart. The latest research from Queen Mary College suggests that Jeremy Corbyn is running real risks with party unity, while the UCL research showed that was less of an issue for Theresa May. The Labour leader's approach to party unity has been a mix of changing rules to ensure the election of more supportive MPs in the future and not condemning the social media attacks of his supporters on dissidents. Yet the lesson of 1975 is clear. There is a procedural solution to the problem of Labour party unity. It did not work for the Conservatives because Brexit is still live; 2019 would settle the question.
Since Conservative Remainers think like other Conservatives on non-EU issues, a Remain campaign that it is based on Labour's analysis of the causes of Brexit (austerity, left behind communities, inequality - all solved by more State intervention) will put off Conservatives. We need to be party-neutral. A partial interpretation of the causes of Brexit would also only address some of the concerns of Leave voters. We have to talk about sovereignty and immigration too, and in ways that are positive for our cause.
Looking for actions to take?
Please write to your MP - we have published separate model letters to Conservative and Labour MPs to help you get started, but the more you can personalise them the better. The ideas in this e-mail may also help you think what arguments to highlight.
If your MP has come out for Remain/ People's Vote, then support them actively (you could also "adopt" a Remain MP). Tell them that you support them. But also defend them from their detractors. You can subscribe to their Twitter and Facebook accounts and counter the criticism they get. We of course will not descend to threats and abuse. But few things are as maddening to the enraged ranter as a calm factual rebuttal.
Now that Parliament is back, the SODEM and No 10 Vigils resume on sitting days and you can join them. There are organisations supporting Remain/ People's Vote for members and supporters of the two main parties which you can join: Labour for a People's Vote, Remain Labour (who have organised a rally on 8 January - free tickets here), Labour against Brexit, Conservative Group for Europe, Conservatives for a People's Vote, Citizens4Britain (Tories against Brexit).
If you live or work in the City, please write to your Common Council member to urge them to support the resolution calling for a referendum with the option to Remain. The Common Council meets on 10 January. A model letter and addresses are here.
If you are a Labour Party member you can sign a petition calling on the party to hold a special conference to settle Brexit policy.
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