More people signed that viral petition calling for a second Brexit referendum than voted for pro-remain parties in last week’s unplanned EU election. Just to remind you what the outcome of the petition was – it resulted in the Tory Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom responding that when the petition reached 17 million signatories the government would pay attention. In both cases, the key fact to bear in mind is that only a minority – albeit a loud one – of the electorate supported the Remain position.
This, inevitably, was not the lesson drawn by the largely pro-remain media, who were quick to point out that the combined vote of the pro-remain parties – the greens, nationalists, LibDems and CUKs – was higher than the combined vote of the Faragists and UKIP. As Craig Murray points out, however:
“There is a huge amount of wishful thinking in the popular twitter meme that SNP, Libdem, Change plus Green votes just outweigh Brexit plus UKIP votes. This wilfully ignores the fact that a very high percentage of the residual Tory vote are Brexiteers- their Remainers have, like Heseltine, decamped their vote to the LibDems. Any Remainer voting Tory would be certifiable.
“The figures are also distorted by adding in Scotland. In Scotland the SNP, Green and Lib Dem vote outweighed the Brexit and Ukip vote by a massive four to one. Scotland being 11% of the total vote in this election, that tilts the overall calculation towards Remain by a full net 5% (duly allowing for the small Tory and Labour votes in Scotland). If you do the figures for England alone, it is absolutely plain that the people of England wish to Brexit.”
It is also likely, too, that a large part of the residual Labour vote came from people who either support or are reconciled to leaving the EU, but want a better deal with the EU than the dog’s breakfast served up by the Tories.
Perhaps most worrying, however, were the majority of the electorate that stayed at home; presumably because they have not been swayed by either side, and cannot be bothered to engage in protest politics. In June 2016, it was a shift in the “undecided” voters at the last minute, which swayed the vote in favour of leaving the EU. Their current apathy suggests that Remain has not yet done enough to win them back.
This is important once we understand the number of steps required by Remainers if they are to secure their desired outcome – which, by the way, is not a second referendum, but a reversal of the 2016 result. First, they need some means of moving parliament to vote for a new referendum. Unfortunately – as shown by the series of indicative votes that followed May’s failure to get her deal passed – there is no majority in Parliament for a second referendum. Nor is the new pro-hard Brexit Tory Prime Minister likely to make time available to allow Parliament to reach any compromise resulting in a second referendum. Indeed, the best means of securing a no-deal Brexit is to simply run down the clock past the 31 October deadline.
The most likely route to a second referendum, therefore, involves engineering a general election. Unlike 2017 – when the polls suggested that May would secure a 50-100 seat majority – there will be no mood among Tory MPs for an election that will very likely result in them losing their seats. Prior to the EU vote, Labour MPs might have been more predisposed to supporting an election that looked likely to propel their party into government. After last week – with Labour Leave voters deserting to the Faragists and Labour Remain voters going green or LibDem – enthusiasm for a general election will have waned. Indeed, and all too predictably, Labour’s Blairite tendency has used the result as a pretext to re-litigate Corbyn’s leadership and thereby present the electorate with an opposition party as divided as the Tories.
Because of the Parliament Act, the new Tory Prime Minister cannot simple call a general election. Instead, he or she will need to secure a vote of two-thirds or more of Parliament (i.e. abstentions count as votes against) to hold an election. This is less likely if both Tory and Labour MPs fear losing their seats. The alternative path to an election is for the opposition to table and win a vote of no confidence in the government. Since this only requires a simple majority of the vote (i.e. abstentions don’t count) it is easier to secure; but, again, is less likely now that Labour MPs fear losing seats in pro-Leave constituencies.
Assuming, however, MPs are persuaded to vote themselves out of a job; there is still the small matter of Britain’s antiquated first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system to contend with. Unlike the proportional EU election, in a FPTP general election, every vote over and above the winning line is a wasted vote. You don’t get to pass the additional unnecessary votes to a neighbouring constituency in order to secure a win there as well. So the fact that a small number of highly populated Remain-supporting areas of the UK helped the LibDems into second place in the EU election means absolutely nothing in a general election. A more useful guide to what might happen in a general election can be seen in this BBC graphic showing which parties came first in each of the county votes:
Although not an exact parallel for election constituencies, it does demonstrate that if the EU election had been run on a FPTP system, the Faragists would have wiped the floor with everyone other than the Scottish Nationalists north of the border.
General elections are, of course, about a broader range of issues than Brexit – although it is likely that this one issue would overshadow everything else if an election is held this year. Nevertheless, what it demonstrates is that the fears of Labour MPs in Leave-supporting areas are well-founded. While many of Labour’s target seats are in Remain-supporting areas in the south of England; winning these will be of little benefit if they are losing seats elsewhere. Crucially, many of the Tories’ target seats are currently Labour constituencies in Leave-supporting areas of the midlands and the north of England. To form a majority government even as part of a coalition with the SNP and the LibDems, Labour must hold onto those Leave-voting seats, but are less likely to do so if they campaign on a pro-Remain platform. In short, even if a general election can be secured, there is no guarantee that Pro-Remain parties will get to form a government; and we could well end up with the same kind of deadlock we are currently suffering. Indeed, in the worst case we could end up with a Tory/Faragist/DUP coalition.
But even if a pro-Remain government comes into office and offers a second referendum; it is far from clear that Remain would win. While the more vociferous Remain campaigners have conducted a three-year long argument in their heads that has concluded that “the people have changed their minds,” this is far from clear from the polling (or, indeed, from the EU election result). The (7 percent) gap in the polls between Remain and Leave is exactly the same today as it was on 30 June 2016:
The main difference is that the country has become even more polarised; with far fewer undecided people. What this means is that a Remain victory in a second referendum is far from a foregone conclusion. Nor has much been done to tighten funding rules, to control social media advertising or to prevent politicians telling blatant lies on the sides of big red buses. That is, it would be foolish to assume that a second referendum would be fought by gentlemen under Queensberry Rules.
It has taken us several – most likely bitterly fought – steps just to get to a second referendum, the outcome of which cannot currently be predicted. And even if we assume that Remain wins this time around, it will be by a similar (52% v 48%) margin as Leave won by last time. At which point, we would be in “best of three” territory. After all, given the response of Remain campaigners to their 2016 defeat, they can hardly now expect Brexit supporters to simply go away and be quiet.
The biggest problem of all with the second referendum movement is that it seeks solely to restore the situation prior to June 2016 rather than address the reasons that 17.5 million people voted to leave the EU. And while there is a legitimate argument that these reasons owe far more to the actions of successive British governments than to the EU; there is still a case to be made as to how membership of the EU will allow them to be resolved. In seeking to overturn the 2016 result without addressing its causes, the “People’s Vote” camp looks a lot like affluent liberal privilege in action (which, no doubt, is why so many Blairites prefer a second referendum to a general election that might spell the end of the neoliberal experiment).
The 2017 Labour manifesto began to address some of the structural economic problems that have undermined whole swathes of Britain beyond London and the archipelago of top-tier university towns that reaped the (temporary) benefits of neoliberalism. And while the nationalist right has been the beneficiary of public anger across the West, Labour’s relative success in 2017 showed that some form of left wing populism can also succeed. This was also borne out across Europe in the EU election, where the greens and the non-neoliberal left also did well.
While it is currently fashionable to blame Tory austerity for our current predicament, this is only partially true. Certainly a different and more humane response to the post-2008 crisis may have generated greater social solidarity. But British social solidarity has been collapsing since the 1970s. Neoliberalism – which is also often blamed for our current predicament – was itself a response to the crisis of the 1970s; and since its debt-based core was exposed more than a decade ago – with ordinary people forced to pay its bill – political parties (New Labour, the Tories, The US Democrats, the European Christian and Social Democrats) that remain wedded to it are being punished in the voting booth. In Britain, where the FPTP electoral system has given the neoliberals control of parliament for four decades, Brexit was an opportunity for what turned out to be an excluded majority (albeit a small, and likely misled one) to undermine the cosy neoliberal consensus. A second referendum – even if it overturns the 2016 result – will simply not restore that consensus; irrespective of the wishes of Remainers. Indeed, in the event of Brexit being overturned by an equally small majority, I fear that we will be treated to ongoing protests that call the entire political system into question; and which might give rise to the kind of fascist movement that the left has been crying wolf about for the last three years.
As you made it to the end…
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