Did England just vote against Brexit?
The issue of Brexit is draining the ability of UK politics to deal with growing social crises in healthcare and education, and economic crises including low productivity, rising poverty, and also the economic uncertainty of Brexit itself.
One of the best strategies for analysing Brexit is to comment about it less. In doing so you save the face and energy that you otherwise spend expressing why what you said would happen didn’t, why the low point you thought the UK government had taken the country to was actually only another step towards it.
Despite this wisdom, last week’s local election results in England seem significant enough to warrant comment, and a change looks close. The Conservative Party and Labour have been in talks for weeks, with no real progress being made, and despite the European Union advising that the current Brexit extension period that the UK is in should not be wasted.
The local elections were a bad result for both the Conservative government and Labour opposition, but differently so. Most of all, they were a bad result for the Conservatives, who lost an enormous 1330 council seats (around a quarter of their total). Second of all, they were not a great set of results for Labour, who might have been expected to gain overall from the losses of such an unpopular government, but instead also lost 84 of their approximately 2000 seats. The losses, collectively, went to the Liberal Democrats (gaining 704 seats) and the Green Party (gaining 194). Both the Liberal Democrats and Greens have an open and clear policy of doing whatever it takes to stop Brexit and stay in the European Union, and although people at local elections are also voting on other, local issues, taken as an informal test of Brexit sentiment, this looks like a movement towards remaining in the EU.
Which is why it’s strange that the results led both the government and Labour to suggest that they were taking this as a sign from voters to get on with leaving the EU. For the Conservative Party, the position is less peculiar – Brexit has divided the party for a generation, the prolonging of Brexit keeps it divided, and there is no component of the party that wants to back out of Brexit. For Labour, with the majority of its MPs and members wanting to remain in the EU, to take a swing of votes towards parties that back remaining in the EU as a sign that it should help the Conservatives remove the UK from the EU faster – to put it mildly – is an odd course of action.
To begin with, however, let’s start by giving Labour the benefit of the doubt. Labour losses were mostly found in the north of England, a region that also mostly voted for Brexit, but historically also vote Labour, and are now depicted as just “wanting to get on with it”. The issue of Brexit is, furthermore, draining the ability of UK politics to deal with growing social crises in healthcare and education, and economic crises including low productivity, rising poverty, and also the economic uncertainty of Brexit itself.
Whatever the many good arguments for resolving the issue of Brexit, this set of results would seem like a strange trigger for doing so, and especially for accelerating the process of leaving. The most avowedly pro-Brexit party, UKIP, has now been almost completely wiped out across the country. The second most enthusiastic supporter of Brexit, the Conservatives, lost over a thousand seats. All of the gains went to pro-remain parties and all this happened without any voting taking place in three of the most pro-remain regions of the UK: London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. While the average person does not obsess over Brexit like the average political commentator, the large swing to previously small and loudly pro-remain parties is indicative that voters were responding to issues outside of their normal, local concerns.
For all of these reasons and more, it would seem like a blunder for Labour to prop up a calamitous Conservative Brexit right at the moment the project is becoming less popular. To do so, moreover, would be to give up the gains taken by the Liberal Democrats and Greens, out of fear of losing votes in northern England, rather than determining that there is a way of winning both.
For the last six years, the UK government has talked of a “Northern Powerhouse” of economic investment that mostly failed to materialise. This longstanding neglect of poorer regions left the option of the 2016 vote to leave the EU as a suitable means of the public registering their discontent. The Labour Party’s promise to deliver investment and redistribution has much more in common with a project of regeneration to repair this discontent than it does with Brexit. Such a project also offers more to quell that discontent than Brexit increasingly looks likely to.
Despite this, one reason Labour might choose to back away from a determined position to moderate Brexit is if they perceive that they are not getting credit for doing so. In the running commentary that accompanied the local election results, much was made of the tendency for journalists to talk about “both” Labour and the Conservatives suffering huge losses, disappointing nights, or some version of that description of events, despite the government seeing losses of a magnitude ten times higher than Labour’s.
In this sort of language, which has been ever-present across the last three years, is an insight into why Labour might begin mirroring Conservative policy more closely. In a market made up of two competing organisations, if you make the same mistake as your rival, you effectively don’t make a mistake at all. Conversely, if you pursue a distinct strategy – such as the one Labour has done in trying to soften Brexit – but earn no credit for doing so, then you have made a mistake, regardless of whether that was the wiser course of action. In the position of seeking to limit the government’s Brexit plans, Labour runs the risk of alienating itself from Brexit supporters while also losing support from those who are told Labour isn’t doing enough to back remain. In these circumstances, there is a reduced incentive for Labour to tread its own political path and, ironically, the very party needed to check the government’s Brexit policy is weakened.
With Brexit already looking like a discredited project, and people starting to vote against it, now would be an unwise moment for Labour to sign up to support the government in getting a deal through. To complicate matters, the right-wing and pro-Brexit Tory membership will soon choose a new leader to replace the deeply unpopular Theresa May. Candidates in this contest are already promising to tear up any deal that Labour and Europe have together agreed with May about a customs union. To step away from this constant uncertainty, the UK needs a general election, for while the Conservatives are in power, the uncertainty will remain, and so will Brexit. To reach the moment at which a general election is called, however, the country needs the necessary dosage of both urgency and perspective. Until the media starts describing this situation accurately, we won’t get it.