The Euros and Brexit: stirring the muddied pool

I cast my vote on Thursday last week for the type of Europe I wanted to see over the next five years: socialist, re-distributive and for the many, not the few; for a fair, free and sustainable Europe. Elections of MEPs to the European Parliament should reflect the type of Europe we want to see – though, of course, these are not normal times in the UK and these elections, organised in haste and poorly with regard to European citizens excluded from the process, were not normal ones.

It would be a mistake to see these elections as reflective of how people would vote in a general election – a party with deliberately no policies other than ‘Brexit’ would not then top the poll when its candidates were compelled to say what they think about all the things they were deliberately silenced on in the run-up to last Thursday; and neither in a general election would the main parties be almost absent from campaigning, giving Farage and his odd mix of candidates such a free run. The only leaflet this household ever received was indeed the early one from the Brexit Party (and that includes the SNP whose favours were, otherwise, the only ones pinned to the lamp-posts outside our local polling station).

One of the things I note about this particular set of elections is that they have re-taught the lesson that electors cannot be taken for granted and that, if you don’t campaign, you don’t get their vote. It’s not so much that the parties that were clear on Brexit – either for or against – did better as a result than the mainstream parties who were less clear; it’s also that an absence of campaigning gives people other than the die-hards few reasons to vote for you. Here in Eilean Siar, it’s probably therefore not a surprise that both the SNP and the Brexit Party (44% and 20% of the vote, respectively) did better than they did across the rest of Scotland (38% and 15%).

One of the other things is that the parties who did well in the UK – the liberals and the greens – also did well in the rest of Europe. Elsewhere, this is likely to reflect the awareness resulting from the high publicity given to the actions of, and the surge in support for, Extinction Rebellion. There may, as a result, be good reason to assume that the European demos is alive and kicking, despite those who wish to deny its existence. It’s also likely to be the case that, right across Europe, the increased turnout (again above 50%) reflects higher participation among those aged 18-24, and that voter registration campaigns, and imaginative policies that appeal to younger people, are increasingly likely to bear fruit at the ballot box.

More generally, and because several parties had campaign platforms that were openly pro- or anti-EU, the election results do allow us to read into them some lessons for what they mean for Brexit. It is clear that the polarisation in UK politics around Brexit, with attitudes towards remain/leave counting heavier than traditional party loyalties, is continuing. We know, for example, how much of the voting electorate this time around are dead-set on leaving the EU even (or perhaps particularly) without a deal. Based on the turnout, this one in three of voters falls to around 22% of even the registered electorate who were qualified to vote. There is, therefore, no mandate for no deal and Parliament is – and will continue to be – right to reject it.

With 27 seats and a vote share of 32%, the Brexit Party did better than UKIP in 2014 (24 seats and 28%), before the farce of the intervening years saw most of its MEPs desert – but not so much better; and, indeed, that it did apparently improve was within the likely margins of error of a low poll and given the more or less free run it was given at the campaign by the mainstream parties. We don’t know from this that support for Brexit is increasing – and, indeed, it is likely that it is not, based on what we know about the age patterns of voters in this context and the fairly entrenched views that electors hold. It’s also well worth pointing out here that the pro-EU platforms put out by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in the UK made their votes weigh more heavily than those of the Brexit Party and UKIP, even before we build in the greater complications posed by the similarly pro-EU support of the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales and the nuanced positions of the mainstream parties. And it’s also well worth contrasting the number of votes cast for no deal parties (5.9m) with the 6.1m people who have signed the Revoke Article 50 petition.

Farage has spoken of the results driving his wish to join the negotiations on Brexit. Well, as a career politician who has made his career while denying its own existence, he would do – but this is meaningless. There are no negotiations to join – and it’s not clear what a party committed to a ‘clean break’ Brexit based, essentially, on no deal would have to add in any case. The EU is content with the agreement it has reached (even if it has gone a lot further than some domestic politicians, like Macron, wanted) and, while it would no doubt re-open talks were the UK’s/May’s existing red lines to be relaxed, it is clear that the accommodation of a representative with such a poor record of activity in the European Parliament, and at least one of whose new intake has already talked of making life difficult in Brussels, is not going to persuade them to do so.

And neither is a new Tory leader – for party political reasons almost certainly to be a committed Brexiteer – likely to lead to the EU to consider re-opening negotiations. While it might in some respect leave the EU a little clearer than hitherto about what it is the UK actually wants, the threat of a no deal Brexit within the EU counts less than the threat to the EU single market of any bad deal which jeopardised it. And I don’t think that such a stance is negotiatory bluster: for the EU, no deal is indeed better than a bad deal. Further, as we know, there will be no free trade deal discussion in a post-no deal scenario unless the outstanding issues that have proved apparently so difficult for no-dealers so far (the border on the island of Ireland, the settlement of the UK’s remaining financial obligations and citizens’ rights) are properly dealt with first. There will be a polite reception in Brussels, as befits the arrival of a ‘world king’, but the threat of no deal is likely to lead the EU to choose not to extend beyond 31 October the extension under which we are now working.

So, the European election, in combination with the aftermath of May’s duressed resignation, has made a no deal Brexit in October much more likely. The few votes given in the election to the mainstream parties seeking to negotiate around how to get a withdrawal agreement through parliament highlights the polarised leave/remain UK in which we live – and, thus, the dangers of being caught in the middle. Of course, we do not know how those who did not turn out last Thursday would vote in a general election – and we may yet return to the two-party politics (at UK level) we last spoke of as recently as less than two years ago. But, that doesn’t seem likely as long as we rumble along without a resolution to the issue which continues substantially to divide us.

With the existential threat now facing the Tories, the time is right – in the likely absence of a general election – to press for another referendum. There is no track through parliament for a negotiated settlement and neither, on this most recent evidence of what the public thinks, is it clear that there is public appetite for one, anyway. Asking the public at this point what it wants to do now – in particular, whether it wants to remain in the EU or leave with no deal, given what we now know and given that leaving without a deal was not the argument put up by those promoting leave back in 2016 – is, therefore, the only way forwards. Such a binary question might overcome some aspects of the objections of those who do not want to be asked about their views in general, as before; and it is also likely to produce the decisive result required to allow us to put this issue to bed.

Perhaps then, after a fresh referendum based on a binary no deal/remain choice, given the failure of and apparent appetite for a negotiated settlement, we can make a focused start on bringing our polarised nation back together: a referendum and then the general election to wipe clean the post-2017 slate and facilitate a fresh start.

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Bring on the Euros

So the UK government has finally capitulated and declared the inevitability of what just about all of us have known for several weeks: that the European elections, due on 23 May, must take place since there is simply not enough time for any withdrawal to be ‘ratified’ in the UK under the terms of the extension of the two-year Article 50 processĀ  offered at the Special Council meeting last month.

Typical of the government’s style this might be – shut your eyes, put your fingers in your ears and pretend something isn’t happening until such times as reality becomes too much to bear and you have to cave in (TS Eliot was quite possibly right, by the way) – but an election is neither something to ‘regret‘ nor to object to on the grounds of cost, both of which, in their own way, seek to put a price on something which is priceless. Theresa May might regret having to hold an election given the calamitous state of the Tory Party – out of funds with donors running shy of leadership uncertainty, and consequently having to run a ‘cut-price’ campaign, and in internal ‘meltdown‘ over the state of her own leadership of it – but that is of course a different matter entirely; and, while the state of public opinion on the government’s mishandling of the Brexit negotiations is no doubt a reason for fear of May 23 by the government itself, holding people accountable is what democracies were designed for. (NB the 8% who ‘approve’ the government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations is an argument all by itself that all referendums should require super majorities – it’s twice the marginal 52:48 gap created by the 2016 referendum.) Bring it on.

Now the UK’s participation in the European elections is confirmed, and we have the increasingly real prospect of these delivering an annihilated Tory Party falling apart in office, the extended talks between Labour and the Theresa May faction of the Tories seem to have fulfilled a substantial part of their purpose. In contrast to Paul Mason, however, I wouldn’t argue that Labour should pull out of them just yet. They will surely fall apart in due course anyway under the weight of their own contradictions, with Theresa May unable to offer even a customs union on anything other than a meaningless temporary basis – itself incapable of resolving the problem of the Northern Ireland border, insufficient to deliver anything like a jobs-first Brexit and leaving the question of services entirely untouched – still less move on any other of her red lines. The talks are, quite clearly, going nowhere other than to underline that the current party of government is fractured, incapable and without a mandate.

But, that is useful purpose enough in the present situation. Furthermore, in the slightly more medium-term, were Labour to swing behind a confirmatory vote, as is my own hope, there is a clear strategic requirement for it being able to indicate to its leave-backing voters who have not already gone for the full Farage that it first did all it could to secure a deal with the government which delivered the mandate of the 2016 referendum (recognising its lies, obfuscations and fraudulent data manipulations); and that the reason for that failure lay entirely at the door of the government’s own intransigence. This is not just about triangulation; it is about driving that existing wedge in the Tory Party home and, providing that strategy continues to work as it currently appears to be doing, I’m still on board.

Mason (above link) is right, however, in arguing that Labour needs to campaign actively in the election; and with clear support for the Party of European Socialists manifesto (which affiliates like-minded parties from all over the EU and Norway, and forms part of the progressive Socialists and Democrats grouping in the European Parliament) and, subsequently, to engage where possible with the greens and the left. The European elections are about the future of Europe and, tempting as it is to see them as a referendum on Brexit, they are (and need to be) much more than about that. That said, it would be good to see an increase in the the low levels of turnout, historically 35-40%, this time around. The Labour manifesto will clearly embody the PES principles to which its candidates sign up, although it will clearly also be embodying existing Conference policy on Brexit. Much as I’m in sympathy with the intention of Tom Watson, and others, to gain a greater commitment to a confirmatory vote at the NEC meeting, the manifesto can do little more than articulate what is existing policy.

The difficulty here is, of course, that we cannot wait for Conference to debate a change in policy since, by then, it will be too late; if, indeed, only a clutch of European countries now want the UK to stay, then any further extension beyond 31 October is clearly already out of the question. Personally, I’m also reluctant to have my vote on 23 May depicted as a vote for a Brexit-supporting party: I will be voting on European issues and about the future of Europe, and with a view to the MEPs I help elect playing their full role in the next European Parliament to end austerity and construct a Europe for the many. With that in mind, and remembering the specificities of a European Parliament election being more than about domestic issues, let there be no talk of any vote for Labour as being a vote for a Brexit-supporting party.

With the news from at least one source (quoting a report in the Telegraph) that Theresa May is engaged in scenario planning for a three-way referendum – her deal/no deal/remain – if (and when) the talks with Labour fail and Parliament can find no other route forward, it’s clear that the time is right to keep on talking while, all the while, keeping on the pressure for that confirmatory vote.