British PM Theresa May’s election battering had nothing to do with Brexit, argues Brian Melican. Politically speaking, Britain is now a post-Brexit landscape: for politicians the process might only be starting, but for voters it has already happened.
It’s become a truism that being a pollster is hard work these days. Yet while the problems plaguing psephologists are now almost proverbial and every poll is taken with more than just a pinch of salt, it’s astonishing how blithely pundits and politicians who would never trust a survey bandy about post-facto assertions on voting behaviour.
Last week’s general election in the UK is a case in point. Both inside and outside of Britain, there has been no shortage of people citing “remainers’ revenge” as one of the reasons why Theresa May was unable to secure the large majority she only recently seemed so capable of achieving. The rationale goes something like this: May was avowedly in favour of hard Brexit and because she lost, the British electorate has rejected a hard Brexit. This account has gained currency across the political spectrum, from the likes of UKIP-leader-turned-shock-jock Nigel Farage, who rushed onto BBC news hours after the result to warn that a clean break with the Continent could now be off the cards, through to Labour MP Chuka Umunna, rejoicing on Twitter that the surge to his party at the expense of the Conservatives negates the mandate for an “extreme & job-destroying Brexit”. On the other side of the channel, too, many socially-democratic minded observers would like nothing more than to believe the British public has finally come to its senses.
Labour lost, too – and wants to leave, too
Even the most cursory analysis, however, shows that “remainers’ revenge” has little basis in fact. The first statement holds up: Theresa May wanted a “red, white, and blue Brexit” and would happily stick two fingers up to the rest of Europe to get one. After that, though, the logic breaks down. Firstly, as unwelcome as this piece of news may be to many, May did not lose the election. Yes, she failed to win it – quite spectacularly so – and is being borderline-dictatorial in her refusal to accept that, when asked to vote on her as a leadership personality, Britain baulked, and that she ought therefore to leave office. Yet the Conservatives secured a higher share of the vote and more seats than any other party. That is not what losing looks like. 43% of voters still buy May’s Brexit line.
36 hours after the election, McDonnell was on a chat show underlining Labour’s commitment to leaving the single market.
Secondly, more crucially, and even more inconveniently, the party that deprived Theresa May of victory (NB: not “won”) was Labour. And one of the more disturbing elements of the election aftermath is the collective amnesia vis-à-vis Labour’s prevarication on Brexit: its leader’s failure to campaign strongly in favour of Remain (one made all the more blatant now that he has proven his quality on the stump) and the party’s refusal to position itself clearly against the wafer-thin result of a deeply undemocratic referendum are a matter of record. As such, a vote for Labour was a vote for a party which has vowed to take Britain out of the EU. Of course there are some gradations in how this is achieved: Jeremy Corbyn is not as needlessly unfriendly as Theresa May and it is hard to imagine him storming out of talks to pander to readers of theDaily Mail (a right-wing British tabloid); he is therefore more palatable to most of those who voted to stay. Yet the fact remains that he never warmed to the EU and that his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is dangerously deluded about the potential for Britain thriving outside it: 36 hours after the election, he was on the political chat show Peston on Sunday underlining Labour’s commitment to leaving the single market.
Voters were not duped by Labour – and ignored the Lib Dems
In this, he is no different to British voters, few of whom realise the true import of the decision to leave the EU – even those who voted to remain. And had voters wished to make a clear statement on Brexit, they could have opted for the Liberal Democrats, the only party promising a second referendum: as it was, the party gained only four seats, taking its total to 12, and actually lost its overall share of the vote, slipping from 7.9% in 2015 to 7.4%. To some extent, the vagaries of the British first-past-the-post system may be to blame here: in many constituencies, the Liberal Democrats were simply not a viable option and many Britons vote tactically against the Tories, meaning that they simply had to vote for Labour.
Except that there are two problems with this old chestnut. The first is that Britons don’t actually vote quite as tactically as many assume. In 2015, the Greens picked up a 3.8% share of the vote despite the number of constituencies in which they looked plausible being countable on the fingers of one hand; UKIP picked up four million votes on much the same basis. If Brexit were still emotive in 2017, surely people would have been more willing to demonstratively ‘throw away’ their votes – and hope to cause a few upsets in certain seats. The second, less theoretical objection, is that Labour actually took two seats from the Liberal Democrats – and did so in constituencies that are full of the young urbanites supposedly so hacked off by Brexit. Former party leader and general all-round European par excellence Nick Clegg was unseated in Sheffield Hallam; in leafy Leeds North West Greg Mulholland had to go.
Tuition fees and hospitals beat Brexit
“Ah”, say proponents of the “remainers’ revenge” theory, “but those seats were filled with students who wanted to punish the Liberal Democrats for breaking their pledge not to raise tuition in the 2010-2015 coalition government”. To which the answer is: precisely. Many voters in these constituencies clearly felt more strongly about tuition fees than about Brexit – so much so that they did not turn out to unseat the offenders in 2015, but did turn out two years later when Jeremy Corbyn promised to wipe their debt.
“Look at London,” though, continue those arguing for remainers’ revenge, “where Labour’s candidates were strongly anti-Brexit.” In some seats, perhaps; yet in the south-west of the city, where Labour is irrelevant, other constituencies highlight the flaws in the argument. Take Richmond Park: when Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith resigned it in 2016 to protest against the Heathrow expansion, the seat (which had voted to remain by a margin of 69%) did actually see the only documented example of remainers’ revenge to date when the Liberal Democrats’ Sarah Olney took it from his successor running a Brexit-based campaign. Last week, Goldsmith (now disgraced as a racist) stood again – and took it back.
Moreover, in Carshalton and Wallington, where a sitting London Liberal Democrat – astonishingly – held off the Tories in an area which voted to leave in 2016, Brexit was conspicuously absent from the agenda. Speaking on BBC London after the count, pro-European Tom Brake said: “We fought a campaign about the issues that matter: the future of our hospitals, cuts to schools funding.” Spot the omission. And at the other end of the country, let’s not forget the Scottish National Party (SNP), the only other major party to take a strongly anti-Brexit stance: it lost more seats to the Conservatives than to any other party.
Brexit is only just beginning – for politicians. For voters, it’s already happened
The facts of the matter are plain: British voters were called to an election about Brexit and singularly failed to vote on Brexit. The Scots were voting to stop a second independence referendum, an issue which is related to Britain leaving the EU, but tangentially so. The Labour surge of first-time voters, meanwhile, was looking at issues like tuition fees: Jeremy Corbyn not appearing rabidly anti-European like some embarrassingly racist uncle certainly may have helped his cause with younger people, but it wasn’t what got them out to vote in this general election after their failure to turn out when Europe really mattered (on 23 June 2016).
Corbyn’s equalling of Labour’s 1997 share of the vote is not the work of remainers, and it is not revenge either. It was the effect of hope on the one hand, kindled by a raft of traditional left-wing policies once sunk without a trace by Tony Blair’s Third Way (nationalisation, investment, stimulus), and of fear on the other: older voters, statistically in favour of Brexit, were spooked by Theresa May’s frankly suicidal policies on social care. Where the Conservatives failed to take northern working class seats from Labour – or where Labour unexpectedly stole safe Tory seats – it was not Brexit the voters were angry about.
British voters were called to an election about Brexit and singularly failed to vote on Brexit.
Why would they be? As far as they’re concerned, Brexit happened last June; but their next visit to hospital is coming up next week. It is, unfortunately, too much to ask that they make the connection between EU freedom of movement and that nice Bulgarian male nurse in casualty. And this leads us to an uncomfortable conclusion: Jeremy Corbyn was entirely right to muddy the waters with regards to Brexit last year, retaining a conspicuously low parliamentary profile when it came to voting through Article 50 while organising protests against it for the benefit of London-types. He pulled off the balancing act between “respecting the result of the referendum” in the way that the right-wing populist media made sure Britons expected and not willingly type-casting himself as some kind of Boadicea-on-steroids as Theresa May has done.
In fact, not picking sides like the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, and the SNP has proven to be the only way to avoid the choice between metropolitan and Middle-England seats that would definitely have dealt Labour the electoral wipe-out it was predicted. This is a tragic realisation for strongly pro-Europe, left-wing Britons and social democratic Europeans alike: henceforth, there is no electoral link in the UK between moderate, progressive policy and a European outlook.
Britain is now, politically speaking, a post-Brexit landscape
This is bad news, given that Brexit will affect every area of the economy and society for decades while sapping government energy like a black hole; but it is the truth. Voters do not, for now at least, see how Brexit is more relevant than health, transport, and security – and they certainly don’t grasp how it is relevant to these issues (if they did, they would have given a convincing majority to remain in 2016). And as Brexit retreats further and further into the realms of political Muzak, omnipresent yet rarely obtrusive on single issues, it is hard to see how it will ever become so. Psephologists are probably adapting their models as we speak in anticipation of the next election; politicians and political commentators would be wise to do so, too.
Please read our comments policy before commenting.
Note: This article originally appeared at International Politics and Society. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Brian Melican is a Hamburg-based author and translator.
At last, a reasonably sensible analysis of the General Election.
It may have been called by May to bolster Brexit, but Corbyn led on domestic issues – to which the Conservatives failed to respond in any meaningful way.
Yet the Conservatives still won – and implacably Remain Parties went backwards or sideways.
Anybody who canvassed during the Referendum should have detected that few Remain voters were actually “passionate”.
Most were “on balance” “a little worried about the economy”.
But as economic reality shows that little has changed – and little is likely to change – then we really will be in a post-Brexit Britain.
BTW, what is meant by; “a deeply undemocratic referendum” ??
Thanks for sharing your appreciation of my piece, Jules.
In answer to your question, I think the Referendum was undemocratic for these reasons:
1) Britain is not a participative, but a representative democracy. As such, I see referendums as problematic per se.
2) Specifically, this one was called despite limited public interest in the topic and deliberately excluding the group which will be the worst affected: British expats who have been abroad for longer than 15 years. (I say “deliberately” because reinstating their voting rights was actually in the same manifesto as the referendum and could easily have been implemented beforehand).
3) The quality of the campaign was utterly abysmal and the Leave campaign was able to lie with impunity (Turkey! £350 million a week! European army!).
Although there were several cogent reasons for the Conservatives’ relative failure, Brian Melican is far too sweeping in dismissing Brexit as one of them. I live in Kensington, a constituency that has always been supposed to be irremediably Conservative, yet last week it returned a Labour MP, albeit by only 20 votes. I have absolutely no doubt but that the incumbent, Victoria Borwick, lost primarily because she had voted for, and still favours, Brexit, and would have followed Mrs May unreservedly, even over the cliff edge. In the referendum, Kensington voted 68.7% for Remain. The (good) Lib-Dem candidate would probably in other circumstances have been the more likely one to unseat Borwick, but the disastrous Lib-Dem performance in 2015 meant that, this time, on paper the Labour candidate was the obvious one to support for anyone wishing to vote tactically against the incumbent. That was indeed the recommendation from all the various tactical voting websites. The hostility of Remainers to the Leaver Borwick was palpable, and it would be extraordinary if this was not replicated across the country in constituencies where Remainers were in a substantial majority. (The author mentions that Zac Goldsmith won his Richmond seat back, but fails to point out he only just sneaked in by 45 votes over the Lib-Dem, having had a majority of more than 23,000 in 2015.)
I also believe the author to be wrong in what he reads out of the Lib-Dems’ failure to garner the Remain voters to their cause. That says far less about the priorities of the electorate than it does about the misguided stance of the Lib-Dems in purportedly “accepting” the referendum result, rather than challenging its significance, listing the numerous problems that any Brexit will entail, and how these will impact on the UK electorate. Their leader, Tim Farron, is a decent man but not really up to the task.
As to who “won” the election, it is pertinent to note that in 2015 the right-of-centre parties (Conservatives, UKIP, the DUP and the Ulster Unionists) got 50.5% of the total votes, while the mainstream left-of-centre ones (Labour, Lib-Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens, and the remaining N. Irish parties other than Sinn Fein) got 47.7%, a difference of 2.8%. However, in 2017, this was reversed, with the right grouping getting 45.4% and the left grouping 53.0%, a far greater difference of 7.6%. It is only the UK’s arbitrary electoral system that gives the Conservatives any current justification for governing at all.
Thanks for your contribution, Richard. You’re entirely right to point out that the LibDems have the wrong premise: being truly anti-Brexit would indeed entail questioning the referendum itself. I think we diverge on whether this would have helped them electorally by galvanising remainer support. My hunch is that, given that they are already the most anti-Brexit party as it is and did so poorly – and adding some survey results into the mix that document the “releaver” phenomenon whereby many of those who voted remain now think Britain should leave the EU – it would not have.
Also, thank you for filling in detail on London seats which went to Labour due, in part, to remainers; I alluded to this in a throw-away sentence, but pressed on with the argument elsewhere – perhaps at the cost of making clear that I am sure remainers’ revenge played a part in some, especially London seats. I just don’t think it was in any way decisive.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I voted Labour as my constituency was a two horse race between a pro EU labour candidate and a anti EU conservative. I normally would not vote Labour and dislike Corbyn.
I have no idea how many other voters who voted on the same basis as me. Certainly, tution fees, NHS, the Triple Lock, were all important. What voters thought and how and why they voted in this election, will take an awful lot of research.
Once again, the result of the Brexit referendum is not accepted as valid by remainers. This sets a bad precedent for the future of democracy, unless the remainers really wish to do away with democracy and that that would turn out to be a good thing. This matter has been highlighted and debated ad infinitum, so time will tell what the long-term effects of this bad faith on the part of many remainers is, but sure enough there will be a time when EU-philes win a referendum which will then be rejected by people who support real democracy and not a Claytons version.
The result of 1975 wasn’t accepted by leavers. The pro-side lied, it was supposed to be a referendum on the common market, etc. etc. The only rule here is people claim to be interested in “democracy” when it suits their agenda then have no interest in “democracy” when it doesn’t suit their agenda.
Leavers wanted a referendum when we were in the EU. Now we’re leaving they want to prevent another referendum at all costs. If we actually believe in democracy we should never be afraid to ask the public what they think. We should have a referendum on the exit terms and we should never prevent the public from being able to change their mind if they want. That’s democracy and looking at British politics I can see hardly anyone who believes in this principle – leavers don’t for sure.
When it became clear that remainers tried to overturn the referendum result I decided that the best out of three would settle it. It does not appear as if there is going to be another referendum on in or out. The next Brexit referendum is likely to be on terms. Whatever happens, the polarisation in politics in western Europe is a fact, and it is slated to harden, as the economic polarisation is not being turned back, whatever the cosmetics and the rhetoric. Hence, the struggle for democracy in the EU will go on until one side ot the other gives up. All this talk about the far Right and far Left is just muddying the waters.
The MSM media is ahead of LSE in that regard. The near political future in the EU will be a struggle between the cluster love-in in control and the politically-economically disenfranchised. What else?
I accept that by 2% the referendum result was to leave the EU. It remains uncertain as to whether this also meant all 52% wanted to leave the Customs Union or even the EEA. They wern’t asked. I further note that a democracy is entitled to change its mind..and that there has been a surge in youth voting subsequent to the referendum. What do these voters think about Brexit?
No-one can say for certain whether, explicitly, “all 52% wanted to leave the Customs Union” – but 52% voted to “Leave” and surely that must mean leaving all of the institutions of the EU …. incl. the Customs Union.
In short …. anything that subverts the UK soverignty and independent decision-making
After, it would be perfectly legitimate for the UK to “associate” itself with any EU body … as long as there was mutual interest … and the ability to leave.
Co-operation with Europol springs to mind.
What about a mirror speculation about the 48%’s motives for voting Remain?
As somone who canvassed hundreds of voters during the Referendum, it was clear to me that very few Remain voters were “passionate”.
Most voted “on balance”, because they were a bit worried by the economic (scare?) stories.
Most polls confirm this, suggesting that any “mind-changing” is towards “getting on with Leaving”.
“No-one can say for certain whether, explicitly, “all 52% wanted to leave the Customs Union” – but 52% voted to “Leave” and surely that must mean leaving all of the institutions of the EU …. incl. the Customs Union.”
Obviously it doesn’t mean that as some countries are outside the EU but inside the Customs Union. It’s hardly rocket science: EU membership and the Customs Union are two different things. We voted to end our EU membership, but nobody asked the electorate about the Customs Union. If we want to ask them about it then let’s have another referendum on the topic.
What is actually happening here is we have to leave the Customs Union to avoid contradicting the nonsense argument put forward by the leave campaign about going off and immediately negotiating hundreds of free trade agreements with the rest of the world. That was presented as one of the main reasons to leave and we now have to leave the Customs Union to avoid admitting that argument was complete bunkum. We won’t get another referendum on any of this because all of these supposed democrats (Gove, Fox, Davis, Boris, Farage) are terrified the electorate might change their minds. The Tories in particular are terrified we might vote against their deal and bring down the government so they’d rather tell us what the electorate supposedly think than give us an actual say over what happens.
Everyone knows that’s what’s happening so let’s at least call a spade a spade.
Emmm…Norway is a member of the Single Market but not a member of the EU and Turkey a member of the Customs Union but not a member of the the Single Market, so it cannot be now said Brexit Voters were asked ” do you want to withdraw from the EU and Single Market and the Customs Union and Nato, and the European Court of Human rights and International Convention on Human rights and the United Nations……
The talk of “control” is really stupid. We voluntarily allowed Freedom of Movement with Ireland before joining Europe without not having “control ” and presumably retaining such rights with Ireland post Brexit does not mean “we” don’t have “control”. We voluntarily place our troops under Nato foreign command without becoming a colony. We voluntarily belong to the ECHR court and the International Convention on HR. The EU is a loose confederation in which there is considerably less power sharing than within the UK. That many Brexits are such ardent Unionists but opposed to less power sharing with the EU has always amazed me…
As for current opinion, we both know that opinion polls are unreliable but I suspect that the percentages of pro and anti EU have not changed much. Remainers resigned to the UK leaving would not alter their ( or my) vote if there was another referendum..Not that I advocating another referendum, I don’t like them as their binary nature is clearly unsuitable for complex matters and they only work if there is a massive majority one way or the other…Another referendum with 50.01 to remain would not be helpful…
The Scots did not vote against holding a second independence referendum.
The Unionist parties – as one – campaigned on that issue.
The 2 main broadcasters – BBC and STV – openly encouraged the Unionist campaign of tactical voting to unseat sitting SNP members.
And the result.
A victory for the SNP.
35 seats out of 59.
More than all the unionist parties put together.
The Conservatives a distant second with 13.
It appears you are suffering from the recent epidemic of arithmeticitis.
The one that causes people to think that the number 13 is bigger than the number 35.
Don’t worry. I’m sure there will be a cure along soon.