Brexit & British Party Politics – Francis Turner
One unexpected outcome to the Brexit vote has been the way that it has exposed gaping fissures inside three major political parties. It hasn’t yet cracked the regional parties, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens but the fissures it has exposed are fascinating and suggest a fundamental realignment of voters to parties in the coming months.
Pre Brexit Status
The 2015 general election should have been a sign that things were in flux. In Scotland the SNP wiped out the Labour and Liberal parties (the Tories had already been more or less wiped out in previous elections). In England and Wales the Labour party lost some seats, but the major casualty were the Liberals. Nationwide (i.e. including Scotland) the liberals fell from 57 seats to 8. More critically in that election the UKIP share of votes cast was over 12% making them the third most popular overall although that failed to translate into seats and in fact they lost one of the two seats they had gained during the previous parliament. UKIP votes appeared to be significant in a number of former Labour seats and the result was that the Conservatives won those seats from the Labour party. As part of the fallout from the general election, the Labour party chose a far left long-term backbencher, Jeremy Corbyn, as its new leader and UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage tried to resign but was convinced to stay, however UKIP has experienced all sort of growing pains and remains a party in flux.
In the local elections and in the elections to the various devolved bodies of Scotland and Wales in May 2016 there were more changes. In the Scottish Parliament, the Conservatives staged a recovery, doubling the number of MSPs and displacing Labour as the second most popular party while the Greens overtook the Liberals to become the fourth largest party. In Wales UKIP went from 0 to seven seats, mostly from the Liberals and Conservatives although their votes came from everywhere. In the local elections UKIP almost doubled its number of councillors, gained mostly at the expense of the conservatives and the Liberals also strengthened.
At the start of June you could see that the Liberal democrats and all other the minor parties except UKIP were solidly in the Remain camp although there was some wavering in the Ulster Unionists. The Labour party had most of its officials and MPs on the Remain side, but there were a handful of MPs who broke for Leave. The Conservatives were split roughly equally between Leave and Remain, with I believe more officials and activists on the Leave side but more MPs on the Remain. UKIP was of course 100% for Leave.
Although the vote itself was a single national number, counting was broken down by constituency so it is possible to see where MPs had different opinions to their electorate. In (almost?) all cases where there were differences the MPs were on the Remain side while the voters were on the Leave side. In general in the referendum Leave won most of England and Wales and was also ahead in a couple of Northern Ireland constituencies. In Scotland Remain won heavily and Remain also took Northern Ireland, but not as convincingly. Those regional wins were cancelled out by the far greater population of England and Wales which voted to Leave. Turnout was very high, and interestingly, generally higher in areas which voted to leave. An analysis by Matt Singh at Bloomberg suggests that the higher than expected turnout was a result of Leave supporters that don’t often vote actually doing so this time:
[… T]he net impact of the 2.8 million extra votes was entirely to the benefit of the Brexiters.
Many models, like ours, were based on the assumption that turnout was likely to be similar to last year’s general election and on the fact that past increases in turnout, such as during the 1980s, the 2000s and at the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, were relatively evenly split in terms of how the additional voters cast their ballots.
This time, however, turnout increased with an unprecedented skew. The Number Cruncher Politics central projection of 52.7 percent “remain” and 47.3 percent “leave” would have equated to remain gaining 16.2 million votes and “leave” 14.5 million among existing 2015 voters. Using the same samples, but with a likely voter screen that reflects the actual turnout pattern, gives “remain” 16.1 million, “leave” 17.4 million – the exact result.
This suggests that Brexiters won by mobilizing millions of supporters who never normally vote, whereas the “remain” side got almost no net benefit. Any new “remain” voters were offset by others not showing up.
If this level of enthusiasm can be maintained it is likely to have a significant impact in the general election where turnout in some, “safe” seats can be quite low. The question of course is where they will go.
Post vote leadership struggles
The first thing that happened was that the Conservative prime-minister, David Cameron, announced his resignation, and after some to-ing and fro-ing about having a party wide election from the top two candidates as voted on by MPs the top candidate in the MP election ended up PM anyway after her rival announced that she wasn’t going to continue. The last few weeks of wheeling, dealing and back-stabbing inside the party reads like something out of a novel with Boris Johnson, the public leader of the Leave campaign and presumed successor being abruptly disavowed by his fellow Leave campaigner Michael Gove, who decided to stand for leader himself after a blistering attack on Mr Johnson’s competence. This act of betrayal was not that popular within the party so, even though his philosophy was popular he struggled in the brief campaign and ended up third behind Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom. Gove provided the intellectual thought behind Leave but he in addition to his knifing of Johnson he is disliked in the country as a whole for his attacks on various special interests, particularly teachers.
May campaigned for Remain and Leadsom for Leave, though in the fairly recent past she was a remainer. Either way both claimed that they would implement the result of the referendum. Leadsom ended up crashing and burning on an ill-considered comment about having children making one more interested in the future. However despite that gaffe, which so far as I can tell was more an issue of the coverup being worse than the crime, Leadsom probably still has a future as a senior minister. Prior to this Leadsom was less well known, but this appears to be in large part because she had a major falling out with the Chancellor George Osborne (who campaigned strongly for Remain and might have been PM if Remain had won, but is now completely out of the running for anything senior) that meant that he insisted she be sidelined for a considerable time.
May is interesting. She shows a lot of loyalty to underlings but can be extremely abrasive to those who might have been thought to be allies and to hold grudges against those who aren’t on her side. She also bears the baggage of being home secretary during the period that immigration has run rampant, despite promises to curb it. Despite obvious comparisons with Lady Thatcher, May is not really a Thatcherite politically being all in favor of some kind of “compassionate conservatism” if not quite that of David Cameron. In addition she seems to be all in favour of using the state to spy on everyone and control what they are doing.
Her cabinet choices have been fascinating. Boris Johnson (as knifed by Gove) has been made Foreign Minister which is interesting since Johnson has made any number of incendiary comments about foreign governments and rulers in his various journalistic endeavors. Most recently he provided an amusing limerick about the Turkish president:
There was a young fellow from Ankara
Who was a terrific wankerer
Till he sowed his wild oats
With the help of a goat
But he didn’t even stop to thankera.
In addition to Johnson, May has appointed “Leave” camaigners as minister for International Trade (Lima Fox) and for Brexit (David Davis) which suggests that she won’t be seeking to fudge the Brexit negotiations so that Britain doesn’t actually leave. Apart from that she’s done a reasonable job of balancing the various Tory factions in her ministerial appointments (though unsurprisingly most senior posts have gone to her allies) and the party as a whole seems mostly content with the outcome. All in all it seems like the Tories are likely to remain the party in power because the Brexit reaction has been handled swiftly, decisively and without an excess of rancour.
The Labour party has taken the Brexit vote hard. While a handful of Labour MPs campaigned for Leave the rank and file membership was heavily on the Remain side and the leadership also campaigned for Remain. However the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his second in command – shadow-chancellor John McDonnell – have historically been fervent Leavers and their lacklustre campaigning for Remain looks to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as the majority of Labour MPs are concerned. As a result the Labour party will also have a leadership contest fairly soon, although Corbyn is not going to go willingly, despite losing a vote of no confidence by Labour MPs. The Labour party is also facing a big anti-semitism problem, something that Mr Corbyn has not handled well, in part because he’s got a considerable history of associating with unsavoury anti-semites himself, and this is certainly another factor in the campaigns to overthrow him.
Corbyn’s election was pretty controversial anyway. He’s been on the far left of the party for ever and his election was due to a lot of newly joined party members voting for him despite the fact that the MPs and party establishment mostly hate him. His subsequent performance as leader of the opposition has been uninspiring to put it mildly. His debating skills are probably worse than Obama’s and hence at Prime Minister’s Question time he gets the stuffing beaten out of him by David Cameron on a weekly basis (Cameron OTOH was probably one of the better debaters in recent years so we’ll see how he stands up to Mrs May). And when that is combined with the anti-semitism and the poor election results it isn’t surprising that people want him out.
The question for the future is whether the Labour party can unify itself. A lot of Labour activists seem keen on Corbyn and his Bernie Sander’s like policies. On the other hand most MPs are much less radical and the traditional working class support for Labour seems to be even more conservative (with a small c) than the MPs and certainly did not back Remain. This does not seem to have sunk into the various leadership contenders and activists. The activists are still backing Corbyn and in fact have been extremely unpleasant to MPs and party members that they consider to be disloyal. Moreover the corbynites seem unclear on the concept of governing, let alone that of winning national elections. It seems they’d prefer to pose, lose and organize protests rather than actually run things. This may be a first for a political party (or faction of one) and it doesn’t bode well.
UKIP’s charismatic leader Nigel Farage has also announced his resignation. Mind you he did this before and was convinced to stay but this time it seems that he really means it. Farage has been the driving force in UKIP for almost all of its two decades of existence and hence the change of leadership is likely to be critical to the continued success of the party. Having said that, Farage has been seen as quite divisive within the party so his resignation may well turn out to be a net positive. Now that the party has achieved its original goal of getting the UK to leave the EU the question is whether it can survive, and indeed whether it should. All that will depend on its political policies going forward.
UKIP’s policies – beyond the obvious one of leaving the EU – have not been very fixed. In 2010 UKIP were very much a libertarian leaning party. De-regulation, free markets and the like were a big part of their manifesto. In last year’s election these points were generally still there but the emphasis had changed to immigration and other more populist issues. UKIP, as a party with no more than 20 years of history, has also attracted members who aren’t the smooth identikit professional politicians of the major parties. In a number of cases this has resulted in them being publicly embarrassed by having statements they make publicised and mocked. The fact that the UK media generally, and the BBC in particular, have loathed UKIP has not helped them.
Before it’s big break out UKIP was the home of disaffected Tories. There was a strong correlation between Euroskepticism and loyalty to the Thatcherite traditions so many of the original UKIP supporters tended towards small government positions. However as the party has grown it has attracted others who are not of that tradition. Given that the Tories are in power and implementing Brexit, it seems likely that some (most?) Euroskeptic Tories will return to the Conservative fold leaving UKIP with the rest of the malcontents. Since UKIP is a new party, with few well known faces, it’s hard to judge who will likely end up leader and this has been exacerbated by the fact that a number of apparent front-runners have unilaterally declared that they won’t run while others appear to be being ruled out for various technical reasons. However the Guido Fawkes blog suggests that the likely front runner is another MEP – Steven Woolfe (and I know next to nothing about him)
Putting it together
There seem are multiple political strands in England and Wales and neither UKIP, Labour nor the Conservatives are currently monolithically one particular strand. This means that the alignments between voters and parties could change significantly as parties vie for particular groups of voters.
It seems likely that the Labour party is going to move into solid SJW/guardianista territory with all the sneering condescension to the great unwashed that that implies. Individual Labour MPs may manage to maintain their local base in working class areas but the party as a whole is going to move away from its historic roots as the overwhelming new activists are of the new sneering classes not the traditional working ones. This change of roles makes the Liberals even more irrelevant as they will be nearly indistinguishable from this sort of Labour party and hence probably means that the Liberals are finally killed off. Although they’ve failed to die a few times before in the last century so they may still manage to hang on. It may also mean that the Green party folks rejoin the Labour party since there will be no real difference between their platforms except one of emphasis on which innumerate policy is more important.
So where do the working class go? The Scottish ones have joined the SNP. The Welsh ones may join Plaid Cymru, but there’s no clear refuge in England as they probably aren’t going to go Tory. At the same time UKIP is busy trying to find a new rationale and a distinctive political voice. It seems likely to me that UKIP will continue to dump its more Thatcherite policies and become a more working class based party that absorbs the voters that the Labour party has abandoned.
We have about four years until the next scheduled election and an unscheduled one will only occur if the Tories split which I think is unlikely. The Tory MPs aren’t stupid and can do sums as well as anyone so they have to realize that the longer they can avoid an election the longer they have to cement a successful Brexit, hence I predict that the tories are going to rally around May until or unless the Brexit process goes titsup.com. This means that UKIP has about four years to entice the working class labour voters over to their corner. That’s plenty of time for the Labour party to make it’s new SJW focus clear.
The only problem is that the small government crowd are almost certainly going to lose their party as UKIP is almost certainly not going to keep the libertarian policies it had, and the chances are really high that the Tories won’t roll far in that direction either.