3rd July 2017
–By Keith Nieland-
The Democratic Socialist Republic of Canterbury
“Do you the mean the Canterbury with the cathedral, archbishop and lots of niche shops? The middle England Canterbury?”
“It went Labour?”
Indeed so. By a swing of 9.33% Rosie Duffield stretched far down the list of Tory target seats and took middle England Canterbury. But why did the voters deliver this surprise result?
Water Pipes and Rail Lines
Were the voters of this corner of Kent attracted by the notion of civil servants running the trains of South Eastern or the state owning its water pipes? Psephologists have already started the process of taking apart the general election outcome but we already know 71% of Labour voters were Remainers and that Brexit accounted for half the swing to Labour (yougov.co.uk). It would not be, therefore, unreasonable to suggest that the voters of Canterbury were, in the main, rejecting Prime Minister May’s Hard Brexit characterised by “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Canterbury also has lots of students – the very group who have most to lose from withdrawal from the single market with its loss of the right to work, live and study in any of the EU’s 27 countries.
Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing
The evidence is that Labour became the refuge of choice for the 48% who did not vote for Brexit and those who rejected May’s apparent charge towards a hard exit. Labour racked up hung swings and big majorities in areas that had been solidly Remain (15.10% in Hove, 15.83% in Bristol West, 10.59% in Kensington). It would not have been unreasonable for voters to believe that Labour supported continued membership of both the customs union and single market. Indeed Keir Starmer’s 6 tests strongly suggest this with reference to an acceptable deal delivering the same benefits as both.
Labour’s manifesto did not lie easily with Starmer’s tests and, despite what was stated in the manifesto, Jeremy Corbyn hardly made exiting the customs union and single market the headline announcement at his rallies.
It would have come as a surprise to some who voted Labour as a protest against a Hard Brexit to discover on the Sunday after the vote John McDonnell committing Labour to that very thing. (See video)
Along Comes the Cavalry
Those downcast by McDonnell’s commitment to support May’s Brexit line would have been cheered a few days later by Chuka Umunna, who enjoyed a 9.60% swing in his own London constituency, and a group of 50 politicians from across the party announcing a commitment to a softer Brexit and continued membership of the Single Market and Customs Union.
Either by design or accident Labour had fudged its Brexit line during the election. The problem with fudges is that you get found out in the end.
Brexit! What Brexit?
It was supposed to be the Brexit election. The nation was being invited to give May a big majority and, therefore, a strong mandate for the exit negotiations in Brussels. It appeared May’s strategy was to harvest UKIP votes to the Tory cause with an unremitting commitment to a Hard Brexit. There was little debate about the nature of our exit – it was hard, take it or leave it – characterised by leaving the single market and customs union. No time was given to the potential different models of leaving and what would come next. There was little analysis of the pros and cons of remaining in both agreements or examination of the nature of our relationship with Europe going forward.
The reality was that May hardly campaigned at all and seemed to be relying on a strategy which suggested the more voters saw of Jeremy Corbyn the more they would reject him. For his part Corbyn’s election slogan could well have been “Brexit! What Brexit?” so little did he refer to it.
As a result the election settled little. If May went into the vote saying she needed a big majority so she had a strong negotiating hand, the fact she lost the majority she had must be interpreted as voters not willing to give her the mandate she craved. Voters seemed to be saying we wanted a more nuanced separation and less of the brinkmanship and threats.
It appears as if the mood of the nation has shifted but that of the two main party leaders may have not.
Has the election result, against all expectations, trumped the referendum outcome?
A Fight to the Death
Some commentators speculate that Brexit has split the country. The vote last June created two distinct camps that had not existed previously. No compromise has been created or even sought. This conflict was reflected in the election result with big swings to Labour and seats gained in Remain areas with the Tory vote holding up in Leave areas.
So is this simmering conflict now reflected in the House of Commons? We now have MPs representing strong Leave and Remain areas sitting in the House and some even in the same party. Anna Soubry, Ken Clarke, John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg are in the same party but hear them speak about Brexit you would hardly believe so. Chuka Umunna, Peter Kyle and Wes Streeting are in the same party as John McDonnell, Kate Hoey and Richard Burgon but again on Brexit you would hardly think so.
This poses the question: will MPs put party loyalty above their views on Brexit?
Loyalty to Constituents or Party Leadership?
Once the Brexit negotiations are finished and voted on in Parliament that will be that. There will be no revisiting and no way back. The cast for decades to come will be well and truly set.
As things currently stand it appears May and Corbyn want the same thing – the UK out of the EU and no membership of either the customs union or single market. They can whip their MPs to support any vote. However, there is much double talk along the lines of enjoying the same benefits of both agreements without actually being a member (the cake and eat it option). At the same time Liam (Air Miles) Fox continually zooms around the world and has yet to announce any commitments to new trade deals to replace those we may lose with the EU.
So is it possible soft Brexit MPs of both main parties will say enough is enough? That they will abandon tribal party loyalty, defy their leadership, take control, and guide the ship of state to a soft Brexit with continued membership of the customs union and single market? That they will prioritise close links with our European partners over some as yet undefined championing of international free trade?
So the game is far from complete and there is much to be played for. Many MPs are currently keeping their powder dry but will keep a close eye on the opinion polls, what happens to the economy over the next two years and what constituents are saying.
It is just possible they will unify across the Commons and bring down the Hard Brexit house. 71% of Labour voters plus SNP and Green voters and the soft Brexit Scottish Tories and the DUP will cheer them on no doubt.
With Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell on the same Brexit page as Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Redwood perhaps our politics will change in such a fundamental way that a new centrist grouping will emerge.