The State of Brexit: Thoughts following the EU elections

The State of Brexit: Thoughts following the EU elections June 5, 2019

Here is another political one, this time guest posted by Rhys Chellow, someone I know from Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub. If you would like to guest post here, please let me know. Over to Rhys:

Although The Brexit Party won the greatest number of seats in the UK for the EU election, it’s not accurate to see them as the ‘winners’. It is undoubtedly impressive: a party that has existed for only a few weeks has gotten 32% of the seats. However, the European Parliament isn’t something that is ‘won’, you simply get seats approximately in proportion to the votes; you don’t get to form a government if you get the most seats.

That said, there is talk of this EU election being different; specifically, there is talk of winners. So, what might ‘win’ the EU election in a single member state (i.e. less than all the EU electorate)? The answer is that the EU election in the UK can be seen as a proxy for Brexit, and therefore the winners and losers relate simply to the intentions ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’. It is not a single party that wins, but the intention they represent when it comes to Brexit.

To be clear, in the UK, the EU elections were a single issue vote: if you want to Leave, you don’t care about any other policy related to the EU; if you want to Remain, securing a Remain seat takes priority over the ‘nitty gritty’.

How do you count votes for an intention?

In many cases, a party’s stance on the EU was clear, and those votes are easy to count:

  • The Brexit Party – even without a manifesto, any look at the rhetoric or the candidates makes it clear that Leaving immediately, without any sort of a deal in place, is their goal.
    Intention: Hard Brexit
  • UKIP
    Intention: Hard Brexit
  • Liberal Democrats – “Bollocks to Brexit
    Intention: Remain
  • Change UK
    Intention: Remain
  • The Green Party
    Intention: Remain
  • Scottish National Party
    Intention: Remain
  • Plaid Cymru
    Intention: Remain

The ‘main’ parties were, problematically, the ones who were hardest to count. The Conservative Party is officially seeking a Withdrawal Agreement, and just before the election their leader announced a specifically soft Brexit. Sure, that has caused chaos since, but that was the announcement. A quick look at the candidates that got seats do, however, show they are all Eurosceptic and want some flavour of Brexit.

Labour is even harder, still. The very leadership is clearly pro-Brexit, and yet the rest of the party is basically all Remain. In fact, every Labour MEP who got a seat is a Remainer’s.

(See my working on the Conservative and Labour seats here.)

That still doesn’t, really, help us count the Labour votes. Ironically, public perception is that Labour is very anti-Brexit (Jankowicz, 2019), despite it wanting ‘the best’ Brexit deal (The Labour Party, 2019). Votes for Labour should be considered votes for the Remain intention, then, as people can only be expected to have voted for what they perceive to be the case.

How did the intentions do?

It’s not clear whether the main parties should be included when counting the votes for the intentions. But, here is how it all adds up:

Remain Votes
Liberal Democrats 18.5%
Green Party 11.1%
Change UK 2.9%
Scottish National Party 3.3%
Plaid Cymru 1%
Labour 14.1%
Total 50.9% (36.8% excl. Labour)
Leave Votes
Brexit Party 31.7%
UKIP 3.6%
Conservatives 8.7%
Total 44% (35.3% excl Conservatives)

The raw count shows the intention of Remain got more votes, regardless of whether you include the main parties.

What explains the poor Conservative and Labour performance?

In 2014, UKIP got 26.6% of the votes (Wikipedia contributors, 2019). In 2019, UKIP and The Brexit Party, combined, got 35.3%, a total gain of 6.7%.

In 2014, Labour got 24.4% and the Conservatives got 23.1% (total combined: 47.5%). In 2019, Labour got 14.1% (↓ 10.3%) and the Conservatives got 8.7% (↓ 14.4%), a total loss of 24.7%.

This is clearly not a case of voters abandoning the main parties for Brexit, because that would leave an 18% swing unaccounted for. It can be accounted for, though, by looking at the gains made in parties representing the Remain intention.

Remain Vote share change
Liberal Democrats +13.4%
Green Party +4.2%
Change UK +3.4%
Scottish National Party +1.1%
Plaid Cymru +0.3%
Total vote share change +22.4

(BBC News, 2019b)

Can the results be made to look like a Brexit victory?

One of the complaints is that the results can be made to look like they fit the preference of the person interpreting them. However, it is very difficult to look at all the data and make it a pro-Brexit result. You can look at the party with the biggest share of the votes, of course, and then The Brexit Party and whatever intention it conveys ‘wins’.

But, to come at the argument this way round, one has to justify ignoring the combined votes for parties that clearly represented a Remain intention. And this is difficult to justify.

One defence that Nigel Farage put forward on his show on LBC makes sense, but it dangerous territory for a pro-Brexit argument to start to traverse. Farage argues that the Remain parties vastly outspent the Brexit parties. That may well be true, but it is difficult footing to start arguing that campaign spending can actually change minds. After all, unaccounted for money was overspent in the campaigns running up to the 2016 EU Referendum. That’s either enough to invalidate the results, or it is not. But it can’t be one for the idea you like and the other against the idea you don’t like.

Is it actually even more Remainer-y than it looks?

There have been immense problems with elections in the UK. In the 2016 Referendum, EU nationals who lived in the UK were not allowed to vote, and UK nationals living abroad were also not allowed to vote. There were, then, even more profound problems with electoral spending, that resulted in record fines and even getting the National Crime Agency (NCA) involved.

In the EU Elections, there were a different set of problems. And, equally, they seemed to disadvantage the Remain side:

  • EU nationals living in the UK should be allowed to vote in the EU Elections for parties standing in their region of the UK, and yet they were turned away at the polling stations (Devlin, 2019). This could be up to 2 million people (Banks, 2019), who are likely to be heavily Remain as a group.
  • EU nationals living in the UK who wanted to register to vote for the first time found they had to fill in a second form, the deadline of which was the same day the UK Government announced the UK was taking part in the EU Elections (O’Carroll, 2019). This group would be heavily Remain voters.
  • UK citizens living abroad can vote in the EU elections by post, and yet their postal vote ballot did not turn up in time for the vote to be filled in and submitted (Stone, 2019). Again, these are likely to be heavily Remain voters.

This is all most likely to be incompetence and mishandling, not voter suppression. But, either way, the sheer numbers will have made a material impact on the UK’s voting contribution to the EU Parliament.

What does this mean?

This can’t lead to Revoking Article 50 and Remaining in the EU, not even if more people signed a petition calling for that (6,085,989 votes; (UK Government and Parliament, 2019)) than voted for the Brexit party (5.3 million; unsourced). That’s because the EU Parliament elections are not a proxy battleground for Brexit; any ‘loyalist’ voters, who just voted for their party regardless, are all just ‘swing’ or error margins in the interpretation; elections don’t give mandates not described beforehand.

But it should lend profound support for some kind of a second referendum. Remain is still a large voice in the country, and increasingly, it may be a majority. Now that we are so far away from the 2016 Referendum and evidence suggests the ‘will of the people’ has shifted, it is time to take an honest look at what is means to be democratic. Can it really mean ploughing on, all the time suspecting the mandate has changed (or, at least, would change if anyone had the spine to ask)?

What would a second referendum look like?

There are two important questions surrounding a Second Referendum: what should the ballot look like?; Should the voting structures be changed?

From the above, it seems clear that our electoral laws, authorities and procedures need updating and repairing. Campaign funding and spending need to be scrutinised before the results are announced (and, perhaps, even before the vote happens). There needs to be a political will to invalidate votes and elections where irregularities are evident; clear guidelines on who can vote need to be provided, and where people are being turned away, it needs to be an immediate-response issue; the failure of postal votes to arrive on time needs to be a vote-delaying concern.

In all of that, the single biggest issue is “political will”. If the UK cared about the integrity of its democracy, it would have invalidated its 2016 EU Referendum when the campaign finances became an issue to refer to the NCA and spending was so bad it received record fines. Instead, because the Referendum was ‘advisory’, it was an informal affair that no court has jurisdiction over. It would have been illegal, if it were a proper referendum; but it was a nonsense referendum so the law doesn’t apply.

Boris Johnson is being taken to court over his role in the lie-on-a-bus (BBC News, 2019a), a cornerstone of the Leave campaign. And yet, the political will is still behind the vapid slogan of ‘Leave means Leave’ and not checks and balances that secure a liberal and fair democracy.

There is no principled way to explain or justify this. Everything that allows this needs to change.

Just like the institutions that supported the 2016 EU Referendum need to be wildly different at the time of a Second Referendum (or any vote), so does the ballot paper. Brexit is not a Yes/No question, and the 2016 Ballot allowed the Yes (or Leave) vote to mean everything from ‘not leaving the Single Market’-Norway-and-Switzerland (EEA) options (People’s Vote, 2016) to the No-Deal Brexit now being championed (Ferguson, 2019). There needs to be a narrower option, one that is defined.

The problem with a defined Brexit option is that it splits the vote. Some people genuinely champion No Deal Brexit, whereas others still support a bespoke hard Brexit (like the Withdrawal Agreement) and some still want EEA style Brexit, as promised. How do you handle that, when the primary reason for running the Second Referendum is because you have a legitimate reason to believe Remain is now the actual ‘will of the people’?

The answer, I think, is to put three options on the ballot: Remain, No Deal, and ‘A Deal’. A deal will have to be put together and supported by Parliament for the purposes of going on the ballot; it would be something like the Withdrawal Agreement ― specific and deliverable. You then run an ‘Alternative Voting’ first past the post system.

What this means is that you rank your preferences 1, 2 and 3. Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has said that the Withdrawal Agreement is worse than Remaining, would then have a ballot that looks like this:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is untitled-drawing-1.png

Then, if no option reaches the 50% threshold to be ‘first past the post’, the lowest scoring option is discarded and all those ballots have their second options counted. At this point, something will be over 50%.

This does not split the Brexit vote, because all those who want Brexit no matter what can choose those options, and all those who want a type of Brexit, but think the other one is worse than Remain can also reflect that.

All of this is time-consuming, and so the only way to make it work is to seek a large extension.

Source Material

Banks, M. (2019) Call for public inquiry after up to two million EU citizens in the UK were unable to vote in European elections. Available from: https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/articles/news/call-public-inquiry-after-two-million-eu-citizens-uk-were-unable-vote-european [Accessed 30 May 2019].

BBC News (2019a) Johnson to appear in court over £350m claim [online]. BBC 29 May. . Available from:https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-48445430 [Accessed 30 May 2019].

BBC News (2019b) The UK’s results in maps and charts [online]. BBC 27 May. . Available from:https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-48403131 [Accessed 30 May 2019].

Devlin, K. (2019) #deniedmyvote: EU citizens turned away at European election polling stations [online]. The Times 24 May. . Available from: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/deniedmyvote-eu-citizens-turned-away-at-polling-stations-22wbr9sms [Accessed 30 May 2019].

Ferguson, E. (2019) Jacob Rees-Mogg: Why Britain would THRIVE in no deal Brexit and be £39bn RICHER. Available from: https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1133894/brexit-news-jacob-rees-mogg-no-deal-brexit-39bn-richer [Accessed 30 May 2019].

Jankowicz, M. (2019) Labour seen as more anti-Brexit than Change UK, says poll [online]. April. . Available from: https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/change-uk-yougov-brexit-survey-1-6024642[Accessed 30 May 2019].

O’Carroll, L. (2019) Many EU citizens will be unable to vote in UK, campaigners warn [online]. The Guardian 21 May. . Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/21/european-elections-many-eu-citizens-will-be-unable-to-vote-in-uk-campaigners-warn [Accessed 30 May 2019].

Leave campaigners: let’s stay in the Single Market (2016) [online]. Directed by People’s Vote. (no place) Youtube. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xGt3QmRSZY [Accessed 30 May 2019].

Stone, J. (2019) ‘Thousands’ of British citizens living abroad denied vote in EU elections due to administrative errors [online]. The Independent 23 May. . Available from:https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/eu-elections-expats-uk-british-europe-brexit-germany-spain-a8927171.html [Accessed 30 May 2019].

The Labour Party (2019) Labour’s Plan for Brexit – The Labour Party. Available from:https://labour.org.uk/issues/labours-plan-brexit/ [Accessed 30 May 2019].

UK Government and Parliament (2019) Petition: Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU. Available from:https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/241584 [Accessed 30 May 2019].

Wikipedia contributors (2019) 2014 European Parliament election in the United Kingdom. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=2014_European_Parliament_election_in_the_United_Kingdom&oldid=899113853 [Accessed 30 May 2019].


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