Unless there is a last-minute deal between Labour and May, which fortunately looks highly unlikely, we are facing EU elections on May 23rd– something that will pose major problems for both Labour and the Tories – in particular the Tories.
The decision to delay Brexit until October 31stand therefore to hold EU elections in May (which now appear inevitable) was a major blow to the hard-line Brexiteers, and has thrown the Brexit project into even deeper crisis. It makes a second referendum, and the possibility that Brexit will never happen, more likely. Opposing the democratic right of a second referendum after so much time and so many changes will be even harder after three and a half years than it is now. It also increases the chance of a Labour government providing that the current leadership does not saddle the party with a Tory so-called soft Brexit.
As a result of all this,the Tories have returned from the Easter holiday even more deeply split than before. There have been frantic attempts to change Tory leadership election rules in order to get May out by the end of the month. Nigel Evans, the secretary of the 1922 committee, has called for her immediate resignation. Though whether a change in leadership at this stage would revive Tory fortunes or reduce the internal conflict is another matter.
The Tories are desperate to avoid the EU elections because they expect to be annihilated in the polls even if they are able to agree as to what to put in their manifesto. Whatever they do they face a disastrous result and possibly their demise as a political party for the foreseeable future. They will have big problems getting their activists out and may see many of their MPs supporting Farage.
Meanwhile Nigel Farage has launched his new Brexit Party and Tories at all levels – probably a majority of its members and local officials – are scrambling to join it support it or stand as its candidates. Ex-Tory minister Ann Widdecombe is to stand as a candidate, as is the Institute of Ideas’ Claire Fox (whose left wing credentials have long been left behind), while George Galloway is endorsing their list.
A YouGov poll taken just after it was launched put the Brexit Party on 23%, Labour on 22%, the Tories on 17%, the Greens on 10%, Change UK on 8% and UKIP on 6%.
There will be a number of other parties committed to such a stance, not just the Greens and the Lib Dems, Change UK, the SNP and Plaid. Attempts to bring them together as an ‘anti-Brexit Alliance’ however, have failed.
For Labour, the issue is nothing less than whether it will go into the elections as a Brexit party, advocating a so-called soft Brexit, or an anti-Brexit party calling for a second referendum and a vote to remain. It is a decision that could define Labour for the rest of the Parliament and beyond.
Tom Watson, in the Observer, argues that Labour is at risk of a drubbing by Farage’s new Brexit Party if it continues to ‘sit on the fence’ over Brexit and offer only ‘mealy-mouthed support for a second referendum’. Painful as it is to have to agree with someone who is dedicated to the destruction of Corbynism and all it stands for, there is undeniably substance in what he says.
To go into these elections in partial agreement with Farage: i.e. arguing for a soft Brexit rather than a hard Brexit when a soft Brexit under today’s conditions is fantasy would be a disaster. It would be an affront to the millions of young people whose support has been the bedrock of Corbynism since he won the first leadership contest and who are bitterly opposed to a Brexit of any kind. Instead of setting itself again their aspirations for the future Labour should be demanding that a voting age of 16 is used so that their votes should be fully represented. At the moment huge numbers of young people between 18 and 26 are not yet even of the electoral register. The Electoral Commission says a third of the 9 million people in this age group are not currently registered to vote. This compares with just 4% of those over 65.
Although Labour is split over the issue of Brexit there is no doubt where the predominant position lays. Both the biggest body of MPs and around 80 per cent of its membership back both a second referendum and a vote to remain.
Labour is now in the process of drafting the manifesto for the EU elections. It is vital that this commits unequivocally to a second referendum (or a confirmatory public vote) on any Brexit deal, and urges a vote to remain. The NEC will be voting on the content of the manifesto next Tuesday on the 30th April every effort should be made to get the right result.
It is true that EU elections are not the same as a general election, not least because of the Proportional Representation – D’Hondt voting system rather than First Past The Post – but there is an obvious and dangerous overlap – particularly if when a general election comes which Brexit remains unresolved with Labour still ambiguous and Farage riding high.
Alan Davies, 24 April 2019