Brexit - Screw Tactical Voting: Why I’m ditching Labour and voting Green in the European Elections

Image by Nick.mon and used under Creative Commons Licence

The election that was never meant to happen will take place in the UK on Thursday 23rd May. Theresa May’s repeated failure to get her Brexit deal approved by parliament has delayed Britain’s departure from the European Union, meaning that — along with 27 other member nations — the UK will be holding elections to the European Parliament next week.

The two main political parties: the ruling Conservatives, and Labour, have been in polling-freefall for the past few weeks. In January, Politico.eu’s ‘poll of polls’ reported the combined vote share the parties at 66%. At the time of writing, their combined share is below 30% — less than half what it was at the beginning of the year.

The reasons for the Conservative collapse don’t require a degree in psephology to work out. They are despised by leavers and remainers in equal measure: the former for ‘selling out’ to the EU through May’s unpopular deal, the latter for refusing to compromise on red-line issues that could break the Brexit impasse.

Meanwhile, the brand-new Brexit Party, headed by Nigel Farage: the charismatic yet divisive friend of Donald Trump, has shot up in the polls. Buoyed by its simple message for a ‘WTO’ or ‘No Deal’ Brexit, this fledgling populist outfit is on track to come first in next week’s contest: both in terms of vote share and seats won. Their message is gaining traction, despite the vast majority of economists claiming a no-deal exit will be devastating for the country’s economy and livelihoods — not to mention its possible impact on peace in Northern Ireland.

The reasons for Labour’s poll-collapse is more contested. After their poor showing in the recent local elections, Jeremy Corbyn concluded that the message from voters was to ‘get a deal done’ on Brexit, but separate polling analysis by respected analysts: John Curtice and Peter Kellner has suggested that this interpretation is far from the truth.

Labour’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ over Brexit — trying to appease both its majority ‘remainer’ voter-base and its cohort of leave-supporters it’s convinced it needs to win the next general election — is turning poisonous. Like the Conservatives, they are increasingly distrusted by remainers and leavers alike. Jeremy Corbyn is desperate to talk about inequality, climate change and pretty much anything apart from Brexit. But what this fails to recognise is two things: firstly there is some evidence that people in Britain are increasingly likely to define themselves along the ‘leave’-‘remain’ as opposed to ‘left-right’ axis. Secondly, it appears to have escaped his notice that these are the European Elections and the party storming ahead in the polls is quite literally called The Brexit Party. Therefore, not addressing this topic honestly and head-on is leaving a vacuum that is being filled all-too-gladly by the hard-right, thereby damaging the Labour project longer-term.

The confusion is most prevalent in Labour’s support — or not — for a second referendum to ratify the Brexit deal. In an endless ping-pong of contradictions, one moment Barry Gardiner (shadow trade secretary) says that Labour does not back a second referendum, the next, Kier Starmer (shadow Brexit secretary) insists that they do. The result? Confused ‘leave’ supporters punish Labour for backing a second referendum. Confused ‘remain’ supporters punish Labour for not backing a second referendum. Neither group are prepared to continue giving Labour the benefit of the doubt.

If we actually dig into Labour’s official position on Brexit, it is remarkably confusing. Jeremy Corbyn claims that it would back ‘the option’ of a ‘public vote’, but only if a general election was unachievable, or to prevent a ‘damaging Tory Brexit’. This means that — according to him at least — Labour’s support for a referendum is not guaranteed — even to prevent a Tory Brexit. It is merely an ‘option’. Secondly, it means that a ‘Labour Brexit’ would not need to be ratified through a confirmatory referendum, which makes the second last paragraph of the motion backing one at last year’s party conference all the more ironic:

“If the Government is confident in negotiating a deal that working people, our economy and communities will benefit from they should not be afraid to put that deal to the public.”

Labour’s position doesn’t only not make any sense. It is also, in my view, incredibly dangerous.

Many on the Left like to complain that there are more important things that Brexit, such as rising homelessness, use of food banks, the country’s mental health and climate change. Brexit, they say, is the muse of the metropolitan elite who can afford to worry about it because that they know where their next meal is coming from. They agree with their leader Jeremy Corbyn, that Brexit can be forgotten about once done and dusted, with no need for another referendum — so long as it is a Labour Brexit.

And yes, there are many remainers who still haven’t stopped for a moment to ask themselves why people voted for Brexit (let alone ask someone) and have developed a slightly bizarre sycophancy towards the E.U. But there are many on the Left (I hope, myself included) for whom Brexit poses an existential threat to the country, not because of Brexit itself, but because if done badly (which all evidence to date suggests is going to be an understatement) would destroy any chances of building a more socially and environmentally just Britain. Brexit done badly would destroy worker’s rights and environmental standards for generations, usher in an age of austerity and neoliberalism never seen before and, as a Vote Leave economist admitted, destroy what is left of U.K. manufacturing.

For several reasons, Labour cannot guarantee a Labour Brexit, even if they win another snap general election. The negotiations will take years, enough time for at least one more general election to take place (especially considering the ongoing fragmentation of the two-party system). The constitutional convention that today’s parliament cannot ‘tie the hands’ of tomorrow’s could come back to haunt Jeremy Corbyn. What stops a future Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab or Andrea Leadsom from reversing any progress made by a Labour government, turn their back on Europe and seek a trade deal with the U.S. by compromising on environmental standards and opening up our NHS to even more privatisation?

I’ll tell you what would at least act as a substantial ‘firewall’ to this risk: a second, and this time legally binding referendum that ratifies a revised Labour-led political declaration on the future relationship with Europe into law; a political declaration that avoids slippery language and opts for unequivocal negotiating positions on not only a customs union, but single market membership too. It’s true that — for the same reasons above — PM Johnson, Raab or Leadsom could theoretically reverse it if they had the parliamentary majority to do so. However, a referendum ratifying an achievable and unequivocal form of Brexit would make such a move a far harder sell if by doing so they were going directly against the will of the British people: this, the soundbite that could come back to haunt the hard-Brexiteers.

Talking of ‘wills of the British people’ and considering that Brexit is — pretty irrefutably — no longer one of them, you’d have thought that the collapse of the Conservatives and Labour in the polls would be a springboard for unequivocally pro-second referendum parties in next week’s contest.

Well, the response by the second referendum-supporting parties has been fractious and un-coordinated, meaning voters in favour of one are being given no fewer than five parties to choose from (not including Northern Ireland): the Liberal Democrats, the SNP (in Scotland), Plaid Cymru (in Wales), the Greens, and Change UK. The lack of co-ordination is justified by some — including the Greens — by claiming that ‘no vote is a wasted vote’ due to the ‘proportional voting’ system used in the European Elections. This argument is depressingly misleading. The confusing D’Hondt System used in Britain is far from truly proportional, whereas the Single Transferable Vote used in Northern Ireland fares far better.

The inevitable splitting of the remainer vote has led Labour figures to insist that the only way to stop Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party coming first is to vote for Labour: the only party that has a chance of beating them, in a classic: ‘vote for the least-worst option’ argument. But you know what? I’m sorry. I’m tired. I’m not playing this game anymore. I fell for Labour’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ in the snap election of 2017, and I’m not falling for it again.

I’ll be voting Green in the upcoming election, because of their combined pro-Europe and pro-climate action message (oh yes, and it helps that they aren’t the Liberal Democrats). I’ll be doing so, well aware that I’ll be inadvertently helping Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party win the majority of seats in my region. This is a fact we cannot deny.

Under the D’Hondt system — and particularly here in North East England, which only returns three MEPs to the European Parliament — there is a higher likelihood that by contributing to the fragmentation of the Labour vote, those of us who back the Greens, Change UK or the Liberal Democrats will also be making it more likely that the Brexit Party will come first in our region. Doing so would mean they take two of the three MEP seats on offer. Replicate this across the country and you have a potential Brexit Party landslide.

But here’s my conundrum. A vote for Labour will be interpreted by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership as an endorsement of Labour’s confusing, dishonest and as I explain above, downright dangerous Brexit policy; guaranteeing months more fudging and obfuscation, contributing to the stagnating doubt over the future of people’s livelihoods, and failing to remove the spectre of a ‘no deal’ departure on 31 October.

When the Brexit Party tops the share of the vote and gains the largest number of MEPs, Farage and the dominant right-wing media will shriek success. They’ll say it is an endorsement for a ‘no deal’ departure. It won’t be (unless that is the Brexit Party achieves over 50% of the popular vote) and to be honest I don’t care how effectively Farage, the right-wing press or Theresa May’s hard-Brexit successor spin the results to claim this.

Believe it or not, it isn’t them that I’m looking to for hope, or at them that my vote is directed.

All I care about is how the Labour Party — who are supposedly the official opposition — interpret those results. Vote Labour and we’re voting for their policy status-quo, but maybe, just maybe, a drubbing in the polls next Thursday will finally wake them up to the crisis we are in. Maybe it will make them realise that in order to win a general election and build the Britain they want to see, they’ve got to stop treating Brexit as an annoying midge to be swatted away and instead recognise that the issue is part and parcel of the same fight.

To be honest, I doubt the party leadership will have this moment of realisation. They’ll probably do what they did in the local elections and interpret a haemorrhaging of their vote to pro-second referendum parties as a message to ‘get on and deliver Brexit’. I still don’t care, because where my faith lies is not in the party leadership, but in its membership.

Whilst Nigel Farage and the media may not take much notice of which blocs win the largest shares of the vote, a surge in support for pro-second referendum parties (and how you interpret the Labour vote share in that equation is anyone’s guess) will embolden the Labour membership to force a clear and uncompromising pro-referendum resolution at this year’s party conference. They won’t fall for the fudging rhetoric of the 2018 motion, this time demanding a clear and unequivocal commitment. Labour should seize this opportunity, not least because — as explained above — it is the best way of securing a ‘Labour Brexit’ too. The question on the ballot? That’s another debate, but Remain must be an option, not least because — as eloquently put by arch-Brexiteer David Davies: “if a democracy can’t change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”.

And Labour’s opportunity to enact their new policy could come sooner than they think.

When Theresa May is eventually replaced, a change in prime minister will not change the parliamentary arithmetic, and will not change the E.U.’s intransigence over changes to the Withdrawal Agreement. The stagnation will continue. Threats of ‘no deal’ have already been blocked by parliament (albeit in the end by just one vote) and could be again. Making any predictions about British politics is a fool’s game but May’s successor will be under huge pressure to call an election, hoping that they can count on Brexit Party supporters switching their support to them, once they hear their similarly hard-exit and ‘no deal’ rhetoric.

Now Labour can go into that election with the same confusing nonsense that alienates everybody, which in my view means they almost certainly lose — ratcheting up the chances of a pro no-deal Conservative party forming the next government. Alternatively, they can fight it offering an honest and genuinely implementable alternative to the quagmire created by this horrendous Tory government by finally offering the people a real choice over the country’s future.

I’ve calculated that the best way to encourage the latter is by denying them my vote next Thursday, despite the fact that I — and I have no doubt the countless others who will vote similarly — will dread Sunday evening’s results.

Perhaps in the long run, we’ll be doing the Labour Party a favour, by finally making them realise they can’t take their overwhelmingly pro-second referendum voter-base for granted.

There again, perhaps it’ll lead to a surge in the emboldened populist right, who will use the European election results as a springboard to launch a ‘Trumpesque’ takeover of U.K. domestic politics.

I’ve made my calculation, and have found no fun whatsoever in doing it. If you find yourself facing a similar conundrum, it’s time for you to make yours.

You can follow me on Twitter @mrwillsadler

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U.K.-based; I write about politics, the Labour Party, Brexit and Mental Health.

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