7 May 2019

The true test of Brexit opinion will come on May 23


Predictably, politicians and commentators on all sides of the Brexit debate have spent the weekend claiming the results of the local elections prove that they were right all along. The Prime Minister says the election shows voters want Westminster to “get on with” Brexit; Remain MPs claim it shows voters are crying out for a second referendum. The messy reality is that both – or neither – of these things can be true, depending on which part of the country you are in.

The difficulty for Labour, in particular, is that they appear to have lost votes in Leave and Remain areas alike. As such, both the pro-deal and pro-referendum wings of the party can legitimately point to evidence that supports their preferred course of action – and in a sense, they are both right. It is plausible, for example, that Labour lost seats to the Tories in Stoke for not backing Brexit, and to the Greens in Brighton for not backing Remain. Maintaining an equivocal position on such a huge question is unlikely to be sustainable for much longer – whether by coming to a deal with the Government or fully backing a referendum, Labour are going to have to get off the fence soon.

However, there are limits to the conclusions one can draw about national issues in elections to local councils. People were voting for who they want to collect their bins, not who they want to negotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU. Some of the more surprising results can be interpreted in this light. For example, the Lib Dems won 4 seats from Labour in Leave-voting Sunderland – but take a look at the campaign literature they used, which does not mention the dreaded B-word once:

Ultimately, when it comes to Brexit, last week’s local elections were a sideshow. Today the government confirmed what has been obvious for some time: that the European elections will go ahead on May 23. That vote will be a much more concrete test of public opinion. While selecting MEPs has its shortcomings as a gauge of voters’ views – low turnout changes things considerably – you cannot caveat them as not being about Brexit. UK MEPs themselves may not have a major say on what happens next, but the unexpected poll is being treated on all sides as a de facto “soft referendum”. This is underlined by the participation of two new challenger parties who did not compete in the local elections – the Brexit Party on the Leave side, and Change UK on the Remain side.

Since their creation, the two new parties have had rather diverging fortunes. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has soared to the top of the polls – the latest from YouGov puts them on 30 per cent. Change UK, on the other hand, have had a raft of scandals and gaffes; they are currently languishing around 9 per cent, with some polls putting them much lower.

It is not difficult to explain why the two new parties are so far apart. The Brexit Party seems an impressively slick operation – more so than UKIP ever was. It has a diverse range of candidates, many of whom are from non-political backgrounds. It has shown strategic nous by drip-feeding its announcements of candidates over several weeks, so as to maintain constant media coverage. In contrast, Change UK selected candidates who ranged from obscure former MPs to Remain Twitter personalities, and then dumped all 72 of them into the public eye in one go.

The two parties are also a valuable lesson in the importance of political branding. As CapX’s John Ashmore has pointed out, “the Brexit Party” does exactly what it says on the tin. “Change UK”, on the other hand, is so vague it could mean anything – and is also completely different to “the Independent Group”, the name by which the group of former Labour and Tory MPs went by for several months and which inexplicably remains the name of their official website. This confusion has been genuinely damaging – recent YouGov surveys found that 79 per cent of voters think Farage’s party are pro-Brexit, while just 38 per cent correctly identified Change UK as anti-Brexit.

The final explanation for the contrasting fortunes of the two is a structural one. Change UK are having to compete with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens for Remain votes, with most polls showing a roughly even split of around 7 to 10 per cent for each of the three parties. In contrast, the Brexit Party have quickly eclipsed Farage’s old party, UKIP, which has located itself on the extreme fringes of British politics. Gerard Batten’s party are now 26 points behind Farage in the polls, having been almost at level pegging at the start of the campaign.

Before the local elections, Change UK’s interim leader, Heidi Allen, urged tactical voting for Remain parties – tellingly, she did not mention either the Lib Dems or the Greens by name. Indeed, the successes of the Greens and, in particular, the Lib Dems pose very challenging questions for Change UK. Part of their rationale for not forming an alliance with the Lib Dems is that the latter are allegedly tarnished by their time in coalition. If that is the case, why did the Lib Dems do so well in last week’s local elections? The Lib Dems have an army of councillors, a large activist base, decades of institutional memory, and reams of data on potential voters. Given that, it is increasingly difficult to see how Change UK’s reported strategy of crushing the Lib Dems, rather than co-operating with them, is going to be viable in the long-term.

Ultimately, it’s true that the backlash against the two main parties in last week’s local elections primarily benefited parties that support Remain. But that was in an election where neither Brexit nor the Brexit Party were on the ballot paper. A victory for Farage – in elections which, by definition, are about the EU — will send a rather different signal as to what the public thinks about Brexit.

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Dom Walsh is a policy analyst at Open Europe.