The European election campaign has so far been all about the Brexit Party. Seemingly out of nowhere, Nigel Farage’s new anti-EU project has rocketed to the top of the polls – the latest YouGov poll has it at 35 per cent – picking up bags of media attention on its way, leaving concerned pundits scratching their heads at this insurgent force in British politics.
But the Brexit Party is nothing new. One simple fact puts this is all into context: the party’s previous incarnation, Ukip, won the European elections in 2014 with 27 per cent of the vote. Ukip’s strong showing in the years previous had already panicked David Cameron into calling a referendum. The vote happened, Leave won, and suddenly it was down to the Tory party under Theresa May to implement it.
In what was a massive political miscalculation, May quickly promised to leave on the terms of the hard Brexiters, setting extreme red lines on freedom of movement, but ultimately failed to convince a divided parliament to back her deal. Brexit had been frustrated by an incompetent Tory prime minister and an anti-Brexit political elite.
You could hardly manufacture conditions more ripe for a Nigel Farage resurgence.
This is an election to the EU parliament, we were supposed to have the left the EU by now: a party focused on that failure is bound to do well. The Brexit Party surge is unsurprising in this context.
Next Thursday, the party will do well. But can it last? Unlike Ukip, can the party make a dent by winning seats at a general election? Its current GE polling – scoring anywhere between 10 and 20 per cent according to various pollsters – suggests maybe it can. Many older right-wing voters care deeply about Brexit – see it as their “revolution” in fact – and may be willing to give the Tories a kicking because of it.
At the same time, it’d be naïve to think Brexit would dominate a general election, whenever one does eventually happen.
Theresa May tried that tactic in 2017 and Labour were quick to move the debate onto the myriad other issues that are far more important to people’s everyday lives. There would be no surprise element this time – but Labour are hopeful of surge in any future election, perhaps taking control of the conversation with bold policies such as those announced by Momentum yesterday.
A Brexit Party with no policies other than, well, Brexit, would struggle for news coverage if Labour are grabbing attention with things like a four-day week, huge investment in green infrastructure or the abolition of detention centres.
But an energetic Labour election campaign may also have another detrimental effect on the newly formed party.
As well as the crowding out of the issue of Brexit, a reinvigorated Labour armed with genuinely radical policies may re-animate the Tory base into realising where their interests lie. There can be no mucking about with the folly of a single issue party such as Nigel Farage’s, when it might usher in five years of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister.
The Brexit Party will still siphon off enough Tory votes to split the count and push the vote Labour’s way in some Leave constituencies. But just as first past the post did for Ukip in the 2015 election, it’s hard to imagine the Brexit Party winning anything but a handful of seats, if that.
Unless the ensuing leadership battle tears the Tories apart completely – and after the last couple of years who would bet against it – it is possible to imagine the next leader, with the threat of a Corbyn government on the horizon, stabilising the party and whipping up its base enough to make it yet another two-horse race.
Which brings us to Labour’s strategy. How can they possibly sweep to a general election victory when they are doing so abjectly in the European election polls? They are currently at around 15 per cent. A small amount of its support has gone to the Brexit Party – that’s 14 per cent of those who voted Labour in the 2017 general election according to YouGov.
However, it may be that sections of Labour’s working class support in de-industrialised areas were far more likely to kick out by voting Leave in 2016 than they would be likely to turn out and vote for Nigel Farage and Ann Widdecombe in a 2019 European election.
Most of the support Labour is losing appears to be going directly to the Lib Dems and the Greens, with a small amount going to the struggling Change UK. Voters perhaps want to punish Labour for their triangulated stance on Brexit. So why not come out and back a second referendum? The answer is that Labour is entirely focused on winning a general election, and is prepared to fail in the European elections in order for that to be the case.
Just as Brexit Party support is likely to move back to the Tories in the event of a general election, so, Labour hopes they will claw back Green and Lib Dem votes – especially if a confirmatory referendum is promised in any manifesto.
For that strategy to play out the party must, for the time being, try to straddle that painful divide – not wanting to be seen to be undemocratic and anti-Brexit (although that is how they’re viewed by the Brexit Party), nor to be pro-Brexit and facilitating a right-wing project (as they are seen by hard Remainers).
This ambiguity has sucked some of the energy out of Corbynism, but while the Tory party seems to be disintegrating in front of our eyes, Labour seems happy to just stand and watch. It may see them perform poorly in the European elections, but they hope it will pay off in the form of a Labour government. They may even be right.
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