In the early hours of this morning we got the results of the European elections. There is much to cheer people, like me, who both want to remain in the European Union and want to see the radical, centre ground of British politics play a decisive role at the next general election.
The key fact is this: those parties unequivocally backing a people’s vote and Remain got 40.4 per cent of the vote in these elections, compared to hard-Brexit parties receiving 34.9 per cent of the vote. The former were made up of Change UK, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the SNP, with the latter being made up of the Brexit Party and Ukip. So this vote was not an endorsement of Brexit or the notion of crashing out of the EU with no deal. The entire pro-European, people’s vote movement can be proud of what has been achieved.
It is disappointing Change UK did not do better. Standing in these European elections as a four-week-old party was a difficult decision but we felt it right to do so – we did not break away from the established parties to disappear from politics; we did it to make our own argument. Following the Liberal Democrats’ success in the local elections – which Change UK could not stand in – it was clear that voters determined that the Lib Dems were the strongest Remain party and voted accordingly. Also, not having the resources of all the other parties (including the other Remain parties) was a huge challenge and consequently we made some missteps and mistakes along the way. But this was in spite of the incredible efforts of our small staff and our incredible set of candidates who cannot be faulted – they built a party from scratch to 100,000 supporters and a network of activists across the country; a party which more than half a million people voted for in the elections.
We are delighted Remain parties as a whole did so well last night – that is what matters. However, the big story is just how bad the two main parties performed. If the performance of the Tories and Labour in the local elections were projected into a general election context, it would have seen them each receive 28 per cent of the vote, which is almost unprecedented. It was far worse in the European elections where the combined vote share of the two main parties was 23.3 per cent – this is a truly terrible result for both.
Constructive ambiguity on Brexit was believed to have helped in Labour’s relative success in the 2017 general election. It has had the opposite effect in these elections, particularly as it has become clear that the priority of the leadership is to facilitate Brexit, not to stop it. In the next few months Labour may come out for a people’s vote, yet time has more or less run out to hold one before 31 October when the UK will leave the EU by default. The big question is whether Labour will back revoking Article 50 to prevent the UK crashing out with no deal or whether Jeremy Corbyn will seek to sit on the fence on that issue too.
This was the Tories’ worst performance since 1832. It is likely that a hard Brexit successor to Theresa May will perhaps thwart the progress of the Brexit Party, and lead to a Boris Johnson (or hard Brexiteer alternative) versus Jeremy Corbyn offer to the electorate in a general election. This would be a huge opportunity for the radical centre ground of UK politics to provide an alternative.
To make sure we get there, a few things must happen. Remain parties need to work even more closely together – we are already doing this in parliament but we must build on it. Most importantly, the centre ground at the next general election must decide how we work together (in whatever form) instead of competing against each other if we are to break the grip of the broken two main parties. This is particularly the case given Westminster elections are determined by a first-past-the-post system that works against third parties.
There is not one single force in the Remain movement or in the centre ground that can stop Brexit or break the two-party system. It must be a group effort of forces in and out of parliament. We have to put tribalism in the bin and focus on the bigger goal of stopping Brexit, halting the drift of our politics to the extremes, and fixing the problems which led so many to vote for Brexit in the first place. These elections show this is entirely achievable and not a pipe dream. Let’s grab the opportunity with both hands.
Chuka Umunna is the Change UK MP for Streatham
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