Thursday’s council elections indicate again the big weakness of referendums – they are a snapshot in time, and it is difficult for voters to amend them, think again or signal their unhappiness with a past decision.
Weirdly, but not unexpectedly, both Labour and Conservatives spun the massive, historically momentous swing to Remain parties as a signal from voters that people want a Brexit deal done. Final results here for reference:
Now, what signal can British voters possibly give to say that this interpretation is wrong? Referendums are blunt instruments, but so are other elections. What drove voters into the arms of the Lib Dems and Greens in the local elections? (Labour’s) Anti-Semitism? (Tories’) Impatience with Brexit?
When Remainers voted tactically for Labour to deprive the Tories of their majority, it was spun as “over 80% of voters voted for pro-Brexit parties.” Indeed, my earlier research shows that Labour’s 2017 General Election success was due in part to Hard Remainers’ tactical vote.
To what extent are the good results of the Green Party due to increasing awareness of the public about climate change? (see also #ExtinctionRebellion). To what extent do Lib Dems’ gains signal voter-forgiveness for coalition years?
We don’t know.
Local elections are a blunt instrument to send (or understand) a signal on Brexit or other issues. A second referendum would also have these problems. While it is probably the least bad option, it is another snapshot in time.
Eric Schliesser, Professor of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, argues that Britain’s long system of opt-outs indicates the UK doesn’t see the European Union as a win-win but as a zero-sum where they try to get the most out of the EU membership.
He writes that “rather than buying into the (liberal) win-win logic of the EU, the UK’s political stance has always been a halfhearted zero-sum one.” This is even reflected, I may add, in comments of some Remainers (“We have got the best deal now”).
The series of opt-outs, we can say with the wisdom of hindsight, is a diagnostic for the problematic UK relationship to the European Union, but not the only thing. The UK came up with the term “net contributor” (always stressing they were “net contributors”), yet also eager to expand to relatively fragile economies just recovering from their communist past who would not, for a while be net contributors, and asking for rebates and special deals and opt-outs.
Also note all the emphasis in the UK on net migration from the EU. They are positively obsessed with it. In the years I have lived here before the Referendum I would see these quarterly reports in positively alarmist terms on the BBC about how many of us were coming in here. Too many...
I thought it was remarkable that Britain was so much obsessing over net migration given they have no accurate way to measure it (e.g., too high estimates of “student overstayers”, by hundred of thousands). Asking some random sample of people at airports is hardly reliable.
And then all that negativity on the euro and Greece (which Leavers only really started caring about in 2016 or so.) Rather than hating on the euro and making sure not to have to opt-in to it, the UK could have been helping to fix problems with it and propose changes.
But no, always on the sideline, being all holier than thou for being a net contributor with opt-outs and rebates, the UK was eager to take what it could and did not do a thing to help make the EU better. And now Remainers are saying “lead not leave”... Excuse me? Lead not leave sounds good but you cannot expect to lead if you are not prepared to at least buy into the European project. The UK cannot just turn around and cancel Brexit and start leading.
No, if Brexit gets cancelled, which would obviously be better for everyone, Britain needs to repair the deep damage it did, the trust it has betrayed and the relationships it has ruptured. All this will take time before it can hope to play any leadership role.
It is true that (as pointed out by Hannah Wright) that Remainers have shifted a lot in these few years. Brexit truly has been transformative for lots of us. Still, we will need to have, whether Remain or Leave, a closer involvement of citizens in the process. Now the UK has a long-standing tradition of winner-takes-all (exemplified in the current first-past-the-post voting system), whereas other EU countries have more conciliatory politics as the proportional voting systems make coalitions necessary.
It needs to be kept in mind that this is our starting point. The Liberal Democrats keeping getting flak for ‘enabling’ Tory austerity and for tuition fees is a diagnostic too. In any other EU country, coalitions would be better understood by the electorate.
I am also skeptical of citizen assemblies arising out of the ashes of Brexit. I love the idea, but it will be challenging to implement (note: the Belgian German-speaking parliament recently installed it, but they have a long tradition of coalitions).
So, I am getting more and more inclined to think that the long-term solution to Brexit (which I here use as a shorthand for any way the UK might resolve its troubled relationship with the rest of the EU, including remaining) will need to involve changes in how politics is done. Proportional voting would make Britain more in line politically with other EU countries. Referenda should be used very sparingly, if at all, and more in line with the Swiss rules (strict rules on how the public is informed, a higher threshold...).
And then, hopefully, people can focus on council elections to vote on stuff like housing, green belts, public transport, etc. (note: I do not doubt the newly minted Remain councillors will do an excellent job and they do care about local issues!).🔷
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(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article, with the author’s consent, with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.)