Iain Row, writing in the Guardian, explains why he has joined the Liberal Democrats as the only party that can democratically overturn the EU referendum result through a general election.
Leaving aside the ability to overturn the referendum result at all for a moment, he makes some important mistakes in his calculation of why the Lib Dems are best placed to fight a general election on staying in Europe.
- “Someone must speak for the 48% who voted remain” – to varying degrees all the main political parties do speak for the 48%. The referendum result transcended political party, geographical and demographic lines. Voters from the Tories, Lib Dems, Labour, SNP, Greens all voted remain and unless a general election were to be fought exclusively on the referendum (no chance), these voters would not have much else to bind them to one political force.
- “Labour’s heartland delivered the leave vote”. Yes and no. 37% of Labour voters voted to leave, 36% of SNP voters and 30% of Lib Dem voters also voted to leave. 58% of Tories voted to leave. On the electoral map, most parts of the country with the exception of (Labour) London, (SNP) Scotland and Northern Ireland voted leave. What is clear from these numbers is that there is no particular area which delivered the leave vote and if there is a party that drove the leave camp, it is the Conservative party. In the Labour heartlands which have apparently lost the referendum, threatening the overturn of the result is clearly not the way to win enough support to retake the constituencies in a general election.
- The Liberal Democrats are best placed to represent the remain voters – The Parliamentary party, yes all 8 of them, may be fractionally more united than Labour on the leave/remain issue (They’re certainly more united on the issue of the leadership, but don’t forget that the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs backed remain) but they can only take 70% of their 2.5 million votes in the last general election with them. Geographically, traditional Liberal areas have also voted strongly for leave. The toxic legacy of the Clegg years still haunts the party – mainly known amongst the electorate for broken promises, they will now ask that another ‘promise’ (to obey the results of the referendum) be broken.
These three concerns with the Lib Dems’ claim to be best placed to represent remain voters don’t touch on the fact that any political force or forces hoping to win a general election and overturn the referendum would also have to convince a few leave voters at some stage in order to win enough constituencies to do so. Economically, the Lib Dem’s policies don’t seem to reach out to address the underinvestment in both towns and public services, and labour competition pressures that many leave voters in the traditional Labour areas of the north and Wales have cited as reasons for wanting to leave the EU. Being a consistent pro-European party (a point that should be admired) also doesn’t allow them to address concerns of sovereignty which tended to be more prominent in the leave vote amongst Tories. This is not an easy circle to square and almost definitely not one that a single party can achieve.
If the UK were to overturn the result of the referendum through a general election, this would probably require a coalition of parties committed to doing so which would eventually have to include Labour and probably at least elements of the Tory party. This would allow the remain voters to be represented by this broad coalition, but also allow the individual parties to project their ideas of a better settlement in the UK to their voters. Clearly if such an alliance were to win they wouldn’t all be able to implement their solutions to the concerns of voters which had prompted Brexit and would most likely simply be in government to halt the leaving of the EU, ideally the coalition would aim to put in place constitutional reforms, chief amongst which a PR system for elections, that would end the disenfranchisement of large swathes of voters – but this would probably be a bridge too far for this highly unlikely electoral coalition. Their job of ending the process to leave the EU done, another general election would then have to be called.
This is an incredibly unlikely scenario.
Far more likely, in terms of blocking the trigger of article 50, is that the pro-EU majority in the commons simply blocks any enacting legislation (which may or may not be needed). Again in this the Lib Dems would play a far less significant role than either Labour or pro-remain Tories.
Even this however should be considered as highly unlikely.
Both main parties have seen that, whilst legally they could ignore the result of the referendum or even block any enacting legislation, morally they cannot.
One of the major issues at play on the doorstep was a lack of trust in politicians, experts and elites in general. There is no single culprit for this, but political parties must accept their share of the blame for a string of broken promises. This is a trust that needs to be rebuilt, and the first step to rebuilding that trust is almost certainly not to overturn the results of the referendum.
Much as I support the EU and think the UK will be far worse off outside, the people have voted and their decision must be obeyed. A general election, with it’s first past the post system meaning the government can assume power with the support of as little as 25% of the population isn’t the way to regain this trust. MPs also have no mandate in the current parliament to block the trigger of article 50.
It might be accepted that as the leave campaign lied, lied and lied again that another referendum could be possible once the facts of the UK’s alternative relationship with the EU are known, but this would come at the end of the Article 50 negotiations and it would by then be too late to save the UK’s EU membership in its current form.
Dreams of maintaining the UK’s current relationship with the EU are just that – dreams. As progressives, socialist or Liberal, our job now is to make sure in whatever way we can that the new relationship with the EU that we establish, and the new order inside what is left of the UK is as progressive, just and fair as possible and works for the needs of the majority and not the few.