Liberal Democrats gain at expense of Tories on Brexit

Notes from the front of 09-12-16

Liberal Democrats gain at expense of Tories on Brexit

The by-elections in England since the EU referendum, two of which have taken place this December, have seen Labour come under a new pressure from the Liberal Democrats.

Starting with the most recent by-election in Sleaford and North Hykeham in Lincolnshire on 8 December, there the Tories held on to the seat with their vote share falling 2.7 per cent on 2015, UKIP came second with its share falling 2.2 per cent, the Lib Dems came third with their share rising 5.3 per cent and Labour dropped from second to fourth place with its share falling 7.1 per cent. This by-election was in a constituency where the Leave vote on 23 June is estimated to have been around 60 per cent. Prior to the election there were claims that UKIP would take votes off Labour. In the end it was the Lib Dems and not UKIP that saw an increased vote share. There was a swing to the Lib Dems from the Tories of 4 per cent.

The previous by-election on 1 December in Richmond Park was superficially entirely different, with the defeat of Zac Goldsmith delivering a significant blow to the Tories, and thereby reducing the government’s slim working majority in parliament to 13 MPs. But the underlying pattern was similar, albeit more pronounced, underlining the decline of Tory support in elections since the May 2015 general election, a swing to the Lib Dems and a fall in Labour’s vote share.

Goldsmith, previously Tory MP for this west London constituency, stood in the by-election as an independent, but he was nonetheless backed by the Tory Party that did not field a separate candidate. Despite Goldsmith’s 23,015 majority when he was re-elected to the seat in 2015 – which clearly led him to believe that his position was invulnerable – this was completely eliminated by Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney, who won by a margin of 1,872, with a swing to the Lib Dems from the Tories of 21.7 per cent. In the election Goldsmiths vote share fell 13 per cent, the Lib Dems went up 30.4 per cent and Labour’s fell by 8.7 per cent.

Richmond Park is obviously quite a specific seat. Goldsmith only won it very narrowly from the Lib Dems in 2010, which had held the seat since 1997. Moreover, Richmond saw one of the highest votes for Remain in the June EU referendum, estimated at 72 per cent. However, the pattern was in fact very similar in the Witney by-election on 20 October, where the Tories retained the seat, but this was despite a swing of 19.3 per cent to the Lib Dems from the Tories. The Tories vote share fell by 15.2 per cent, the Lib Dems’ rose by 23.4 per cent and Labour’s fell by 2.2 per cent. Witney is also a majority Remain seat, though in this case by a narrower estimated 54 per cent.

It would be misleading to attempt to extrapolate from the results in Sleaford and North Hykeham, Richmond Park and Witney to the country as a whole, but nonetheless the rise in the Lib Dem vote does not appear to be an isolated occurrence. And the Lib Dem performance in these by-election follow the rise in the Lib Dem vote share at the 5 May 2016 local elections, which was up 6 per cent (to 14 per cent) from 2015.

The Lib Dem’s are drawing a lesson from these recent by-elections: that positioned as the key opponent of Brexit they can reap electoral advantage, in particular in hoovering up unhappy Tory Remain voters, who reject May’s rush towards triggering Article 50 and fear a ‘hard Brexit’.

For the Tories too, there are some lessons from these three by-elections, which must ring some alarm bells especially in the 46 Tory seats where the Lib Dems are in second place. Moreover, 27 of these were won from the Lib Dems in 2015, when the Lib Dems polled a very low 7.9% of the national vote. A significant recovery in the Lib Dem vote would put at least these 27 seats at risk, and possibly others, easily eliminating the Tories’ 13 vote majority in Parliament – unless these seats could be made up for in gains for the Tories elsewhere. The risk of losing seats to the Lib Dems – even if swings of 23% or even 19% per cent to the Lib Dems in a General Election are extremely unlikely – makes it less likely that May will go for a snap election.

However, this situation is not easy to turn around, even by 2020. While the pro-Brexit right plays down the negative projections of the economic results of Brexit in order to forestall any wavering from the pro-EU wing of the government, the truth is that serious Tory strategists are more realistic and they know that if Brexit is pursued in any form – let alone a ‘hard Brexit’ that put Britain outside the single market – there will be a painful impact on real wages and jobs. Therefore they cannot anticipate turning around a drift of anti-Brexit votes from the Tories to the Lib Dems before a General Election in 2020. A Tory strategy to carry through Brexit and win a General Election in 2020 has to calculate on losing a significant number of southern seats to the Lib Dems, and therefore look to make up these seats elsewhere. The Tories’ response is clearly to encourage Labour ‘leave’ voters in other parts of the country to abandon Labour, primarily through talking up the role of UKIP. As there is little history of Labour voters migrating en masse to the Tories, a straight shift of Labour leave voters to May’s Brexiteers is unlikely. But if these pro-Brexit, former Labour voters can be persuaded to shift to UKIP in significant numbers in Labour/Tory seats then, under first past the post, this could push the Tories over the line ahead of Labour in enough seats to retain a majority (especially if Labour does not recover in Scotland). This is the fundamental role projected for post-referendum UKIP.

This goal is why there is a forceful attempt by the Tories, backed by the media, to promote the profile of UKIP primarily as a serious challenge to Labour in areas where there was a strong Leave vote at the referendum.

But there is a major question over whether this can succeed, as to date the overwhelming source of votes that have defected to UKIP have come from former Tory voters and not former Labour voters. And the Sleaford by-election does not suggest any migration of Labour votes to UKIP; on the contrary, the anti-Brexit Lib Dems appear to have made gains at the expense of Labour. Moreover, despite it being hyped up, particularly since the election of Paul Nuttal as UKIP leader, in reality UKIP has fallen dramatically in the polls since the EU referendum (from 20 per cent to 12 per cent, according to YouGov) with UKIP’s lost support most likely returning to the Tories as they have risen over the same period. Even before the referendum UKIP’s local election vote on 5 May was down 1 per cent on 2015.

But there is little comfort in this for Labour. In all three of these by-elections the Lib Dem vote went up and Labour’s fell. In Richmond Labour had its worst by-election result since the general election, securing only 3.7 per cent of the vote and losing its deposit. While this was the result of huge tactical voting by Labour supporters for the Lib Dems to defeat Zac Goldsmith, it also highlights a danger that the Lib Dems can become the home for former Labour anti-Brexit voters that see Farron and co as putting up a stronger opposition to the Tories on this than Labour. Of course, these by-elections in Tory-held seats do not tell us much about electoral trends in Labour-held seats, especially in majority Leave constituencies in poorer working class areas or in the north of the country, nonetheless there are some warning signs for Labour from these by-elections.

Prior to the EU referendum and this summer’s coup attempt against Corbyn, in England it was Labour not its opponents that was making the electoral gains. Labour had been able to place the Tories’ austerity attacks at the centre of the political agenda. Labour’s vote share rose in all three English by-elections held prior to the EU referendum (Oldham West and Royton it rose by 7.3 per cent, Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough up by 5.9 per cent, and Tooting up by 8.7 per cent), plus Labour’s local election vote share on 5 May was 2 per cent up on 2015, putting Labour 1 per cent ahead of the Tories. These Labour advances in England were not replicated in Scotland and Wales, where right-wing anti-Corbyn leaderships focused Labour’s fire on the SNP and Plaid rather than the Tories.

Labour was also ahead in opinion polls in the run up to those elections, with YouGov recording a 3 per cent Labour lead over the Tories.

Since the EU referendum and the bruising Labour leadership fight over the summer these gains appear to have been eliminated for the time being. By the end of the leadership challenge in September opinion polls suggested the previous Labour lead had been replaced by a 9 per cent Tory lead, with the Tories regaining their May 2015 vote share after a slump in the early part of the year, and Labour falling behind its May 2015 share. These polls tend to be confirmed by the declines in Labour vote share in these recent by-elections as detailed above – leaving aside the Batley and Spen by-election where the other main parties did not stand against Labour following the murder of Jo Cox MP.

The absolutely dominant issue in British politics today is that of Brexit. Given the extreme polarisation on the issue and that the consequences of Brexit on living standards, growth and jobs are potentially enormous, it is not surprising that recent YouGov polling has shown this is clearly seen in the population as the most important issue facing the country.

The economic threats of Brexit are only just starting to be felt. Sterling’s fall in value will feed into rising inflation next year. Already there has been a shortage of labour between July and September for picking vegetables on farms due to a sharp fall EU migrant seasonal workers. The Office of Budget Responsibility anticipates that further falls in immigration will hit economic growth and public finances. That is before the losses of production and jobs that will occur if free trade with the EU is restricted. The latter is inevitable if Britain ends it membership of the Single Market. The principal EU states and Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator, have made clear that the four freedoms of the internal market can not be separated – meaning the free movement of capital, labour, goods and services. There is no option of retaining the current free movement of goods and services, without that of labour.

Therefore, how Labour orientates itself on the issues of Brexit will be a central issue in its electoral support in the coming period.

The pro-Brexit left, which in effect is campaigning for Corbyn to have the same fundamental approach as the Tories on Brexit, appears not to have grasped how damaging Brexit’s consequences could be for an already weak economy. The loss of trade, jobs and public finance will intensify the attack on living standards. Slogans, such as ‘take control’ of Brexit or a ‘people’s Brexit’, prettify a reactionary economic agenda. The left does not fight to ‘take control’ of austerity or for a ‘people’s austerity’ – similarly absurd slogans.

Labour instead needs to head up the opposition to the Tories and Brexit. Any vagueness on this will assist the Lib Dems’ project to take leadership in this fight to win votes from both Tory and Labour Remainers. This would also strengthen the calls for the misnamed ‘progressive alliance’ proposal, where Labour stands aside in elections to aid the Lib Dems.

This means Labour has to grasp the nettle and take a clear position in defence of freedom of movement, making the economic and political arguments why this is both necessary and beneficial, despite the frenzy of xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric dominating the public debate at present. Those on Labour’s right pushing against free movement of labour threaten living standards and jobs. The economic benefits of immigration and the trade and associated jobs reliant on Single Market membership need to be fought for, not against. Right wing concessions to racism just strengthen the legitimacy of UKIP and undermine Labour support.

So far there is no evidence of any UKIP advance at Labour’s expense, but assuming this could be a threat – and is certainly the goal of the Tories and UKIP itself – then the most effective way for Labour to convince its supporters not to defect to UKIP is to counter UKIP’s propaganda and continue explaining why Brexit will harm living standards. Any Labour concessions to UKIP on the issues of Brexit and immigration strengthen the latter at the expense of the former.

In the recent YouGov poll 67 per cent of Labour voters indicate they think it was a mistake for Britain to vote to leave. So a pro-Brexit Labour would reduce its appeal amongst its own supporters. It would also cede leadership of this key fight to the Lib Dems, and bolster the Tory/UKIP Brexit case.

It will be difficult for Labour to resume its pre-referendum electoral advance if it is not resolute in battling the Tories and UKIP on Brexit. Defending the economy and living standards should be the priority, which is aided by demanding that the population and MPs have the maximum say at all stages of the unfolding Brexit process, including over whether to accept the terms of the exit agreement the Tories negotiate with the EU. That is not to disregard the result of the 23 June referendum, but to give people greater democratic rights – an additional opportunity to have a say in the process when the exit terms are known. This is the best way to out flank the Lib Dems, counter the efforts to build up UKIP and for Labour to build up its support.