Why Labour and the Tories have no future as parties defined by Brexit

The lesson of the European elections is that while there are enough Brexit-driven voters to make you lose, there aren't enough to elect you. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In the wake of the European elections, there is a lot of chatter across the political spectrum about the idea that the only way forward for the two major parties is to become parties entirely of Leave or Remain in order to see off the threats posed by the Brexit party, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales.

That’s the implicit argument being made by some advocates of a second vote position in the Labour party, and the explicit one being made by various Conservatives in their leadership election.

One route being suggested is for the Conservative party to move left economically – but, as I explain in more detail here, this isn’t in fact a Leave voters strategy, because Remain and Leave voters aren’t divided by economics, but by culture. It might be a viable way to win over all Labour voters, but it isn’t, in and of itself, a particular route to Leave voters, and it runs the risk of alienating the existing share of Leave and Remain voters the Tory party already holds.

But more broadly, the idea doesn’t quite work. The essential problem is that while large numbers of voters are willing to prioritise their referendum vote over their wider political preferences, not enough of them are for becoming a party of either Leave or Remain for this to be a viable political option. That was clear even in the European parliamentary elections, where post-election polling shows that one Remain voter in ten voted for the Conservatives, while two in every ten voted for Labour.

If, in an election where vast areas of public policy and control of Downing Street are not in play, fully 30 per cent of Remain voters are willing to back parties that are explicitly pro-Brexit in the case of the Conservatives party and at best iffy on a Remain vote in the case of Labour, there is no realistic prospect of cobbling together a viable parliamentary majority on the back of Remain voters alone. What about Leave voters?

Well, again, the European elections show the problem with this strategy. Leave voters were less likely to stray, but a non-trivial proportion of 2016 Leave voters backed the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and Labour. Again, if voters are willing to put their desire for Scottish or Welsh independence, action on climate change, or their attachment to liberalism over their referendum preferences in an election they view as second-order, there is not a parliamentary majority to be found through Leave voters alone, either.

The flipside is that while there aren’t enough voters willing to prioritise the Remain/Leave divide to make you win, there are enough to make you lose. Tot up the number of former Conservatives who say they are willing to vote for the Brexit party or the Liberal Democrats not only in a European election but a general election too and you have serious, serious problems for that party’s ability to form a government, and the same applies for Labour, too.

Of course, in a general election, the good old-fashioned “only a vote for the Conservatives/Labour can stop Labour/the Conservatives from winning” message will squeeze the minor parties but it won’t eradicate them entirely.

So what’s the solution? What both parties badly need is a way to move politics beyond the Remain-Leave binary – but it is not at all clear that any such way forward can be found

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Free trial CSS