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20 April 2017

I’m a Remainer – should I vote Lib Dem or Labour?

Who will provide a more effective opposition to the Brexit government?

By Julia Rampen

So you’ve figured out that the chances of Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn are slimmer than Peter Bone on a diet. But you’re also a proud Remoaner and you’re not about to let Cruella de May and her 329 Tory MPs march all over the next five years of your hopes and dreams. Which prompts a dilemma: Who are you going to vote for? Labour or Lib Dem? 

If you want the party of the 48 per cent (and you’re in England or Wales – I’ll consider the rest of the UK later), the Lib Dems want you. Minutes after Theresa May announced the early election, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron declared: “If you want to avoid a disastrous Hard Brexit. If you want to keep Britain in the single market. If you want a Britain that is open, tolerant and united, this is your chance. Only the Liberal Democrats can prevent a Conservative majority.”

The Lib Dems have already proved they can turn a blue constituency yellow in the Richmond by-election, when Sarah Olney trounced the Tory princeling and Brexiteer Zac Goldsmith. 

But can they do it on a national scale? As my colleague Patrick has written here, the Lib Dem revival is exactly that – a recovery from the dark days of 2015, when voters turned on them and threw out many of liberalism’s biggest beasts. And some of the winners of that backlash – Neil Coyle in Southwark, Daniel Zeichner in Cambridge – were Labour. So while the option for Remainers in a constituency currently represented by a Brexiteer Tory may be clear, elsewhere it is not so simple. 

If Labour did better than is sometimes remembered in 2015, it is struggling now. Most Labour MPs voted in favour of the Article 50 Bill, and shadow Chancellor John McDonnell once admitted the opposition party’s ability to shape a softer Brexit deal is based on “moral pressure”. It has shown itself ready to compromise on free movement. While only Kate Hoey has felt the need to re-enact Titanic on a boat with Nigel Farage, the rhetoric of some Labour MPs in private could be mistaken for Ukip. 

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On the other hand, Labour MPs who have been vocal Remainers are already annoyed about the “vote Lib Dem” brigade. After all, some of them have already made sacrifices on the altar of a soft Brexit. Jo Stevens, the Labour MP for Cardiff Central, resigned from the shadow cabinet over the Article 50 vote, as did Clive Lewis, until then tipped as an heir to Corbyn. 

So what should the conscientious Remainer do? Well, the most practical way to steer the government away from a hard Brexit is to have an effective opposition. Even though Labour has ruled out a progressive alliance, the SNP, Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and even some liberal Tories are collaborating to block the government’s most hardline measures. If you, like me, think the next Parliament will be dominated by the Leave-Remain debate, then a lot of those mini alliances will centre on Brexit. 

In our first past the post system, where the winner takes all, the first question to ask, if you feel the call of the Yellow Bird, is: am I going to split the progressive vote for the benefit of the Tories? 

Say – to quote a thousand Lib Dem leaflets – it really does look like a two-horse race, then the next question is: which individual will be more effective at scrutinising Brexit? Let’s face it, if your incumbent MP is Kate Hoey, the answer is “basically anyone”. If, on the other hand, your MP is Chuka Umunna, a Europhile who is deeply involved in the Brexitsceptic Open Britain, and could still yet lead the Labour party, then voting against him is as daft as quitting the single market over the colour of your passport. This goes for Tories too. Conservative critics of the government like Nicky Morgan and Ken Clarke are worth a dozen Labour MPs because they undermine their party’s unity and say what many of their colleagues are thinking. You can always release your inner Lib Dem by knocking on doors elsewhere.

Finally, what about voters in Scotland, where the pro-EU SNP dominate, or Northern Ireland, which is about as simple as a Rubik’s Cube? In Scotland, the fightback is likely to come from the Tories. Voters will have to decide which union they feel more deeply about – the UK or the EU. (The one remaining Labour MP, Ian Murray, for the record, is definitely in the pro-EU Labour camp)

As for Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein MPs don’t take up their seats at Westminster (unluckily for Remain voters, MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party, who do, also embraced Brexit). The moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party does, while the moderate Ulster Unionist Party backed Remain. However, with Northern Ireland’s power-sharing in crisis, voters may understandably have more on their minds than Brexit.