Remain voters are left with no choice but to ignore Labour next week | Jonathan FreedlandMay 17, 2019
Shall we take a nostalgic trip back to the distant past of two weeks ago? You’ll remember there were local elections in England, in which the pro-Brexit parties took a pasting, while the anti-Brexit parties surged. You might also recall how the main parties interpreted those results: they hailed them as a heartfelt plea from the voters to get on with Brexit.
Here, then, is a warning to remain-minded voters ahead of Thursday’s European elections. If you want to send a message about Brexit, you’ll need to send it as clearly and as unambiguously as possible. Up against a spin machine capable of hearing a repudiation as an endorsement, voters will need to be louder and clearer this time, closing down the scope for wilful misinterpretation.
Conviction leavers seem to have understood that brute point, shifting their support from the Conservatives – who are reduced to single figures in the latest YouGov poll – to Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, which may well grab first place next week. But how should committed pro-Europeans make their own views known? If the last three years have confirmed your fear that Brexit is a disaster in the making, a reactionary project that will damage our economy, narrow the horizons of future generations, shrink our influence and curb our ability to cooperate on grave and urgent questions that go beyond national boundaries, that it will make life harder, not easier, for those who most desperately need change, that it is an enterprise championed by Farage and the two men he admires most, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – if you believe all that, how best to say it in the polling booth?
Labour insists you can say it by voting for it. Or at least some in Labour do. It depends. There’s Tom Watson, who says: “We are a remain and reform party.” But there’s also Barry Gardiner, who says: “Labour is not a remain party now.” There’s Emily Thornberry, who said on Wednesday that Labour would vote against Theresa May’s withdrawal bill. But there’s also the leader’s spokesman, who earlier indicated that the party might only abstain on it. There’s early Andrew Adonis, the one who used to criss-cross the country denouncing Brexit as an unmitigated catastrophe. But there’s also late Adonis, who now that he’s seeking to be elected as a Labour MEP merely aspires to “a close economic relationship with the EU after Brexit”.
You can spend many an hour combing through the speeches and policy statements, and if you do manage to divine a coherent Labour stance, it’ll be that Labour wants to leave the EU but to close the door nicely, rather than storming out in a huff. The talks with May and her government broke down today , but Labour insists it took part in good faith, meaning it was open in principle to acting as midwife to Brexit, just so long as it won the consolation prize of continued membership of a customs union and assorted protections on workers’ rights. You can argue that Labour deserves credit for pursuing a compromise and seeking to implement the referendum result of 2016. What you cannot argue is that Labour is unambiguously opposed to leaving the EU.
Even if you lacquer it with the shiniest gloss, it requires a heroic act of self-delusion to see a vote for Labour as a vote for remain. You saw how it spun the local election results. It will spin every vote it receives next Thursday as a vote for Brexit, albeit of the milder, non-Tory variety.
Nor do any of the usual arguments that press on habitual Labour voters apply this time. Thursday’s ballot is not to choose a government in Westminster; it’s not an either/or choice, in which a failure to vote Labour risks letting in the Tories. It’s an election for the European parliament, under a proportional system. It offers the very opposite of a binary choice.
Nor is this about where you stand on Labour’s sins of the past or about its prospects for the future. If you don’t vote Labour on Thursday, you’re not abandoning the party for ever; you’re not even committing yourself to voting the same way at the next Westminster election. That will be a different contest in a different context. Each election is about the decision in front of you at that moment – and this week’s decision could not be clearer. It is a European election for a European institution: the question is Europe and Britain’s place in it.
So how should the 57% of Labour remainers who told YouGov they’re not voting Labour this time cast their ballot? The same question applies to all pro-Europeans: who deserves their vote? In Scotland and Wales, paradoxical as it might sound, a vote for the nationalist parties is a vote for the body that seeks to transcend national boundaries: the SNP and Plaid Cymru are adamant advocates for continued membership of the EU. In England that option is not available, but three others are: Change UK, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.
Change UK had high hopes of becoming the party of the remainer hardcore, the million who took to the streets demanding a people’s vote, the six million who signed the petition to revoke Article 50. These European elections should have been its ideal launchpad. But it has been as ham-fisted as the Brexit party has been slick, if only in the basics of political tradecraft, from branding to timing. To hear candidate Rachel Johnson joshing with a Radio 5 Live interviewer last week about her chats with an unnamed “former prime minister” on the tennis court was to conclude that it might as well have changed its name to Metropolitan Liberal Elite and been done with it.
That leaves the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. A big Lib Dem vote would send a deafeningly loud pro-remain message: lest there be any ambiguity, their slogan is “Bollocks to Brexit”. Indeed, since percentage share will have more political impact than the number of seats won in these elections, remainers might want to see the Lib Dems pile up the largest possible vote tally. YouGov shows the Lib Dems in second place, pushing Labour into third: if that were to happen next week, it might tip the internal battle inside Labour in the remainers’ favour.
Still, there will be some whose pencil hesitates over the Lib Dem box. True, Labour’s Richard Burgon tells us we should forget what politicians said or did half a decade ago, but memories of the Lib Dems’ enabling role in David Cameron’s austerity coalition lingers. Happily, there is one more option. The Green party is unequivocally anti-Brexit. Indeed, Caroline Lucas has been one of remain’s most potent voices. A vote for the Greens would both oppose the disaster of leaving the EU and foreground the greatest crisis of our time: the breakdown of our climate. Remain’s strength is that it is, despite the name, an argument about the future – specifically about the life chances of the next generation. Losing their rights as EU citizens will narrow those chances, but the heating of the planet could destroy them.
Thursday presents a rare opportunity for the British voter. Shorn of the pressure to choose a government, unshackled from the winner-takes-all unfairness of first-past-the-post, we can, for once, follow our convictions. If you believe that Britain’s destiny is to live and work with our neighbours, rather than to be an outpost of xenophobic Trumpism, a closed island whose national emblem will be the grinning, gurning face of Nigel Farage, then you have several good choices. But, sad to say, this time Labour is not one of them.
• Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist
Source of this (above) article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/17/remain-voters-ignore-labour-change-uk-lib-dems-greens