The results are still coming in, but the general trend couldn’t be clearer: conventional big party politics is on its knees. The weeks-old baby of former stockbroker, professional chameleon and ostensible man of the people Nigel Farage has drained the Conservative Party of any residual legitimacy it retained towards governing Brexit. In the same devastating week that has seen the further splintering of government and party, reflected in the tears of a diminished and departing Theresa May, the Conservatives were decimated at the polls, receiving less than 10% of the national vote share and being pushed into fifth place by the Brexit Party, Labour, the Greens and a resurgent Liberal Democrats. For the Conservatives, there was a sense of inevitability about the coming storm: the Tories proffered no electoral manifesto and a host of grandees took to the airwaves to further temper dwindling expectations.
The absence of a similar sense of inevitability is precisely what makes the Labour Party’s equally disastrous showing so tragic. For the Conservatives, marred by a very public civil war and bumbling exit strategy, last night was preordained. But for Labour, the runaway successes of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, both overtly declared remain parties, speak to the nagging sense that things could’ve so easily been different. Constructive ambiguity: the EU election policy enshrined by a meeting of the Labour National Executive Committee last month, prized consensus building over any attempt to halt Brexit. The policy sought to amend the thrice-failed exit deal proffered by Theresa May, with an ambiguous commitment to pursuing ‘the option of a public vote’ if such amendments could not be secured.
As many anticipated, cross-party talks quickly broke down with no substantive changes to the deal secured. The Prime Minister was quick to counter with a proposed withdrawal agreement which, Mrs May insisted, accorded with Labour’s red lines. But before a vote could be brought – and after Jeremy Corbyn indicated that Labour would not support the amended deal anyway, the party revolted, and the PM was done in. Both parties thus entered this week’s poll with Brexit policies steeped in uncertainty. For the Conservatives, Brexit strategy is to be the concern of a new leader, chosen by ballot from a list of contenders from across the spectrum of ‘leave’ (although the PM actually resigned one day after the vote, her departure was a foregone conclusion in the wake of immediate hostility towards her new deal). For Labour, a general election augured the path to a safe Brexit, and so party leadership moved to evade the Brexit question altogether, instead segueing towards austerity and other broader battlegrounds. The exception was Tom Watson, who penned articles calling for Labour to fully embrace the notion of a second referendum as unambiguous party policy, but the Deputy Leader was shot down.
The implosion of Tory Brexit policy, the relative evasion of the matter by Labour’s allusions to a general election, and the sincere failure of attempted consensus building on inter and intra-party levels, moved the voter towards parties proffering lucid articulations of their respective resolutions to the Brexit impasse: captured emphatically by the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ designation of the Liberal Democrat campaign. Last night’s results signal that Labour’s constructive ambiguity must now be abandoned, and quickly. Read by many life-long Labour voters as a masterclass in fence-sitting, Labour’s Europhiles can be forgiven for drifting from the party so as to signal discontent with a Brexit policy whose exact essence is unclear. The message, from many, is a simple one: Britain aches for an opposition, one which is defined by its outright hostility to Brexit.
The vote, and the dire performance of the two largest parties, are sure to shape substantive changes to the policies of both Labour and the Conservatives in the coming days and weeks. Jeremy Corbyn has committed to ‘conversations across our party and movement, and [to] reflect on these results’. Usual Corbyn loyalists have ramped up the pressure on Labour leadership to pursue policy change: Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry was quick to suggest that a second referendum should become policy and that Labour should campaign for remain. Prominent commentator Owen Jones, previously scathing of attempts to push the party towards a more emphatic anti-Brexit stance, acknowledged that the middle ground on Brexit had been ‘incinerated’.
Mr Jones is right. The Brexit Party’s strong showing in these elections is likely to push whoever is misfortunate enough to be burdened with Conservative Party leadership towards Brexit fundamentalism: an attempt to out Farage Farage with high rhetoric and, troublingly, a willingness to ‘go nuclear’ in the form of a no-deal Brexit.
Consensus-building at the middle ground has failed and the Tories stand on the verge of a tremendous lurch to the right, if they are to be in with any hope of recouping some of their losses. What, then, is to be done to avoid a disastrous no-deal scenario – a now distinct possibility. The solution, as election night staple Sir John Curtice has suggested, is to be found in compromise. What this means, in respect of the fact that new Tory leadership does not favourably alter parliamentary arithmetic for any proposed modified deal, is simple: a second referendum.
Whether we find ourselves faced with a modified deal or no deal in October – and indications suggest that the EU is not willing to reopen negotiations once more, a public vote is necessary to give legitimacy to any potential path forward and to break the parliamentary logjam. However, the creative control exercised thus far by remain-oriented parties – the sole proponents of a second vote, over the framing of the prospect of a second referendum, has rendered its polarisation all but a given: to the point that a second vote is often considered a mere proxy for remain. Under such conditions in which neutrality is found wanting, a second referendum is less a mechanism for the transcendence of a parliament unable to actualise the expressed will of the people, and more a bulldozer with which to bring down the entire Brexit project.
It would be foolish to expect the Conservatives, under new management, to pivot immediately towards the notion of a second referendum – Theresa May’s attempt to do so wrought her swift downfall. It is, therefore, the task of Labour to change tack and embrace a second vote. To do so would undercut the hegemony exercised by overtly remain parties in framing the function of a second vote, which has, as a result, been dichotomised with ‘leave means leave’ to the extent that the notion of a second vote as a viable path to compromise has been obfuscated.
The winds of change are howling. With the Prime Minister’s ouster Number 10 stands to usher in a new Conservative leader wielding no deal as a weapon, and the Labour party today begins the process of reconsidering its failed Brexit posture. If we are to be in with any hope of a way out, the sands must shift further: the fight for a second referendum must be embraced by Labour and taken out of the hands of the overtly pro-remain parties. Labour must take a frontal role in framing a second vote not as a proxy for remain, but as a compromise – between the prospects of a deal, no deal, or no Brexit. If the Conservatives are to be convinced that the only way out of the prevailing parliamentary stalemate is the legitimacy of a public vote, it is Labour’s imperative to frame it as such.