What the EU elections result means for our democracy (and for the Labour Party)

Neal Lawson

Monday, 27 May 2019

The European election results, when they came in, were bang on what had been predicted: the Brexit ‘Party’ triumphant, Labour and the Tories humiliated, the Lib Dems and Greens both doing exceptionally well, and Change UK nowhere to be seen. Let’s just stop and think what that really means.

A ‘party’ that didn’t exist a month ago beats everyone in a national election by a mile and looks to have become the joint biggest single party in the EU Parliament. This is extraordinary. Anyone who thinks that things will just go back to ‘normal’ once Brexit is ‘done’ is deluding themselves. 

Our two-party system is being smashed to pieces: Labour and Conservatives received only 23% of the votes between them, when the previous lowest share was 44%. Our country is hopelessly divided – polarised beyond belief and no political leader or party is in sight with the willingness or ability to heal the rift. 

Having said that, some progressive MPs have been remarkable in showing the way. Caroline Lucas, through her ‘Dear Leavers’ campaign, tried to bridge the divide, Lisa Nandy has spoken up and out for ‘left-behind’ towns, and Stella Creasy has battled alongside us for a citizens’ assembly on Brexit. 

Caroline Lucas MP (Green)

At just 37%, turnout was worryingly low for a nation disputing Brexit, and it was down most in Leave areas. This bodes badly for democrats and well for populists.

With the now inevitable acceleration of the Tories’ great-moving-right-show, the hopes of a Brexit deal are fading fast. The choice looks like Revoke or, more likely, No Deal and then the seeds will be sown for divisions which will last for generations.

Where in all this is Labour? The party seems to have given Farage a free run. Two reasons jump out. First, because he would damage the Tories more than them. And second, for fear of upsetting ‘its voters’ in Leave-inclined seats such as Mansfield and Don Valley.

In either case, this is a crude form of political instrumentalism such that ‘we will do whatever it takes to win so that we can pull the socialist levers of the state’. Even if you want to bring the country back together, this approach is profoundly wrong, for three reasons:

  1. Hoping for chaos is never a good look and rarely benefits the left.
  2. You can’t be scared of ‘your own’ voters – because they are not yours or anyone’s and because leadership is about telling people what you believe to be right and true. Without ramming a second referendum down anyone’s throat, progressives have to be able to say that while the EU is far from perfect, Brexit is a nasty and brutish proxy project for right-wing populism that will never stop unless you confront it.
  3. A good society isn’t going to be created because a small – yes – vanguard of people is going to inhabit the state. In the 21st century, the future cannot be imposed; it has to be negotiated between all of us. As we keep saying, means always shape ends: a narrow, elitist and dishonest political project only results in a narrow, elitist and dishonest government. Even if, by an utter miracle, Labour would win a majority at the next general election, the idea that the spirit of 1945 can simply be recreated in 2020 is simply ludicrous. There can be no great leap backwards, only a politics that bends modernity to progressive values. The complexity of our world demands an equally complex political response.

The Labour leadership has gamed the issue in the simple hope the Tories would implode before they did. There has been no deep and abiding response to our democratic bankruptcy and no strategic internationalism. 

While the populist right has built across borders, learning from and helping each other, too much of the left has retrenched, as if socialism in one country was even feasible, let alone desirable. Three years on from the referendum, Labour, instead of digging deep, has spun and triangulated and is now horrendously divided between a leadership clique that always wanted Brexit, and the vast bulk of the membership that never did.

So in all this, it’s no surprise that thousands of Labour party members voted for other progressive parties and therefore, according to party rules, should be thrown out. Crude tribalism is now breaking down and the archaic rules, that discipline members like children, have to go.

The promise of Corbynism is being frittered away just at the moment progressives need to be at their best: clear in our commitments to the deepest forms of democracy and internationalism. Only then can the wave that created the Corbyn moment continue to build and grow and transform our world.

The fracturing of our politics is now accelerating. First-past-the-post cannot continue for any rational or moral reason, the only reason we still have it is the self-survival of the two parties it grotesquely pumps up. 

Alliance-based politics will now feature heavily as Change UK inevitably folds into the Lib Dems while the Tories and the Brexit Party do their own demonic dance. This fragmented picture has continued across the rest of the EU with results showing no clear political direction, except a welcome rise in the vote for Green parties. 

Back here, no single party is likely to win a majority at the next general election – and then what? Our democracy has to be overhauled for the 21st century. It’s why we back citizens’ assemblies and why, working with others, we want to inject new energy into the urgent fight to transform our democracy.

No one can win when half the country feels like it has lost. Because we are democrats, we have to understand the outrage of people who voted to leave and three years on see no sight of it. But because we are progressives, in the most radical sense of the term, we must stand against the dark forces pushing Brexit and stand for the liberal – yes, liberal – values of tolerance, pluralism, compassion and justice. 

The answers won’t come from the heart of the problem – Westminster – they will come instead, as our 45° Change analysis argues, from emerging campaigns, social enterprises and community projects. You can help us with this. Do you know of inspiring initiatives pioneering these new ways of ‘deciding and doing’? Please tell us about them, simply by sending us an email – so we can learn from them and support them.

There were never any shortcuts, there never will be. We can, we must and we will do the right thing to build the green, democratic and equal society we believe in.

Topics discussed:

Europe

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  1. Posted by Frank Hollis

    How can you call this extraordinary?

    The Farage Ego Party MkII got a few more votes than the Farage Ego Party MkI

    Reply
  2. Posted by Gordon Bryant

    Why is nobody questioning the cost of this Ill fated election in terms of the five years of salary that has potentially to be paid to the seventy-nine MEPs whether the UK leaves the EU or not?

    Reply
  3. Posted by David Somerville

    Whatever the Labour Party or any politician offers it has to have ‘hope’ as its main message. I am a Europhile and have been for over 50 years because I see the benefit of us not just cooperating with our geographical neighbours but learning from them and being responsible for our planet together with a broad outlook to those from near and far.I thought the little Englander days of the Labour Party were over, but apparently not. We can do better than ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

    Reply
  4. Posted by Mark Avery

    An excellent and enlightened article! I have always been an advocate of proportional representation, which would present a more accurate(though divided) and democratic map of our politics. We live in divisive times and it seems unlikely how that will change in the immediate future;probably not. I am a Labour Party member, but have favour with the Libdems and Greens on their aspirations for the EU;I voted remain. I have heard Caroline Lucas speak in a debate on PR held in one of the rooms of Parliament in 2017;very impressive, pragmatic, and reasonable. The Labour party really does have to become more honest and direct in its dealings with brexit, as I feel they are still the better hope of getting the tories out of power. But a Libdems, Greens, and Change UK alliance? That could be hopeful……! And to conclude a mention of my torn allegiance, I voted for two Libdems and one Green in the Council elections, but for Labour in the European elections!!

    Reply
  5. Posted by Alan Harvey

    The BBC have spectacularly failed today in their main radio news bulletins to describe what has really happened. We hearat length about Farage and the brexit party, and how they did. And then the some coverage of the Libdems success. The greens are largely ignored. No upfront report of how the remain coalition, taken together, has beaten the ‘leave’ parties – surely a worthy headline, if ever there was one?
    Is this going to be taken up?

    Reply
  6. Posted by Sarah Grenville

    It should be noted that. despite Brexit getting 31.6% of the vote cast [ the guardian], the parties committed clearly to remain between them got 39.4 of the votes cast. With Labour it would be 53.5%. So though Brexit ‘won’ in terms of the party with the largest number of votes, they didn’t ‘win’ the election.

    Reply
  7. Posted by mary de Vere

    I would like to see a Green Liberal Democrat Party with possibly Caroline Lucas as leader. We need a new parliamentary voting system
    where 50% of the votes means 50% of the seats. We need two candidates in each new constituency- one female one male and everyone votes on each voting slip- hence 50% male/female MPs.

    Reply
  8. Posted by Craig Raine

    Give me a break…

    The party that “didn’t exist a month ago” is UKIP under a new flag. They gained 5 seats but Brexit supporting parties lost more.

    It is a wake up call to Labour to back Remain and the Conservatives to sort out what their policy is.

    Reply
  9. Posted by Alex Campbell

    There are Tory MPs contemplating voting against their party in a motion of no confidence to stop a no deal Brexit. Now would be a great opportunity for progressive parties to show they too put the national interest front and centre and pledge to not stand against them in any resulting general election.

    Reply
  10. Posted by Dave Lloyd

    Is it fair to say that the Brexit debate is more to do with ”the have’s” and “have nots” rather that the EU? Or is that too simplistic? We have all been misled to by our government(s) for too long and there is real disquiet in our nation. Was the EU just a way of venting that frustration? Let’s have an honest, non – party, cooperative government / assembly that knows it’s people!

    Reply
  11. Posted by Tom Levitt

    The Brexit Party did not win. Having inherited UKIP infrastructure, funding (plus heaven knows what), data, etc, and having registered as a party in February (that were NOT ‘barely a month old’) they did barely better than UKIP did in 2014, which was no indicator of future elections. Their 5M voters was fewer than signed the Revoke A50 petition (6M) and overtly remain parties did better than overtly leave ones last week. The premise of the whole article is therefore at fault! Though I do agree that Labour is in a desperate and self inflicted hole from which there is no painless way out

    Reply
  12. Posted by Mark Young

    So the Labour Party purge begins with the expulsion of Campbell. So much for uniting the nation! Progressives in the party who voted for pro Brexit parties other than Labour should now “come out”. I for one voted Green after 41 years of membership in Labour

    Reply
  13. Posted by Gawaine Parker

    What a great result in the EU elections! Brexit Party are the biggest in Europe 🙂 Its great to see a party standing up for real democracy, the people of this country should take priority over foreign investors, something that Westminster has clearly forgotten. This right wing populism that is the bogeyman of the leftwing intelligentsia has more in common with internationalism than the federation of neoliberals in the EU. Love to all in Europe and an end to the crooked institution holding it back.

    Reply