BREXIT UPDATE 28: The Local Elections: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

May 3, 2019

In Uncategorized


What has happened in the week since Brexit Update 27, posted last Friday? Three key developments: 1) a meeting by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to decide on Labour’s manifesto for the European elections, in particular the policy on a second referendum; 2) the local elections held yesterday (Thursday May 2); 3) reported progress on the Labour Conservative talks.

1) The NEC decision on a second referendum

Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) met on Tuesday to decide on the wording of the manifesto Labour intends to take into the European elections, if they happen (which seems increasingly likely).  A letter from 115 Labour MPs and MEPs –organised by a group called Love Socialism, Hate Brexit – plus emails from 2,000 Labour supporters, went to the NEC beforehand calling on it to move towards support for a “confirmatory vote” with a Remain option.[1]  But, despite these efforts, the result was that Labour policy on the issue remains the same.  The BBC quoted a Labour source:  “The NEC agreed the manifesto which will be fully in line with Labour’s existing policy to support Labour’s alternative plan and, if we can’t get the necessary changes to the government’s deal, or a general election, to back the option of a public vote”.[2]

In other words, if Labour fails to secure a general election or does not manage to achieve a Labour-backed deal as a result of the leadership’s negotiations with the government , then Labour will support a public/confirmatory vote or second referendum  on the Maybot’s deal, in the event that it is passed by Parliament.  There is no mention of a Remain option, but presumably there would, in such a scenario, be a Remain option, which Labour would support.  Corbyn has indicated before that he would prefer to remain in the EU than to accept “a hard Tory Brexit” (see Brexit Update 9).  But Labour would back a second referendum and a Remain option only in the highly unlikely eventuality that the “hard Tory Brexit” is passed by the House of Commons.   So Labour’s policy remains the same: to continue negotiating with the government with the aim of achieving a“soft” Brexit and also to push for a general election, with a second referendum and Remain option only as a last resort.

This NEC decision was a victory for Corbyn.  But unfortunately it did not translate into votes at the local elections yesterday (Thursday May 2).  Labour’s stance on a second referendum was still thought in Leave areas to be too fudged and confusing.

2) The Local Elections

As had been widely predicted (see Brexit Update 27), both the main parties lost out to the smaller parties, in particular the Liberal Democrats (the Greens also did well, though UKIP, which has moved to the extreme right, performed badly) .[3]  The results are devastating for the Tories and not good for Labour, which has, however, sustained far less losses than the Conservatives, even though the mainstream media are conveying the impression that both parties have been equally punished.  The Conservatives have lost over 1,300 councillors; Labour nearly 80 (according to BBC figures on Friday evening).  In general,  Brexit seemed to win out over local issues.  In the North and Midlands of England, a message was sent to the Labour leadership that many working-class Labour voters in Leave areas want Labour to take a clear stand against any form of second referendum. The overwhelming majority of Labour’s losses were in these areas.[4]   The warning came loud and clear on the BBC last night from Graeme Miller, the leader of the council in the northern town of Sunderland, where Labour remained in control of the council but had just lost ten councillors:

“We lost ten seats – and my view on it is very, very simple.  Sunderland voted as a city to leave in June 2016 – and, having had a Labour message across the city from Members of Parliament saying we have to have a People’s Vote on a second referendum, Labour people in Sunderland have said: ‘we’re just not accepting that from the Labour Party’.”[5]

3)  The Labour/Conservative talks

Theresa May has given these talks a deadline of the middle of next week;  if no agreement has been reached by then, the two sides will move to agreeing options for “indicative votes”;  as was described in Brexit Update 22, the Maybot has promised to abide by any option that commands majority support.

But the Times reported this Wednesday (May 1) that the talks are showing progress, with suggestions of a government move towards agreement on a customs union.  Oliver Wright, the Times Policy Editor, wrote:

“’For the first time in four weeks of negotiations senior Labour sources say that the government side appeared to have shifted its position on the party’s key demands around a closer customs union with the European Union after Brexit.  There is also understood to have been some progress over incorporating a revised political declaration with the EU in UK legislation that will be needed to implement Brexit’.” [6]

The local election results have sent a message to the leaders of both parties that many Conservative and Labour voters want a deal to be achieved as soon as possible so that Brexit can be ratified and implemented.  This message will be concentrating the minds of both the Tory and Labour leaders, who both want to avoid UK participation in the May 23 European elections, in which Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party is set to triumph (see Brexit Update 27).  Both leaders have said that achievement of a deal is the lesson they have taken from the local elections.[7]