UK Party Conventions and the Electoral Politics of Brexit
September 27, 2019
With only 34 days left until the October 31 Brexit deadline, British party conventions have been dominated by Brexit. The Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) held their annual meeting between September 14 and 17, while Labour wrapped up their 5-day conference on September 25. After its suspension was deemed unlawful, Parliament has resumed as, the Conservatives prepare to hold their convention this Sunday, September 29, until October 2. With a general election likely before the end of the year (and now legally impossible before October 31), these are probably the last conventions before a new House of Commons is elected. This blog post takes a look at where the parties’ stand on Brexit.
Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems are now the clearest pro-“remain” party after party members voted in support of revoking Article 50 (in effect cancelling Brexit) were the Lib Dems to win a majority in the next general election. The party opposes holding a general election until Boris Johnson’s government has formally requested an extension of Brexit negotiations with the European Union. The party also supports a second referendum for the public to vote on any agreement with the European Union that parliament approves, or if they are not in government after the next election. This position is an evolution from their support only of a second referendum at the last party convention; some members have voiced concerns that this position is too extreme and would hurt the party with voters who are on the fence or who are worried about respecting the first referendum’s results.
The Lib Dems are currently polling at around 20 percent, and as the clearest anti-Brexit choice, they could be a potential coalition partner for Labour in a so-called Remain Alliance.
Labour. After narrowly rallying around Jeremy Corbyn’s position, the Labour party has decided to remain neutral on its Brexit position. The party convention was marked by confusion and division over Brexit, with some members asking for clear support for the leader while others worried about fence-sitting. The party’s official position is now as follows: (1) campaign for a second referendum in the general election without taking a clear position on which side it would support in such a referendum (the “wait-and-see” approach); (2) if Labour is in government, negotiate a new deal with the European Union that includes staying in the Customs Union (which would prevent the United Kingdom from negotiating trade deals with third countries) and keeping a close alignment with the Single Market; (3) hold a second referendum with “remain” and “leave with the Labour deal” as options; (4) depending on the vote, remain or leave with said deal. Party members, reversing their 2017 manifesto, have also voted to support the free movement of people and to expand migrant rights.
Many pro-remain members have criticized the wait-and-see approach as too vague, leaving the party abstaining on the most important political issue of the day, and allowing others to dominate the debate, thus potentially pushing pro-remain voters to support the Lib Dems. Intra-party tensions were laid bare when Corbyn’s team tried to get rid of the deputy leader position—ostensibly because of Tom Watson’s avowed pro-remain position (the deputy leader position was ultimately spared, although the position is under review.) Labour is currently polling at around 25 percent while Jeremy Corbyn remains unpopular with 22 percent of the public voicing a positive opinion of him.
Next: Conservative Party Conference. Next week’s Tory conference promises to be consumed by Brexit with its putative slogan, ‘Get Brexit Done,’ and renewed attacks on the law requiring an extension of negotiations, which the party will present as a “surrender bill” despite calls from other parties to abandon dangerous, or inciting, rhetoric. The Conservatives are eager to hold a general election and are in full preparation mode, and the party is currently polling at around 30 percent. Their strategy will likely be to pit the will of the British people (a will to leave the European Union, in the Conservative telling) against parliament and its efforts to prevent leaving without a deal. This is in contrast to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, both of which are clearly set against a no-deal Brexit and stand firmly against Johnson's Brexit plans.