The UK and Europe
Brexit time, election time
Kenneth Armstrong / May 2017
It’s election time again in the UK. This return to the polling booths is bitter sweet for those of us who thought that an early election was a necessary response to a referendum result which will see the UK walk out of the European Union. Leaving aside the political opportunism which has prompted it, an argument in favour of an early election can be based on two simple propositions.
The first is that the referendum offered voters a binary choice – Remain or Leave – but with the Leave option taken, there was more than one way for the UK to leave the EU. A decision still needs to be made about what future relationship the UK could have with the EU. To allow voters to make an informed choice, political parties should have the opportunity to present and contest their proposals and their implications for domestic policies. The second proposition is that the Brexit process needs a government and a parliament with fresh mandates to allow the process of democratic accountability to be restored. After all, the leadership of the country changed hands without an election, while MPs often found themselves in conflict with their constituents over Europe. A fresh start is needed.
But if there is bitterness it is because Brexit haunts this election more than it inhabits it. For the two main parties competing to be in government there is no sense that the policies that will define post-Brexit Britain, and which are at the heart of this election, are in any way related to Brexit let alone to any particular type of Brexit.
For the Conservatives, Theresa May’s offer of ‘strong and stable’ leadership isn’t just an appeal to endorse her definition of Brexit – either a free trade deal or no deal – but also her redefinition of a ‘mainstream’ Britain in which a Conservative government supports ‘ordinary working people’. Yet the relationship between the definition of Brexit and the redefinition of Britain isn’t clear, particularly in terms of the taxation and spending priorities of a future Conservative Brexit government. Instead of being forced into a U-turn on how social care will be funded barely a week after her manifesto launch, why hasn’t Mrs May either been clear that money that previously went to the EU will now go on the NHS and social care – as many Leavers expected – or honest enough to tell voters that there won’t be a Brexit dividend after all?
The Labour leadership simply wants to move on from the referendum result. Apart from its rejection of a ‘no deal’ outcome, the Labour manifesto meekly offers voters retention of ‘the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union’ but without any vision of what that would entail, how it would be achieved and when. Meanwhile its ambitious spending pledges are to be financed from tax hikes, with no claims to repatriate EU spending to domestic priorities and no sense of how any post-Brexit shocks to the UK economy might affect a future Labour government’s spending plans.
Meanwhile for the Liberal Democrats the plea is for another referendum on a future EU withdrawal agreement including an option to remain in the EU. If the problem of the 2016 referendum was its simplistic binary nature, the difficulty in 2019 would be in presenting voters with a multiple choice referendum, particularly at a time when voters seem weary of recent referendum experiences. But more importantly, referendums are about making a choice in time whereas general elections are about political accountability for choices and promises made in manifestos over time. More the pity that voters are being offered such an impoverished choice when they make their mark on 8 June.