Boycotts, opportunity costs and the European elections

PoliticsatSurrey, Simon Usherwood |

One of the drivers – apart from the need to be seen to getting on with it – for Theresa May to submit the UK’s notification to withdraw from the EU on 29 March 2017 was to ensure that the UK had left before the next European elections, due 23 May 2019.

Fast-forward a bit more than two years (ah, that we could) and we find ourselves with parties being launched, candidates being unveiled (including some who are not siblings of MPs) and most of the country closely gearing up for those exact same elections.

The ‘how’ of this is well-known enough, but what about the ‘what to do about it’ element?

Prior to the second extension decision, there was much talk about the barrier that the elections would cause, both for the UK and the EU. And yet within days it was evident that almost all parties were getting down to election planning.

Indeed, the only party that appears stuck on this is the Conservatives, uncertain about what they should do, or even whether they should do it.

The dilemma in their case is relatively clear. A decision to fight the elections means an acceptance that Brexit will not occur before 23 May, which suits neither Number 10 (who want to press the Commons to a vote ASAP) nor the no-dealers (who recognise that getting past the elections means opening up wide new vistas of further extension). But at the same time, not fighting the elections means an even worse result for the party than expected, which might compromise their chances of staying in power in Westminster should it come to a general election in the near future.

The compromise appears to be that there will be candidates for the lists, but no great enthusiasm about campaigning, nor any great effort to get out the vote (which might be heading off to parties new in any case).

The oddity in this is that there’s no sense that May would be able to get through a Meaningful Vote (or even just the Withdrawal Agreement Bill) by the May deadline, plus the structure of the second Article 50 extension explicitly says that even if it were to pass, then Brexit day would still be 31 May. So this isn’t really about substantive political action, but about the desire to frame the narrative of the politics.

And that’s also true of the other parties.

Without evident exception, every other party contesting the European elections is doing so not to try and shape the legislative agenda and voting in the European Parliament, but rather to shape the political agenda in the UK.

Both hard-leaver/no-dealer and remainer parties want a good showing to demonstrate that this was a quasi-referendum on membership where their point of view ‘won’, while Labour will take their (likely) stronger performance than the Tories as evidence that they should be running the Brexit show.

In short, it’s second-order politics writ large, despite the fact that more public attention will be garnered on these elections than any of the previous ones held since 1979: the reference point remains most clearly national politics, not European ones.

Again, the irony of this is that even if in office for only a few months, British MEPs will have a big impact on EU politics, helping in EP group formation, selection of the EP President and officers, selection of the Commission President and college, plus any bits of legislation that come across their desks.

But that’s an aside, as so often in the British systems marginalisation and ignorance of things European. What matters is who can best spin a line from the European elections back into the domestic arena.

It’s tempting to say that none of it actually really matters, because the composition of the British delegation of MEPs does not change the arithmetic of the Commons, but as UKIP showed so well in the 2000s, success in one can shift discourse and decisions in the other, even without representation.

Which explains why there hasn’t been the consolidation of Leave or Remain parties in these elections.

Despite the evident value in electoral pacts and the high degree of overlap on Brexit policy within both parties – the regional list system used in the UK isn’t quite the proportionate system some seem to imagine – there is a bigger prize that glitters beyond Brexit.

The febrile nature of British politics and the deep divisions within both Tory and Labour parties offers a sense that a major recasting of the party political system is in the making. Why not be the ones to own that and to shape the next era of political history? Sure there’s a incipient cleavage between liberal metropolitans and the left-behinds, or the people of somewhere and the people of nowhere, or whatever you fancy espying on the horizon, but that doesn’t settle the matter of who will represent these groups.

Because I’ve had a proper break over Easter, let’s take the optimistic view of this.

Brexit has been very difficult because there’s been no consensus on what it’s for. The efforts to change party politics might presage the emergence of a new language that provides that sense, opening up a path to a new, stable relationship with European neighbours.

But even in that optimistic reading, this is a fraught process. Does the new cleavage hold? Do the representatives of each side manage to articulate a programme and a worldview? Does the old system hold on, either to frustrate the change or to remind the new of the importance of what has come before?

None of those questions can be answered simply or quickly. Even if this is the start of a major change in British politics, then it will take many years to become properly apparent.

And that’s time which the Brexit process might not have on offer.