The Brexit By-Election

May 29, 2019 Andrew Niblett

Nothing Has Changed

Despite all the reaction, the proclamations of victory and the debate over who really ‘won’, the European Election results in the UK didn’t throw up any major surprises. The UK is still as divided as ever. People who voted Remain still want to remain, people who voted Leave still want to leave, and the Conservatives and Labour were understandably demolished at the ballot box for their role in creating the muddle, confusion and disorder that has reigned supreme since the referendum.

Eurosceptic Peterborough

Despite this, the results shouldn’t be ignored, with one notably sticking out as a demonstration of what could happen next; The Brexit Party winning their first MP at the Peterborough by-election in just a week’s time on June 6th. In a constituency that voted nearly 61% in favour of leave in 2016, the by-election, following the removal of Fiona Onasanya after her jail term and the subsequent recall petition, was always going to be a prime target for Nigel Farage and his ‘new’ Party. The European Election result in Peterborough itself will only reinforce this belief and give Farage more hope that his Party will soon be represented in Westminster.

Winning double the number of votes as the next largest party (Labour), and more than the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Change UK combined, The Brexit Party’s candidate Mike Greene is the odds-on favourite to be the Party’s inaugural MP.

European Election Result – Peterborough

Brexit Party – 16196 (38.3%)
Labour – 7272 (17.2%)
Liberal Democrats – 6491 (15.4%)
Conservatives – 4594 (10.9%)
Green – 4563 (10.8%)
UKIP – 1537 (3.6%)
Change UK – 1277 (3%)

Two Party Politics

There is a visible and real appetite for change in Peterborough. Over 19,000 constituents signed the recall petition, only 3,000 less than voted for Onasanya at the 2017 General Election when she won the seat with a majority of just 607. In normal times, the Conservatives would be hoping to win back the seat it had held since 2005 and strengthen its almost non-existent majority. In normal times, Labour, a party that has been in opposition for 9 years, would be hoping to win the by-election with an increased majority as an example of voters showing their discontent with the governing party. However, these are not normal times.

One Policy, One MP?

Instead, a party a few months old (ignoring that it is UKIP rebranded and reimagined) is now the overwhelming favourite to secure its first MP. A party with no policy on healthcare, on education, on transport, on any significant domestic issue, could have a representative in Parliament. A party who has one aim and says the rest will come later. A party which is solely about leaving the European Union, and doing so on WTO terms without a deal. By-elections can throw up surprise winners, such as George Galloway in Bradford West in 2012, but a Brexit Party win on June 6th will not come as a surprise, and will have far wider and more serious ramifications for British politics as a whole.

Specialists in Failure

There will be a multitude of explanations if The Brexit Party do win. The failure of the Conservatives to ensure the UK left the EU; the failure of Labour to take a clear and coherent position on Brexit and solidify a voting base; the failure to address the root causes of inequality, of feelings that those in Westminster don’t represent the ordinary citizen; and the failure to combat almost every national challenge that has arisen in recent years. When there is a vacuum in British politics, Nigel Farage is inevitably there to take advantage of it.

The Liberal Democrats, Greens, Renew and Change UK were touted as preparing to form an alliance and nominate a single, pro-EU candidate for the by-election, but these plans were scuppered by threats from the Labour Party, at least according to Change UK Convenor Gavin Shuker MP. In a vote likely to be about Brexit, the decision by the former three to still stand individual candidates will split the remain vote and give The Brexit Party, who still would have likely beaten a joint candidate, a simpler route to victory. The Greens and Lib Dems had improved their vote share by 16% compared to 2014 in last Thursday’s Elections, signalling that they could have a chance if they played the by-election well. But they haven’t. Their unwillingness to cooperate and compromise once again will impact these parties and destroy any hope that they could have of winning the seat.

Labour too may feel as if it could still have a chance, having polled 4% above its national average in Peterborough, and even came second in the city in the European Elections. But this will not be enough. Instead, they are faced with losing another constituency, leaving them 16 seats worse off than they were after the 2017 General Election. Not quite what Jeremy Corbyn would have wanted or envisaged would happen in the two years following that election.

The Conservatives finished fourth, only 31 votes above the Greens, and faced by its own internal issues and leadership contest, will no doubt accept that they have no chance of winning what could be a vital MP in the coming months.

More of the Same

A Brexit Party victory in the by-election will increase tensions within both parties, as if that was needed or even possible. The Conservative leadership contenders angling for a no-deal will use it as ammunition against more moderate candidates, saying that a clean break from Europe will be the only way to stop the Conservatives haemorrhaging seats to the Brexit Party at a General Election. The more moderate candidates will accuse those who pursue a no-deal of leading the party straight into an election, with Jeremy Hunt already calling a no-deal Brexit “political suicide” for this reason. Labour will be faced by appeals to back a second referendum more strongly, or to not back one at all. Through this backdrop of division and chaos, Nigel Farage will continue his mission to influence and change UK politics, and to finally achieve his aim of leaving the European Union.