The ‘strongest possible mandate’ could damage the country and Britain’s exit from the EU.
Whether we like it or not, this election will largely be fought over Brexit. May is arguing that she needs ‘the strongest possible hand’ and ‘the strongest possible mandate’ in order to negotiate with ‘our opponents’ who are ‘already seeking to disrupt […] negotiations’. She is targeting Labour constituencies – many of whom voted to leave the EU – by urging them to ‘lend [her] their vote’ and ‘vot[e] in the national interest’.
My initial instinct is that painting the map completely blue would have very serious implications beyond Brexit negotiations. The Conservatives would be able to do whatever they so desired, not only with Brexit, but with the country in general. Depending on your political inclination, you may welcome this. However, I would argue that huge majorities aren’t ideal regardless of who has them (although admittedly it is a teensy bit more ideal when your party is on the winning side); a serious opposition is needed in order to force the government to carefully think through everything it does, and the prospect of Labour losing fifty or so seats certainly jeopardises this.
The notion of giving May ‘the strongest possible mandate’ on Brexit isn’t necessarily positive either. In my opinion, May’s government is going into these negotiations with a reckless and unnecessarily confrontational stance – the EU need not be the UK’s ‘opponents’ (bias disclaimer: I’m a UK citizen who grew up in Belgium). Surely the more abrasive the UK government is in its negotiations, and the less goodwill it shows the EU, the less compromising the EU will be. Perhaps it is naïve, but I strongly believe that had parliament voted in favour of the clause protecting the residence rights of EU citizens living legally in the UK, the EU would have reciprocated. And even if they hadn’t, they would have come away from it looking petty, something definitely not in their interest. This would have justified legitimate annoyance at the EU and could have whipped up even more anti-EU sentiment – something the Conservatives clearly would encourage.
The EU need not be the UK’s ‘opponents’
A Conservative landslide is coming our way. Assuming we don’t like this prospect, and don’t want to give May the power to do whatever she likes with Brexit (amongst other things), what should people do?
Let’s start by looking at the Lib-Dems. Unlike Labour, they have embraced the fact that the Conservatives are presenting this election to the public as one about Brexit. Furthermore, unlike Labour, they have a clear view and message: they want to remain in the single market and have a referendum on the eventual terms of the new relationship negotiated with the EU.
However, despite this clear vision, I don’t buy into the idea that if you are pro-EU you ought to vote Lib-Dem no matter what (the narrative they are trying to push). Farron argues that remaining in the single market is of paramount importance and that hard Brexit wasn’t ‘on the ballot paper’. Both of these things appear to be true: the single market is important and ‘Brexit’ at the time of the referendum was an ambiguous and undefined concept. But even so, people’s reasons for voting to leave the EU were probably roughly in line with the implications of a ‘hard’ Brexit. The referendum was about regaining sovereignty (chiefly of our borders) from the EU; and people made it pretty clear that they were very much willing to sacrifice economic security for this.
The referendum was about regaining sovereignty (chiefly of our borders) from the EU; and people made it pretty clear that they were very much willing to sacrifice economic security for this
Thus, while I consider myself strongly pro-EU, a ‘soft’ Brexit doesn’t seem to quite make sense in light of this– or at least it seems slightly disingenuous if you are seeking to represent the will of the people (I suppose you could critique my interpretation of the ‘will of the people’). Leaving the EU but staying in the single market (i.e. being a member of the EEA) would leave the UK in this awkward position where borders would be open, but without the benefits of being an EU member. The UK’s status would drop, and Farage and friends still wouldn’t be content (and would just pipe back up)–nothing would be solved. Trying to find some sort of agreement where we could stay in the single market and retain control of our borders just isn’t feasible: agreeing to such a deal would be suicide for the EU. May understands this, and my suspicion is that this is the very reason why she isn’t even bothering to try and negotiate such an agreement.
Having said all this, the Lib-Dem call for a referendum on the eventual terms of a British exit from the EU doesn’t seem outrageous. It is not simply an attempt to overturn the Brexit result. It is not just a second referendum on EU membership. To a certain extent it isn’t even about allowing people to change their minds. It’s about allowing the British public to vote on something concrete. It does however raise the problem of the public rejecting the new relationship with the EU. Would the UK just remain in the EU? Would the government go back to the EU and renegotiate? Is renegotiation a feasible prospect? These issues would have to be ironed out; but provided that a satisfactory solution could be found, I would support a referendum.
Unfortunately, whether or not I support a referendum is irrelevant. The Lib-Dems are the only party pushing for one and it’s difficult to see how they could come to power. Even if they ended up in some sort of coalition (an eventuality ruled out by Farron and unlikely regardless), they still wouldn’t have the clout to actually force the government to put a referendum to the people.
This brings me back to my earlier point. Realistically, the Conservatives will win this election; probably by quite a spectacular margin. Because this is the case, it seems rather silly for the Lib-Dems and Labour to split the – for lack of a better word – ‘progressive’ vote. I understand that these are two very different parties (especially with Corbyn leading Labour), and that for this reason, an agreement between the parties won’t be struck. But while I can respect not wanting to compromise on your views, minimising the Tory majority should be the priority here – we can’t afford to give May her beloved ‘mandate’.
Realistically, the Conservatives will win this election
I will conclude with a simple plea to those voting. By all means, if you are in Oxford West and Abingdon, vote for the Lib-Dems. But if Labour is more likely to win in your constituency, vote for Labour – even if it is in theory a safe seat. That Corbyn is uninspiring, or that he actually wants Brexit, or that you might not like his policies, is irrelevant: he isn’t getting into power anyway. It is just damage control at this point. People should focus on denying May the mandate to be arrogant and rash in her negotiations with the EU, by electing as many MPs as possible that will hold the Conservative government accountable for its actions. If this is to happen, the UK must avoid the complete decimation of the left (which in itself would be bad for the balance of British democracy in my opinion). Corbyn may well be gone after this election, and it would be silly not to vote for Labour just because you’re not his biggest fan.