I’ve lost count of the number of times that, when asked about a second referendum, Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell have said their preference is for a general election. Of course it is – they want to be in power. But would it solve the problem of Brexit? I’m not so sure.
It’s a peculiar thing that the line “we must respect the will of the people” rolls off the tongues of politicians so easily when asked if voters should be allowed to vote on the direction of Brexit, yet somehow the ‘will of the people’ in last year’s general election can be overturned at whim. The referendum was advisory, the election was not.
That strange bit of cognitive dissonance on the part of politicians of all colours aside, there are many reasons why we should not assume that an election will solve Brexit. I will outline some – and I’m sure readers can add to them.
Given that the UK is split down the middle on Brexit and the two main political parties, Labour and the Conservatives, are each divided on the direction to take, Scotland is largely anti-Brexit and the Lib Dems are firmly anti-Brexit, any viable coalition you can think of could stall Brexit and produce ongoing uncertainty.
If Labour does a bit better than last time, then they might be able to get a coalition with the Scottish National Party (SNP). This is highly unlikely to solve the problem, as most of Scotland voted remain. To complicate things further, the SNP would like another referendum on Scottish independence, and therefore any efforts to come to a common negotiating position on Brexit could be frustrated by the SNP wanting to bring that into the mix.
Furthermore, if the number of Labour and SNP seats wasn’t enough for even that strained coalition, then it might require the help of the Lib Dems to get the numbers required for a government to form. Given that Corbyn has never been a fan of the EU, and the Lib Dem’s current raison d’être is to oppose Brexit, it is hard to see what a Corbyn-led Labour ‘in bed with’ the Lib Dems – with or without the SNP – would look like.
If the Tories failed to get a majority again, and required propping up by the DUP, then we would be worse than back to square one. Worse because Brexit would be on hold for the duration and, though the EU seems likely to grant an extension of the Brexit period if there is another election or referendum, the tectonic plates in the EU are constantly shifting, so extra time could ultimately change the negotiating position of our neighbours while losing the Tory team credibility. Furthermore, some Tories will have lost seats and others would have gained, so the party would be changed, loyalties shifted, and May could still be deposed.
A Tory victory
Even if the Conservative Party won outright, Theresa May could still be deposed. If there was a general election, then a key thing in each party’s manifesto would be its vision in relation to Brexit. This is a very weak area for May. She’s said: “Brexit means Brexit”, “we are going to have a red, white and blue Brexit” and she will not budge on a customs union. It’s hard to see how such soundbites can add up to a coherent election manifesto. If she becomes less rigid she will enrage the hard Brexiteers in her party. If she maintains her current blend of vagueness and rigidity, her party will struggle to get votes from the remain half of the UK.
A Labour victory
If this were to happen, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party would have some similar problems to those that face the Tories – as well as some of their own. The parliamentary Labour party is at least as split over Europe as the Tory Party is, and to complicate things further, the majority of Labour Party members appear to be remainers, while many Labour constituencies voted leave.
Therefore, if Labour won a snap general election, the hard work that Corbyn and his allies have done to unite the party and outline a coherent political vision could come undone. It has seemed to me that Labour has been waiting for the Tory Party to destroy itself over Brexit, like a ship heading for an inevitable iceberg. Once in power, however, Labour would be heading for the same iceberg, albeit from a slightly different angle.
An in/out referendum, based on the greater knowledge we have now, seems the clearest way to progress. An election can only prolong the uncertainty and add to the UK’s economic and social instability.