The European parliament results have shown a significant rejection of both Labour and Conservatives, which has been interpreted as the public’s verdict on their handling of Brexit so far and a further polarisation of our politics. The 2017 general election, in which both main parties got over 80% of the vote share with manifesto pledges to deliver Brexit, seems a long time ago now.
Many in both parties appear to have come to opposite conclusions about what they should do next. For the Tories, it means Brexit by hook or by crook as soon as possible, no matter what the harm to the economy. For Labour, calls for a “confirmatory referendum” or even revoking Article 50 grow louder, no matter what the consequences for democracy. As a Labour MP, I will not support a Brexit on WTO terms, but that does not mean I believe we should automatically swing to becoming a party of Remain only. I could justify that opinion by referring to the fact that the majority of seats we need to win to form a government voted Leave in 2016. But my opinion is based on something more fundamental than securing the next Labour government: it is democracy itself.
In the run up to the 2015 general election, there was a surge for UKIP. This led to the Conservative Party making a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on our EU membership. Whether in hindsight that was a smart move by David Cameron or not, they won that election at least partly because of that promise and as such not many argued that they were not entitled to legislate for a referendum. Having done that, I participated in the 2016 referendum in good faith and it never crossed my mind that I would not accept the result. Yes, there were fantastical claims made, but every election has an element of that. Neither main party qualified the 2016 result in any way in their 2017 manifesto – both had different emphases, both were vague about what Brexit would look like, but both were crystal clear that it would be delivered.
It is little wonder that, following two years of failure and parliamentary manoeuvring, the Brexit Party has enjoyed an impressive result. The message is simple: democracy has been betrayed by politicians – you knew what you were voting for in 2016 but, by incompetence or design, Westminster have conspired to thwart your instruction. The only way democracy can be restored is if a very clear message is sent back to them. Farage has expertly exploited the anger, the frustration and the opportunity Westminster has offered to him. The question now is whether Westminster has the collective will to stop him winning the next national election.
Farage’s message in that situation will again be stunningly simple and effective. Not only have the established politicians let you down, the Brexit Party leader will say, but I am the only one who can restore order, restore trust and rebuild politics. An election fought on the issue of democracy itself would leave little room for traditional issues such as the economy, education and the NHS – notice how his complete lack policies in this election has not hampered him at all.
Should there be a general election before Brexit is delivered, Farage would be in a very strong position. If he won, he would have a mandate to pretty much rip up the existing rule book and recast how politics works in this country. I might think that our politics is archaic, ineffective and unrepresentative, but I certainly wouldn’t want the architect of that brave new world to be someone like Nigel Farage. And yet with around a third of the vote in these elections, and a fragmented opposition, a similar vote at a general election could give him just that opportunity.
Democracy isn’t really democracy if we get to ignore the results we don’t agree with. Once we play fast and loose with it, we can’t expect others not to do the same. Whilst there is understandably a lot of soul-searching in the Labour Party about where we go next, we shouldn’t write off half the electorate – including millions of former Labour voters – and I don’t think we have yet woken up to the risk Farage represents with his simple message that we are writing for him. If we are not careful, the era of liberal democracy in this country could be over and we will only have ourselves to blame.