Was the general election result a vote against brexit?

Yesterday, I noted there were two significant comments regarding the the recent general election. First, there was the problem of the Conservatives jumping into bed with the DUP. Are they terrorist sympathisers? No. Are they extremists? Only according to Theresa May herself. Does it represent a problem for powersharing in Northern Ireland? Undoubtedly, yes. You can read my comment on the Con-DUP deal here.

Second, there were those arguing the general election was a clear vote against brexit. Some were arguing that as Theresa May was seeking to increase her mandate for brexit negotiations, the reduction in her majority amounted to a rejection of her approach to brexit. Today, we will examine this comment.

Let’s start with the comments of Jeremy Corbyn as he launched the Labour election campaign:

This election isn’t about Brexit itself. That issue has been settled. The question now is what sort of Brexit do we want — and what sort of country do we want Britain to be after Brexit?

It is worth contending with the fact that both the Conservatives and Labour voted to trigger article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The only parties standing on a platform of rejecting the result of the referendum were the Liberal Democrats and Greens. Not only did the two major parties receive the most seats, both received an overwhelming percentage of the vote share. Given that the two major parties of government, both of whom support the referendum result, it seems very few people were voting to overturn brexit.

Further, there are large numbers of brexit voters who did not vote in the referendum based upon immigration. You can read a run down of my reasons for voting in favour here. Suffice to say, as one who stands in the Bennite tradition, I am not particularly keen on tightening our borders, making immigration harder and being less generous toward asylum seekers. The only immigration concern I have is that we favour predominantly white Europeans at the expense of non-white Africans and Asians based on little more than holding the right passport. Given this, it is unlikely any such voters would support a Conservative-led brexit.

Moreover, as we all know, Jeremy Corbyn’s voting record makes it abundantly clear he has always been anti-EU. Whilst it is a shame that he didn’t stand on these convictions during the referendum – which would have changed the conversation and given a genuine choice between Conservative-led immigration-focused brexit, traditional left-wing brexit and Liberal anti-brexit – anyone who follows these things knows where he stands. Despite his reticence to own this principle before the referendum, it is apparent that he supports the result now. As a result, many traditional left-wing brexiteers are quite happy voting for Corbyn knowing that he now openly supports their position (one which many suspect he held all along) and will advocate for a form of brexit more to their liking.

Even were all this not the case, it is evidently true that many voted based on concerns totally unrelated to brexit. When faced with a binary choice between leave or remain, many elected to leave. When faced with a non-binary choice between multiple parties with varying policies, other considerations perhaps take precedent for many. Many would be happy voting for a party carrying out brexit if they had a stated policy of dismantling the NHS. Clearly quite a few elderly folk weren’t enamoured at the prospect of voting for a party pressing ahead with brexit who were simultaneously planning to (in their view) strip them of their housing. Clearly there are issues which may take precedence. Jeremy Corbyn was quite right when he argued the election was not only about brexit.

So, to what extent can we say the election result is a removal of the mandate for brexit? In short, not much. Corbyn acknowledged himself the issue has been settled and it must be noted that both major parties have thrown their weight behind the referendum result. If it were a removal of the mandate for brexit we should have expected the Lib Dems or Greens to now be in government. That this, unsurprisingly, didn’t happen should rather make the point well enough.

There are many reasons why people voted against the Conservatives. Theresa May made the election about strengthening her negotiations in brexit and then made clear, throughout the campaign, that she couldn’t even negotiate with her own party. She asked us to trust her in discussion with the EU discussions and yet she made clear she wasn’t willing (or able) to debate other UK party leaders. If the issue was about brexit, it is hardly surprising even those who want out were not prepared to lend her their support. This is not evidence of a change of heart by the British public on brexit but, at best, a removal of the mandate for Theresa May to conduct the negotiations.

But beyond this, domestic concerns no doubt played their part. Grammar schools and dementia tax – two wholly unpopular moves – were the only policies forthcoming in the campaign. In addition, the terrible atrocities during the campaign brought the old Home Secretary out in Theresa May, which seemed to revive her desire to cast anyone and everyone an extremist. Ironically, she has now entered government propped up by those she, and she alone, defines as such.

Let’s not pretend a vote against Theresa May was a vote against brexit. The issue is settled, we are leaving the EU and the lack of a Liberal Democrat revival makes the point clear. A vote against Theresa May was either a vote against Theresa May or wider Conservative Party leadership. It doesn’t really alter our position on the EU.