The Liberal Democrats stood on a manifesto commitment that was unashamedly Remain, with statement that the ‘election of a Liberal Democrat majority government on a clear stop Brexit platform will provide a democratic mandate to stop this mess, revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU’.
If there was no Liberal Democrat government then ‘the party would continue to fight for a People’s Vote with the option to stay in the EU, and in that vote we would passionately campaign to keep the UK in the EU’.
However, the election results which have seen only 11 Liberal Democrat MPs elected and the Party leader Jo Swinson lose her seat indicate that this strongly Remain message just did not resonate with the electorate.
Swinson lost by only 149 votes to the SNP candidate, where arguably the Remain message of both parties nullified the Leave/Remain distinction in the local campaign. However, an inescapable conclusion is that nationally, though some parts of the electorate may have supported a Remain position, it was just not the one that the Liberal Democrats were proposing.
The revoke Article 50 policy was arguably nothing more than a symbolic pledge which was never going to be put into practice. Moreover, this policy muddied the waters of the broader message of the ‘Remain Alliance’ parties, which included the Liberal Democrats plus the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and some independent candidates. The policy of the other members of this group was not one of revoking Article 50, but for holding the so-called ‘People’s Vote’.
This led to the rather baffling position of two parties, supposedly both supporting Remain, disagreeing on how this is to be achieved during the BBC election debate on 29 November. If Labour’s Brexit policy was considered to be confusing, the Remain Alliance policy must also have left the electorate scratching their heads.
Within the Liberal Democratic party, the confusing message on remain was also seen in the position adopted by individual candidates in their election communications. Having reviewed the literature and communications of all Liberal Democratic candidates it was evident that the revoke Article 50 policy was not uniformly communicated by candidates.
The revoke message was not prominent in the Liberal Democrat campaign outside of the national campaign which was delivered mainly through social media with candidates only providing links to this message through their websites or Twitter.
More common was the Liberal Democrat candidate’s message of a stopping Brexit via second referendum, which chimed more closely with the other parties in the Remain Alliance.
Where the revoke Article 50 message was used by some candidates, there is no specific evidence that this was targeted in Remain constituencies only. From the candidate’s election communications, it was apparent that an explicit revoke Article 50 message was used by candidates in both Leave and Remain voting constituencies, like Bethnall Green (30.86% Leave); Birkenhead (51.71% Leave); Fylde (56.73% Leave); Haltemprice and Howden (55.23% Leave); Mansfield (70.86% Leave); Oxford East (35.23% LEave); Witham (62% Leave); and Worcester (53.68% Leave).
Perhaps the only conclusion to draw form this is that the use of the ‘revoke’ message would appear to have been dependent upon the individual Brexit views of the candidate, but this does suggest that the party perhaps did not identify and target its core Remain supporters sufficiently.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto also used the phrase ‘Stop Brexit’, and it would appear that it was this more generic umbrella phrase that was adopted by the majority of candidates to articulate the Remain policy. As noted above, in their election literature candidates often stated that in order to ‘Stop Brexit’, there should be second referendum.
A good example of this can be seen in Norwich, where candidates in the city’s two constituencies supported the stop Brexit position, but nuanced the message to reflect the Brexit position of the constituency at the referendum.
Thus James Wright (Norwich South, 40.53% Leave) made it clear he was very pro-Remain but that a second referendum on Boris Johnson’s deal was the way forward; and by contrast, Dave Thomas (Norwich North, 56.73% Leave) mixed his pro-EU message with an acknowledgment that remaining in the EU should be accompanied by the UK seeking further reforms to the EU.
In recognition that the revoke Article 50 message had not made sufficient impact upon the electorate, in the last week of the campaign the national Liberal Democrat message appeared to change and be more directly in tune with position adopted by the majority of candidates.
However, the move towards more directly supporting a second referendum in the newly elected Parliament was arguably too late, and probably confused the Liberal Democrat position even further.
Revoke Article 50 was the opposite of the Conservative message of ‘Get Brexit Done’, and the latter message ultimately appealed to an electorate which has become increasingly weary of the Brexit process.
Revoking Article 50, or having a second referendum, was not popular, as the Labour Party have also found to their cost. However, though the UK will now almost certainly leave the EU on 31 January 2020 this is by no means the end of Brexit.
The future UK-EU relationship on trade, security and a range of other matters needs to be determined within the lifetime of this Parliament. Unlike the 2017 Parliament, this election has given us a ‘Leave’ Parliament, but that does not mean that there is no place for the Remain voice.
Collectively, parties which supported a second referendum polled a higher combined percentage share of the vote than the Conservatives.
The challenge for the Liberal Democrats, Remain Alliance and even Labour MPs who wanted to remain in the EU is what strategy do they adopt to ensure that this voice will be heard in Parliament where the Conservatives have a majority of 80.
By Professor Adam Cygan, Research Leader at The UK in Changing Europe and Principal Investigator on the ESRC Parties, Parliament and the Brexit Process – Election 2019 project.