Tuesday , March 28 2017
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Why is no one talking about the angry Remainers?

Summary:
I would not normally write this kind of post, but I couldn’t find anything on this by searching so I wrote it myself. One very good answer to the question posed by the title would be if they did not exist, or more specifically that they might make a lot of noise in certain circles but in electoral terms do not amount to much. The main evidence we have that might raise doubt about this explanation is a series of remarkable by-election results for the Liberal Democrats. Everyone knows about Richmond, and earlier they had done very wellat Witney, but their gain in vote was much more modest at Sleaford. What is less known is their steady success since the referendum in council by-elections. Each council by-election involves small numbers compared to Westminster seats, but there have been

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I would not normally write this kind of post, but I couldn’t find anything on this by searching so I wrote it myself.

One very good answer to the question posed by the title would be if they did not exist, or more specifically that they might make a lot of noise in certain circles but in electoral terms do not amount to much. The main evidence we have that might raise doubt about this explanation is a series of remarkable by-election results for the Liberal Democrats. Everyone knows about Richmond, and earlier they had done very wellat Witney, but their gain in vote was much more modest at Sleaford. What is less known is their steady success since the referendum in council by-elections. Each council by-election involves small numbers compared to Westminster seats, but there have been many more. What is interesting at this level is that the LibDems have been winningseats from both Labour and Conservatives, and in both Remain and Leave areas.

So why are political commentators continuing to talk about the UKIP threat to Labour much more than the LibDem threat to both main parties. Part of the answer is I’m sure the importance of the Brexit tabloids in influencing the Westminster bubble. But I think there is also some legitimate caution in not reading too much into these by-election results. First, the national polls have shown much more modest gains for the LibDems. Second, the power of the LibDem by-election machine is well known, and those with long memories know that spectacular by-election victories can come to nothing when we move to a general election. This would also help explain the non-uniform natureof the victories: for nearly every success you can find a relative failure.

While all that justifies caution, it does not provide any evidence against the angry Remainer idea. Nor does the fact that victories have happened in Leave constituencies, for two reasons. First, even if a constituency voted 60% for Leave, that still leaves 40% who voted Remain, and council elections in particular are where genuine anger is likely to motivate people to vote when the turnout is typically low. Second, quite a few people may have voted Leave but do not want a Hard Brexit.

The first factor may also help explain the discrepancy between local election results and the small movement in the LibDem’s national poll ratings. But, for Remainers, there may be a potentially more optimistic explanation. Responding to opinion polls may involve little thought. In an election people can read election leaflets, and they may think more before casting their vote. If so, local election results could be what economists would call a leading indicator of national polls in this particular case.

However, I say potentially because there is a less optimistic interpretation. In individual local elections the national media is not in election mode, and so local election literature may be unusually persuasive. In a national election, as we saw with the referendum itself, the broadcast media allows itself to be influenced by the pro-Brexit press. The LibDems may also be given little airtime as a small party, so there will be an automatic Leave bias.

For reasons like this, I’m afraid I find the outlook for Remainers like myself pretty grim. I can see one possible way of avoiding leaving the EU, but it requires a number of things to all work out. First, the marchon 25th March is really, really big. Second, the LibDems make very large gains in the local elections in May. The combination of these two events could put the idea of the angry Remainer on the map. It might start encouraging some psephologists to speculate on which politicians would be vulnerable to a LibDem surge.

Third, the Brexit negotiations have to be seen as going badly. If ministers start blaming the EU for their intransigence, that is a good sign. Fourth, Labour keep Corbyn as leader. Fifth, it becomes clear that Article 50 can be revoked. Sixth, a run of polls have clear majorities for Remain over Leave. All that might just start making enough MPs seriously worried about keeping their own seats that they finally get the courage, and by some means a way, to vote to stay in the EU, or to call a second referendum. I have not tried to work out the probability of all those things happening, but as a fictional dwarf once said: “Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?”


For those pining for a more macro post, the next one will be on the Bank of England's forecasts
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Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.