August 29, 2019 / 12:31 PM / 23 days ago

Leave or remain? Brexit bind could hurt Labour in a snap election

SOUTHAMPTON, England (Reuters) - Retired electrician Steve Oliver has voted for Britain’s opposition Labour Party all his life but if the political crisis over leaving the European Union leads to an early election, he will not be doing so again.

Parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party, Simon Letts poses for a photograph in the constituency of Southampton Itchen, Britain, August 28, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Oliver wants to leave the EU and, more than three years after he and around 17.4 million other Britons voted to divorce Britain’s largest trading partner, he cannot support Labour’s position that there should be another Brexit referendum.

“I can’t understand for the life of me why Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of my party, is trying to force down this vote. Brexit has been voted for by the public,” the 64-year-old told Reuters as he strolled through the local market in Bitterne, a suburb of Southampton in southern England.

“If that man had any sense he should realise that if he tried to do that he’d never get (voted) in.”

With opposition parties threatening to collapse the government in a no-confidence vote and media reports of Prime Minister Boris Johnson war-gaming an early election if parliament tries to thwart his Brexit plans, expectations Britain could be heading to the polls this autumn are growing.

The parliamentary seat of Southampton Itchen is a top Labour target and the kind of place it needs to be successful if it is going to win a national election.

It is the governing Conservatives’ most marginal seat - incumbent lawmaker Royston Smith held it by just 31 votes in 2017 - and it was represented by Labour for more than two decades before Smith first won it in 2015.

But it also voted by 60% to 40% in favour of leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum, making it more pro-Brexit than Britain as a whole, which voted 52% to 48% to withdraw from the bloc.

Oliver says he would now vote for the Brexit Party, led by prominent ‘Leave’ campaigner Nigel Farage, which triumphed in this year’s European Parliament elections in Britain by riding a wave of voter anger over the failure to deliver Brexit.

‘DOES HE WANT TO LEAVE THE EU?’

The chances of a snap national election rose markedly this week when new premier Johnson - a Brexit campaigner who has vowed to leave the EU on Oct. 31, with or without a deal with Brussels - enraged opponents of a no-deal exit by ordering the suspension of parliament for more than a month.

However as voters have become increasingly polarised along Brexit lines, Labour has suffered public and political criticism of Corbyn’s strategy of trying to keep both Leave and Remain voters onboard by not siding with either camp.

Instead Corbyn, a long-time eurosceptic in a party where a majority of members oppose Brexit, has sown confusion with his ambiguous position and alienated many voters on both sides.

Before a 2017 national election, which the Conservatives narrowly won under then Prime Minister Theresa May, Labour said it accepted the referendum result and would seek to negotiate an exit deal that kept the country closely aligned to the EU.

As Brexit paralysis set in after May’s withdrawal deal was repeatedly rejected by parliament earlier this year, Corbyn pushed for another election to break the deadlock - but, under pressure from within his deeply divided party, has now also backed holding a second referendum on any Brexit deal.

How Labour would campaign in such a referendum would depend on the deal, he has said, leaving open the possibility a Labour government could negotiate a new Brexit agreement but then campaign against it in favour of Remain.

“I don’t even know what Jeremy Corbyn stands for - does he want to leave the EU? Does he want to stay in?” said pro-Brexit pensioner and former Labour supporter Janet Collingwood, sitting outside a Bitterne cafe in the sunshine drinking a cup of tea. She says she has switched to voting Conservative over Brexit.

Data from pollsters YouGov shows Labour’s vote share is being squeezed on both the Remain and Leave sides, something that has been borne out in voting over the last few months.

Labour’s vote share dropped by more than 12 percentage points at each of the three by-elections for parliamentary seats so far this year, with parties with more strongly held positions such as the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats and the pro-Leave Brexit Party on the rise.

Voting for seats on local councils in England and the European Parliament elections in May also both showed voters split more by Brexit than traditional party lines.

“Our position has been to try and do what we can to bring both sides together,” said Simon Letts, Labour’s candidate for Southampton Itchen. “The weakness ... is that is takes about two paragraphs of explanation to explain it.”

LEAVE BOUNCE?

By contrast, the electoral picture is looking brighter for the Conservatives.

While they have also suffered at the ballot box this year due to voter frustration over Brexit, they now have a new leader and a new approach.

Opinion polls have shown a Conservative bounce since Johnson took over last month with a “do or die” pledge to take Britain out of the EU at the end of October.

A YouGov survey conducted Aug. 27-28 put the Conservatives on 34%, up from 25% a month earlier, and 12 points ahead of Labour on 22%. Much of that gain has been at the expense of the Brexit Party.

“Johnson’s approach has been to wholeheartedly appeal to Leave voters – specifically those who have abandoned the Conservative Party for the Brexit Party,” said YouGov research manager Adam McDonnell.

“Polling suggests that on the Remain side Labour are going to have a much tougher job squeezing the Liberal Democrat vote than the Conservatives are going to do with the Brexit Party.”

Southampton Itchen’s Conservative lawmaker Smith said messages from constituents telling him they were switching to the Brexit Party had gone into reverse since Johnson’s victory.

“I think Boris is going to play well in the constituency,” said Smith, a Brexit supporter. But he is not complacent that the Brexit Party threat remains if an election is called.

“We are hoping for the Labour vote being split more than ours,” he said.

‘BACK TO NUTS-AND-BOLTS POLITICS’

Moving further towards Remain in any election campaign is unlikely to help Labour, as while 48% of Britons voted to stay in the EU at the referendum, they are more strongly concentrated in a smaller number of constituencies than Leave supporters.

“It is pretty difficult for Labour to form anything close to a government without really most of its seats being Leave-voting constituencies,” said Richard Johnson, politics lecturer at Lancaster University, who has analysed the kind of seats Labour needs to win have any chance of victory at an election.

Slideshow (7 Images)

“Even if Labour won 100% of the Remain electorate it wouldn’t get anything close to even 48% of the constituencies because of the distribution of Leave and Remain voters.”

That is likely to make the timing of any election crucial. Letts believes Labour’s best hope is that any early election comes after Brexit has taken place.

“Whatever the resolution (to Brexit) is ... our prospects improve because then we are back to nuts-and-bolts politics,” he said. “We are back to talking about the housing crisis, standards of living, food banks and education cuts and all the other stuff.”

Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Pravin Char

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