Last Thursday was a dreadful day for the Labour Party – but it could and should have been far, far worse. There are 34 seats where the Brexit Party vote was larger than the margin of Conservative Party loss. In other words, 34 Labour MPs have survived thanks to Nigel Farage.
Those Labour MPs who should be grateful to Mr Farage include many committed Remainers such as Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband, both of whom voted against Brexit. Without the Brexit Party, the Labour Party would have been reduced to 168 seats, rather than the 202 they have today. The Conservative Party has only now fully recovered from John Major’s disastrous 1997 defeat – 165 seats. For Labour, those extra 34 seats may well be crucial to their survival.
I declare an interest. If the Brexit Party had not stood in Houghton and Sunderland South, where I was the Conservative candidate, I would have won. I lost to a committed Remainer Labour MP in a heavily Leave-voting seat by 3,115 votes with the Brexit Party attaining 6,165. The vast majority of the Brexit Party’s vote in the constituency would have been Conservative votes, had the Brexit Party not stood. Indeed, many had been Conservative votes in 2017. These voters had already decided not to vote Labour, but unfortunately were convinced by the Brexit Party to vote ‘tactically’ for them as they were told by them they had the best chance of winning. The Brexit Party did not reduce the Labour vote; they just diverted the anti-Labour vote to themselves.
How do I know this?
Firstly, because I met many voters, including many who voted Conservative in 2017, who said they had already voted Brexit Party by post. A number have emailed me since to say they were bitterly disappointed that they had wasted their vote. The Brexit Party argument went like this: ‘Nobody in this traditional Labour area will vote Conservative (their Dad’s Dad didn’t etc), so vote Brexit Party’.
The flaw in the argument was that life-long Labour supporters were voting Conservative and did so around the North East and the rest of the country. I cannot tell you how many times I heard “I have voted Labour all my life but not this time…” It is ironic that while some 2017 Conservative voters were leaving for the Brexit Party, many more votes were coming to the Conservatives straight from Labour. Even more ironic, for those who have read my previous articles, was the fact that I was not exactly weak on the Brexit issue or reticent on the failings of Theresa May’s deal!
Secondly, there is polling data. Lord Ashcroft’s polling found that:
This result is skewed as it is national polling, while the Brexit Party stood only in seats like Houghton and Sunderland South; and it also takes into account Tory Remainers switching to other parties. Yet it shows that more Brexit Party votes came from the Conservatives than from Labour. In a heavily Leave-voting area such as Sunderland, it is clear that the Brexit Party vote was coming both from the Conservatives and secondly from those who had already decided to vote against Labour. The Brexit Party vote also shows the second largest proportion of tactical voters – unfortunately relying on dodgy tactics.
The Brexit Party campaign
In Houghton and Sunderland South the main message the Brexit Party put out was that they were the only party to stop Corbyn. The below image was shared by them on social media and is clearly targeted at Conservative or potential Conservative voters:
Brexit on Amazon
To back this up they latched onto a non-poll by a non-polling company – in fact created by a payday loan company. This diagram below was again shared on social media in Houghton and Sunderland South and helped the Brexit Party eat away at the Conservative vote.
This is obviously a ludicrous and misleading poll aimed at the anti-Labour vote. Without it, the anti-Labour vote would have coalesced around the obvious pro-Leave party and candidate.
To combat this we had to organise a highly visible (and noisy thanks to Jacob Rees-Mogg, Esther McVey and Mark Francois) campaign in Houghton and Sunderland South to demonstrate that we were the real contenders in the constituency. This worked wonders (the Tory vote was significantly up) but was unfortunately too late for the postal votes and could not undo all the damage that had already been done.
So why did the Brexit Party stand? That is really a question for them. They seemed to have planned an election campaign against Theresa May’s deal and were then, with expectant candidates, unable to switch it off.
They may have convinced themselves of their own propaganda. I met the Brexit Party candidate in Houghton and Sunderland South to persuade him I was pro-Brexit and that he should stand down. He seemed convinced he would win, a probability a more experienced and worldly-wise candidate would have discounted.
It’s also possible they were not really motivated by Brexit at all, or at least it was just one of a number of issues that motivated the Party to contest the election. Much has been made of the background of a number of high-profile Brexit Party candidates as former Revolutionary Communist Party members and agitators writing for Spiked. Using Brexit as a way into British politics – to shake it up – may have been a motivation for some. It is often assumed by Conservatives that the Brexit Party is really some sort of spicy Conservative Party. It is not, as the Brexit Party candidate I met assured me.
So what now for the Brexit Party? For now, they can marvel in their achievement of saving the Labour Party and blocking many pro-Brexit MPs from entering Parliament. In the longer term they should, of course, pack up. There is no purpose in the Brexit Party post-Brexit. It was Conservative MPs who ‘chucked Chequers’ and we now have a clearly pro-Brexit Conservative Party delivering Brexit. They should go quietly and with grace.
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