In a post a week before the elections for the European Parliament, I suggested that there is a problem when politicians argue for us to use an election to ‘send a message’, firstly because the end result is a conglomerate of a whole lot of individual decisions taken for a variety of reasons, and secondly because they are likely to either misunderstand or else wilfully misinterpret the message once it’s been sent. Reactions to the EU vote show the misinterpretation at work.
Nathan Gill for Nigel Farage PLC said in the aftermath that his company’s electoral victory was a “very strong message from Wales – we want our Brexit and we want it now”, apparently based on the fact that his company received 32.5% of the vote. One third of the vote doesn’t look like a clear message to me. Adam Price, for Plaid, went the other way, declaring that the results show that “Wales is a Remain nation”. I’m not exactly convinced by that one either.
It’s certainly ‘true’ that the parties explicitly committed to ‘remain’ (Plaid, Lib Dems, Green, Change UK) won 42.4% of the vote in Wales, whilst those explicitly committed to leaving at any price (Nigel Farage PLC and UKIP) had a combined total of only 35.8%, but that ignores the two ‘traditional’ parties, Conservative and Labour. The Tories should surely be counted in the pro-Brexit camp, taking that total to 42.3%, making it more or less even between the two sides of the debate. The big question is over where Labour’s votes should be counted in this particular equation. On the basis of their formal policy (which is that they will secure a fantasy deal with the EU27 and then support Brexit on those revised terms), they should surely be counted on the Brexit side of the equation, giving the pro-Brexit forces in Wales a very clear lead by 57.6%: 43.4% – a wider margin than achieved in the 2016 referendum.
Carwyn Jonesseems to think that we should ignore Labour’s actual policy and treat it as a ‘remain’ party, according to a tweet he issued ahead of the results, saying that “Remain parties will comfortably out-poll the Brexit Party in Wales tonight, but the Brexit Party will come first in the vote tallies. This is why I said we should have put forward a united slate, just like the Brexit Party”. Deciding who’s right seems to depend on who is interpreting the message and what they want to believe. That brings us back to the problem of sending and interpreting messages.
We know that many Labour voters deserted that party – leavers supporting Nigel Farage PLC and remainers supporting Plaid, the Lib Dems and the Greens. So, who was left? Were they leavers, remainers, or simply lifelong Labour loyalists who will vote for the party regardless of its policies? The main conclusions that I draw are that trying to discern views on a single issue when people vote for all sorts of reasons is fraught with difficulty, and that an electoral system which allows a company to claim victory and 50% of the seats with just under one third of the vote is badly broken. As for Brexit itself, the result resolves nothing.