How the major parties will face the EU referendum

Kenneth Bunker looks at the state of the major parties as they head into the EU referendum campaign, and assesses what different results might mean for each of them.


Credit: Matt May CC BY 2.0

At the beginning of May a series of elections took place across the United Kingdom, including Assembly elections in Wales, Parliamentary elections in Scotland, and Mayoral elections in London. While these contests were considered low key in comparison to last year’s Westminster elections—they were less well known and as such had lower turnout levels—they do hold some important information to how parties will approach the Brexit referendum, and how voters will react to their campaigns. While much of the pressure will be on David Cameron and the Conservative government, other major parties which hold an official stance—such as the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party, the UK Independence Party, and the Liberal Democrats—will face challenges of their own. This article explores how these recent elections and the standing of parties will interact with the EU referendum.

While the Conservatives did not win the elections, they did not lose either. As such, the results do not favour or harm them. Indeed, there is no specific loss that significantly weakens Cameron. This is important for what is happening in his referendum campaign. If a heavy loss had been sustained, he may have lost credibility, pushing voters to punish his position in the referendum. And even though he seems pressured into campaigning against a Brexit because of his position as Prime Minister—some have suggested that he would otherwise be in favour – the neutrality of the electoral outcome seems to be in accordance with his lukewarm enthusiasm. While a marginal majority of the Conservatives are in favour of a Remain vote, some notable members are actively campaigning for the Leave. This is the case of Boris Johnson, the front-runner to succeed Cameron. His leadership in the Leave campaign is bound to sway some votes in favour of a Brexit.

In comparison, Labour did somewhat better in the elections. They secured an important victory in the London Mayor election, and a gain relative to expectations in local elections. These wins come at an important moment for Labour, which has been recently questioned and criticised for its loss of electoral dominance, particularly after its 2015 showing. The wins seem to be especially good for party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is officially pushing to remain in the EU. As with the Tories, a substantial loss in the polls could have ended in loss of credibility for both the party and the leader. However, Labour is more cohesive than Conservatives on this matter, and as such was probably less likely to alienate voters. The large backing of Labour MPs in favour of Remain makes it equally likely that a large proportion of Labour voters will vote accordingly. If the contrary occurs, it is likely that Corbyn will be held to be responsible.

One party that is in a difficult position is the SNP. In the recent Scottish election they lost some seats but were able to maintain control of Parliament. Overall, like Labour, they did not have a clear win or a clear loss. This will not affect their position or their influence on the EU referendum, which seems to be conditioned by other factors. As such, the SNP does not have much say on what happens. Some have argued that even though an official position in favour of Remain has been agreed upon, official members should stay clear of hard campaigning. The logic is that even though the party is in favour of remaining in the EU, an opposite outcome could potentially fuel a second independence referendum. This would only work, of course, if a majority of the Scottish vote in favour of remaining. As such, the SNP is stuck between a rock and a hard place, facing pressure to campaign for staying in the EU while juggling with the prospective of achieving Scottish independence.

The UK Independence Party, in contrast, had an overall good showing in the recent elections, after winning their first seats ever in the London and Welsh assemblies. They can use this momentum to push their agenda forward. Unlike other major parties they are campaigning to leave the EU, and as such they are obligated to use all of their resources to win the referendum. UKIP’s recent wins in London and Wales serve the purpose to remind voters that a significant party is in favour of leaving. Unlike the other parties named above, that have some division along their lines, UKIP seems to be the most solid. One of the spotlights of the election will be on what the party will do if voters decide to remain in the UK. Indeed, this would be the worst possible outcome for UKIP and could possibly set off an internal crisis. A loss could set forward a change in leadership, to give the party a fresh breath of air. However, a close defeat could strengthen party leadership in the medium term.

Except for a few wins in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats were unable to recover lost ground lost in the Westminster elections. While they are the most Europhile party looked at here, their big losses under the previous leadership has rendered them a minor political player with no real capacity of mobilising voters in the EU referendum. Indeed, from being part of government to being the fifth largest party of the UK party system in just one year has taken its toll. If they push hard for a Remain vote, and it eventually wins in the referendum, they will also have to push hard to claim ownership. At any rate, after losing their political prestige, they will have to work to convince voters of their central role in securing the Remain if it does happen. In contrast, they will easily be lumped together with the losers if the Leave wins. In this case, they will likely tumble to their worst position in recent years.

Every party faces different prospects in the EU referendum, based on their relative political weight coming in and their campaign standings. Large parties with recent electoral wins that are on the side of the Brexit result will naturally fair better than smaller parties with recent electoral losses that are on the opposite side of the Brexit result. In this sense Conservatives and Labour are bound to have less at stake than other parties because even though they have taken positions, their campaigns have been timid. In contrast, UKIP and the Liberal Democrats are smaller parties and have a clearer position on where they fall on the Brexit matter. If the latter parties lose, it will be much worse than if the former parties do. At any rate, winning parties will try and spin their victories as heroic and losing parties will attempt to spin their losses as hope for the future. In essence, whatever the result of the referendum is, parties will highlight the silver linings.

democratic-dashboardThis post also appeared on the Democratic Dashboard blog. 

This post represents the views of the author, who writes in a personal capacity, and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.

Dr Kenneth Bunker is a PhD in Political Science from the London School of Economics. He is also Director of, an electoral forecasting website focused on Latin America.

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