Britain and Europe – what have we learned, and what next?

Trust me, I’m not one of those experts you’ve had enough of. But I know my way around a bunch of numbers (*ask me about Excel at reasonable rates!) and I’m writing as I’m trying to process what the hell happened in the Euro Elections, perhaps like you.


  1. I want to remain in the EU, so feel free to be sceptical on that basis, but come on, let’s be friends…
  2. I live in Bristol, which had an election result so massively different from the rest of the UK, you might be amazed. “How can I possibly be objective in this organic, locally grown, vegan bike-riding lefty paradise?” you may well ask. I like eating meat in McDonalds, if that helps.

The big numbers

Here’s the latest from the BBC.

If you’re The Sun or The Daily Express, that means Brexit won, right?

Not exactly. The clearest pro-Brexit parties, Brexit and UKIP got 31.6 + 3.3 = 34.9% of the votes between them. While Brexit got the most overall, they were clearly opposed by parties running on a pro-referendum, campaign to remain ticket. There just happened to be more than one of them. The Lib Dems, Greens and Change UK + nationalists Plaid Cymru and SNP were the clearest, I think. Their vote came to 20.3 + 12.1 + 3.4 + 1 + 3.6 = 40.4% including nationalists (or 35.8% without)

On either basis. people overall did not demand that Brexit is delivered – actually, the opposite.

Looking a different way through party swing, how did the Brexit/UKIP block fare against just the non-nationalist Lib Dems, Greens and Change UK?

Gain by Brexit/UKIP = 31.6 – 24.2 = 7.4%

Gain by Lib Dems/Greens/Change UK = 21.0%

That’s a net swing towards the pro-referendum parties more than towards the Brexiters.

What about the MEPs elected?

Brexit/UKIP overall gained 29 – 24 = 5 MEPs

Lib Dems/Greens/Change UK gained 15 + 4 + 0 (thanks for playing, Chukka) = 19 MEPs overall.

So the vote, the swing and the MEPs returned are overall more pro-referendum and pro-remain than pro-Brexit.

If this were a UK parliament then, yes, Farage would be Prime Minister and we’d all look forward to Anne Widdecombe’s contributions as Home Secretary, Treasurer or Minister for Strictly Come Dancing, BUT IT’S NOT.

Do we even know what people voted for?

That’s a really good question, thanks for asking. Anne Widdecombe argued that it was a vote to leave the EU because the Brexit Party only stood for one thing, and other parties got votes for a variety of reasons. (Video below from BBC iPlayer may only be visible in UK and until the end of June 2019.)

But by this logic, with only the Brexit party’s vote counting, they won a one-competitor race. So…

It turns out that YouGov researched what people thought the different parties stood for on Brexit, and you might be surprised at the results (full article here…)

Yes, it’s a mixed bag. All very nuanced and confusing, especially around the middle. People really didn’t know whether or not Labour were anti-Brexit (though more thought they were than not), and similarly with the Conservatives (just the other way around.)

But look carefully at what people thought even of the Brexit Party. Over 1 in 5 people didn’t know they were pro-Brexit, even though that was their only policy and the clue was in the name. In a close vote where a couple of percentage points could tip things either way,

3 percent of people thought the Brexit Party was anti-Brexit.

Honestly. The state of our country.

But why did the big parties’ votes collapse? And why did weird things happen in places like Bristol?

I think it’s all about two things which are individually hard to measure but combine to make visible support:

Votes = Policies x Confidence

If you love a policy and you’re confident that the party who says they’ll deliver will deliver, that’s a vote winner. But if either policy or confidence fails, it can all zero out.

For example, if the Lib Dems promised to get us to the moon and build an all-British stadium complex big enough to host the Olympics in 2032, that would be amazing, I would love us to compete with home advantage in the low-gravity BMX freestyle, and I would definitely vote for that if I thought they could deliver. But it’s unlikely, so not a vote winner.

On the other hand, if the Conservatives promised to stop free school meals for every child, exacerbate poverty among the least well off and give tax cuts to the rich, I would totally believe they could and would deliver that. But I don’t like the policy so, for me, not a vote winner either.

You need the right policy and the confidence to deliver to get the vote.

What happened to the Conservatives in the EU 2019 election was not a change of policy – lots of people liked their policy – but a collapse of confidence. Brexit has consumed political energy in the last couple of years to the point where it’s all that seemed to get worked on, and all people wanted to get done. In this, almost literal, “YOU HAD ONE JOB” situation, the Conservatives didn’t deliver. So confidence and votes fell like Eddie The Eagle with a broken ski.

What happened to Labour? Maybe a crisis of confidence, but probably even more a confusion and rejection of policy.

Change UK never got off the ground because they never commanded recognition of either policy or ability to deliver. The leaflet they sent us about their group of amazing independent candidates failed to name any candidates, possibly because at time of printing, there were contradictory stories about who they were.

The Greens have a lot to be happy about, especially in Bristol where they topped the vote by a loooooong way…

I think Bristol has always wanted to vote Green, and loves Green policies, but lacked the confidence they’d be able to do much in Parliament. They closely contested my constituency, Bristol West, after the Lib Dems lost popular confidence thanks to the 2010 coalition.

But then Thangam Debbonaire MP turned out to have not only the best name in Parliament, but also built confidence as an incredible local MP. She was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after the 2015 election, fought it and came out with purpose. She was made a shadow minister but quit to fight for better Labour leadership. She defied the party whip to oppose Article 50 and faced hateful opposition from within the local party. She refused to stand aside for the Greens in 2017, pointing to her record as a “progressive MP” and local champion, and turned the seat from a marginal to one of the safest Labour seats in the country.

Even that didn’t help Labour win here. It doesn’t take much policy to be wrong or confidence to drop for support to come crashing down.

General Elections are more complicated, with more policies expected and demanded to govern a country rather than contest one issue. My guess is that if there were an election tomorrow, Labour would still romp home here for all the reasons they did in 2017.

But if that election taught us that marginal seats can become super safe looking very quickly, we should also have learned by now that there is no such thing as safe and, frankly, anything could happen.

And whatever parties want to commit to, they’d better be sure they are policies people want AND are confident they can deliver.

So what should Labour do next?

It’s hard to be Labour, trying to reconcile leavers and remainers among members and voters alike. But on Europe, they need to clarify the policy and build the confidence.

The trouble with committing to leave now is that many (Brexit Party supporters excepted) have little clarity about what would be next, and diminishing confidence that this can be done well.

Lack of confidence, not lack of policy, killed the Conservative vote in 2019.

If we can’t be confident in what Labour policy will accomplish – and “let’s try and renegotiate” would be pretty vague and uninspiring – they’re going to have to commit to something deliverable.

Committing to seeking a fresh election isn’t enough, because what do you put in the manifesto when you succeed?

Committing to rescind Article 50 is bold and, arguably, anti-democratic and suicidal.

But committing to a People’s Vote for confirmation of the path ahead is sensible. Labour can still respect the differences of opinion people have on Europe, and allow MPs to go separate ways on what outcome to campaign for. Having the vote is, by definition, democratic in my view, and I think it’s the only way to work out what people really meant when they voted in the Euro Elections last week.

But we’ve already voted!

Yes, and generally in elections we vote again every few years. Parliaments get a chance to work things out over five years maximum, less on average. We are most of the way towards a time when we’d naturally have a confirmatory vote on anything else through a fresh General Election, so why not for leaving the EU now that we know the terms?

How a fresh vote could work

Three options, and a single transferable preference vote for each person. The options would be the only ones which are currently deliverable. That’s the only way for people to have confidence that the process can deliver right away. No wish lists. Right now those options are:

  • Leave the EU without a deal
  • Leave the EU with the transition deal negotiated by Theresa May
  • Remain in the EU for now

But it can’t be a fair vote if it’s split three ways, can it?

That’s an argument the Brexit Party tried using to dismiss the whole idea of a People’s Vote as unfair and unworkable. This would be a fair criticism if one remain option faced two leave options, winner takes all.

But a transferable preference vote overcomes that problem. You simply put a “1” by your first choice and “2” by your next favourite option. That’s all you need – even easier than “1, 2, 3”

How would that work?

You add up the totals for everyone’s first preferences. If one has more than 50% of the votes, that’s it, game over, thanks for playing.

But if not, you take away the least popular option and use the second preferences from the people who voted for it. Adding those to the first preferences will give a clear result.

So for example, let’s say 40% put Remain as first choice, 40% want no-deal Brexit most, leaving 20% preferring transition-deal Brexit. You’d then look at the second preferences of the transition-deal Brexiters. If more of them want no-deal Brexit, that’s what we would have as the clear winner. It could go either way.

EXTRA CREDIT READING: Yes, it can be complicated…

If you offer a lot of options, you could end up with different results depending on how you add them up. This is one reason to keep a multiple choice ballot as simple as possible.

Here’s a great study from using live polling data from April 2019. They went with four options, including a “Softer Brexit” to be negotiated.

Remember, this is real data, not made up to make an awkward “what if” scenario. I think it’s one hell of a breakfast buffet.

REMAIN is Marmite on toast. Lots of people love it the most, lots hate it, there’s not much middle ground.

NO DEAL is black pudding. Quite a few fans, but significantly more people don’t like it than like it.

SOFTER BREXIT and MAY’S DEAL are the blander, more cereal-like offerings. The soft Brexit people imagine they might be able to get is cornflakes. No one dislikes cornflakes. Hardly anyone really loves them either. But at least they’re better than May’s Deal, which appears to be cold porridge. Yuck. I mean, it might be better than starving, and it’s not as hated as black pudding, but there’s a very short queue for it.

Now, you can imagine how any one option for everyone is going to be unpopular.

Even more awkwardly, there’s more than one way to serve this breakfast mess. With a single transferable preference vote (also known as “Alternative Vote”), it turns out that remain would win, though it’s close. Marmite for all – people love it!

But through another way of counting the votes, say by eliminating the most unpopular options first, Remain would actually get knocked out in the first round and Softer Brexit would win. You’re all getting corn flakes because nobody hates them!

(PS – remember, this is REAL DATA, and that the cornflakes are NOT REALLY ON THE TABLE. They’re just something people would not mind if they were. The porridge isn’t looking so bad now, is it?)

So, in conclusion

But really

We are all going to have to deal with a lot of people we know and love being rather unhappy and feeling treated unfairly, possibly for quite a few years to come.

We’re all going to have to choose between sticking in groups of people who agree with us and mistrusting everyone else, or getting back to some good old British moaning behind people’s backs and just within earshot while still choosing to be polite to their faces and keeping our inner rage to ourselves, thanks very much.

After all, we all know how frustrating and disappointing British life can be, but in the end, don’t we have one overriding thing in common?

We are all part of a nation that is most famous for things that look completely crap but turn out, given half a chance, to be absolutely amazing.


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  • Reply

    Patrick RIGG

    Hi Bern,
    Excellent.,thought provoking article and very well researched, and considered. I say this as someone who fundamentally disagrees with you over Brexit!
    I am not convinced about let’s be friends. How can anyone be friends with you if you eat burgers in a certain well known eatery? That’s one less for me.
    Seriously, l think the simple answer is that no one really knows the answer. The genie is out of the lamp and running amok. We can juggle the figures as much as we like ; write innumerable quadratic equations and drive ourselves, and others insane with endless theory. We will not know a final decision until a final “deal” or “no deal” is decided and implemented. Even then will we really know whether or not we have reached the right conclusion in our lifetime? I somehow doubt it. Even now 40 years later we cannot agree if we were right or wrong in 1973!
    Human nature is fickle.

    • Reply


      Thanks Patrick. Even though we might disagree on what we want in terms of a Brexit outcome, I hope we can agree that the political process to date has been toxic and damaging, and that people want to move on from it. I wrote a followup, “Remain needs to change”, about that and I’d love to know what you think!

  • Reply

    David Matthews

    Been, I like what I’ve read but the fundamental problem lies with our existing Parliament; there can be no second referendum / confirmatory vote unless a majority in Parliament agrees. In addition, I’m not convinced that offering Mrs May’s thrice discredited ‘deal’ makes any sense. Personally, bearing in mind the situation we’re in following the EU parliamentary elections, a people’s vote should be between leaving or staying. Then all the relevant and honest arguments can be presented and, I would hope, thinking Britons would vote to remain.
    Of course, another factor that, perhaps, needs to be considered is what is likely to happen now in other EU countries; that might well change the whole landscape again.

    • Reply


      Thanks David. I’m not sure that the deal makes no sense, as it’s a route to most kinds of potential final outcomes, and so I’d hesitate to write it off. In terms of the breakfast food analogy, no one wants a bowl of mush, but at least you’ve got a bowl. You could put something better in there. Opponents may have been trying too hard to break the bowl. I’ve taken “what next” a bit further in a follow up, “Remain needs to change.” Love to know what you think.

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