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How local an issue is Brexit?

April 11, 2018 9:19 AM
By Mark Pack Author, 101 Ways To Win An Election in Liberal Democrat Newswire
Exit from Brexit
How big an issue should and will Brexit be in these local elections? Procedural puritans in all parties and none are often keen to say that council elections are about councils and shouldn't be about national issues. Happy though I often am to don the procedural puritan's garb, this is one case I pass up on it.

Partly that's because fundamentally in a democracy voters get to choose. Parties and candidates may very well want to persuade them to choose a particular option. They can - and should - point out the importance of what councils and directly-elected Mayors do. But it's the right of voters to choose the criteria they will use for casting their vote. That power of choice should be respected.

Especially as the other reason I pass is that local elections are something that national parties, national leaders and the national media all draw national lessons from. Whether it is changes of policy, leadership or strategy, local elections can and do change national politics. So it's hardly unreasonable for a voter deliberately to make use of that opportunity. All the more so for European Union citizens who didn't get to vote in the European referendum or the general election but can use these elections to express a view on Brexit. Saying to an EU citizen, "No, don't make your vote about your ability to continue living here" would be just a mite harsh.

Will voters, therefore, make Brexit a big part of their decision-making? Polling so far (albeit only from London) suggests they will. An affirmative answer is also what a large chunk of the Liberal Democrat campaign for the May elections depends on and is trying to secure, including the party launching a huge digital advertising campaign aimed at EU citizens and using 21 different languages.

This push for their vote, helped by the public support from figures such as Gina Miller for anti-Brexiters to vote Lib Dem, depends on people knowing what the Lib Dem position on Brexit actually is. That, so far, is not really the case as the evidence shows the public remains unclear where any of the parties sit on the issue. A reminder as ever that when a political activist says, "My party talks far too much about our policy X" that should almost always be followed by the refrain, "But the public have barely noticed we talk about it at all".

That said, a promising trend is the slow but steady movement towards opposing Brexit in various forms: people thinking the referendum result was the wrong outcome and that there should be a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal. Findings are sensitive not only to fluctuations but also to the exact question wordings different pollsters use, which is why the trends are the thing to keep an eye on. And the trends are heading in the right direction.

Perhaps most importantly, more people now think that Brexit will be bad for the NHS than think it will be good for it (31% - 25%). If that sort of lead increases, then the NHS will be a powerful way of reaching some of those who voted Leave and persuading them to change their minds, not on the basis of abstract arguments over Europe or projections about macroeconomic statistics in the future. But on the basis of the immediate health service they know, use and cherish.