Britain’s Labour Party Has Tried to Appeal to Everyone on Brexit—and Failed

World Politics Review, 04.06.2019
Aleks Eror, periodista independiente serbio serbior basado entre Belgrado y Londres

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves EU headquarters in Brussels, March 21, 2019 (AP/Frank Augstein).

When the last of the ballots had finally been counted in the recent European Parliament elections, it became abundantly clear that one of the biggest losers was Britain’s Labour Party, and its Brexit strategy most of all. The party finished in third place, behind both Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and the ardently pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, with a mere 14.1 percent of the total vote. If the results are anything to go by, then Labour’s attempts to appeal to both Leavers and Remainers by being as ambiguous as possible about Brexit have actually had the opposite effect and alienated both sides of this deep divide in the United Kingdom.

Although the Brexit Party was the big winner of the night, topping the polls with 31.6 percent and winning every region in England except London, Farage’s outfit fell 8.8 points short of the combined total accrued by parties seeking to overturn the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union. This may not serve as resounding proof that the national consensus on Brexit has shifted, but it does show that the country is still irreparably polarized and that those politicians who advocate compromise appeal to the smallest of constituencies.

It appears that the Labour leadership has finally gotten the message, as Jeremy Corbyn seems to be coming around to the idea of putting any final Brexit deal to the public in a new referendum. Of course, Corbyn has made similar noises in the past before backpedaling. This time, however, things feel different. Having lost such a sizable portion of its core vote to parties committed to remaining in the EU, it looks like Corbyn has little other choice.

As I’ve written here before, the Labour Party finds itself in a unique and unenviable position. Although its base is ardently pro-European, with 65 percent backing Remain in 2016, 61 percent of the party’s parliamentary seats are located in Leave-voting constituencies, as are a further 87 percent of seats narrowly held by the Conservative Party that Labour would like to flip. For nearly three years now, the Labour leadership has strained to endear itself to Brexit voters in the hopes of winning a sizable parliamentary majority in the next election. That has come at the expense of the party’s Remain base, who were widely believed to have nowhere else to go: The Tories are unequivocally the party of Brexit, while the Lib Dems were regarded as too tainted by their time in government under Prime Minister David Cameron—the man who promised the Brexit referendum—to pose a serious threat. The Lib Dems’ miserable performance in the 2017 general election only confirmed that. But last weekend’s election seems to indicate that Remainers in the Labour Party are fed up and the Lib Dems are no longer quite so toxic.

According to the respected pollster Lord Ashcroft, 22 percent of 2017 Labour voters defected to the Lib Dems in last month’s European Parliament elections. A further 17 percent switched to the Greens. A mere 13 percent lent their vote to the Brexit Party. Although elections for the European Parliament hardly see the same turnout and dynamics as parliamentary ballots, and are instead often used as a safe arena to register a protest vote, what the results do show is that Labour has more to lose from turning its back on Remainers than on Leavers.

The endless fascination in the British media with white, working-class, Labour-voting Brexiters seriously inflates the significance of this demographic. Just 20.7 percent of the Leave vote, which is some 3.5 million people, came from voters who backed Labour in the 2015 general election. This is marginally less than the 3.6 million Leave votes that came from the supporters of smaller parties and people who don’t usually vote at all. It’s also often overlooked that, at 39 percent, a slightly higher proportion of Conservatives—4 percent more—voted for Remain than the other way around. Labour could potentially offset the loss of its Leave voters by appealing to Tory Remainers. It already did this successfully in 2017, when 1.1 million of them defected to Labour, compared to the 850,000 that went the other way.

There should be no doubt that if Labour came out firmly against Brexit, it would eat into a significant slice of the vote for the Lib Dems, Greens and the new, centrist Change UK party, which was founded by Labour MPs disaffected with Corbyn’s leadership. Although in all likelihoodthat still wouldn’t win the party a majority in Parliament, Labour is well positioned to top the polls, which would hand it democratic legitimacy and the right to govern either as a minority government or as the head of a chaotic, anti-Brexit coalition. In such a bitterly polarized country, this is arguably the party’s only route to power—especially at a time when all signs seem to indicate that the era of the big parliamentary majority is over. The Conservatives haven’t achieved one since 1987, when they had Margaret Thatcher at the helm. Labour managed to do so more recently, in 2005, but that was an entirely different political era that bears no resemblance to the current electoral landscape. Hung parliaments and paper-thin majorities are Britain’s new reality.

The far-right UKIP’s strong showing in the 2014 European elections spooked Cameron into promising an “in or out” referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU if reelected. Now, expect to see the Tories attempt to fend off Farage once again by adopting his single-issue political program and committing to a hard Brexit. No deal is the preferred outcome for the majority of Conservative Party members. In a country split down the middle and in no mood for reconciliation, Labour needs to go the other way. To do otherwise would be helping the Tories satisfy their own membership at the expense of Labour’s base.

Of course, it will be hugely divisive in the short to medium term, but in the long run it will help cement the party along the central fault lines in British politics: age and level of education. Labour is the party of the under-50s and the university-educated, who are overwhelmingly pro-EU. Enabling Brexit would be an unforgivable betrayal of the party’s core vote, one that would have disastrous long-term consequences for Labour. Keeping both sides on board doesn’t appear to be an option, so Corbyn is going to have to pick sides.

No matter what, Brexit will continue to dominate the political conversation for decades. Corbyn and the Labour leadership need to look beyond the mirage of parliamentary majorities and focus on winning the battle of values. Backing a second referendum or pushing for the revocation of Article 50 is the first step toward doing that. This might not be a winning strategy under the current first-past-the-post system of voting, which forces parties to prioritize marginal seats with small majorities over those where their support is strongest, since the candidate with the most votes in each constituency wins, even if it’s by a single vote. But it’s the best move the Labour Party has open to it.

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