In the European Union referendum, 70 per cent of Labour-held constituencies voted for Leave. If seats in London and a couple of other metropolitan are excluded, the figure rises to about 90 per cent. And as a recent report shows, it was Labour’s core working-class voters who opted for Leave in these constituencies.
The figures from these constituencies are telling. They include 70 per cent of council tenants, 68 per cent of those renting from housing associations or in the private rented sector, 66 per cent of those with income of less than £1,200 per month, and 59 per cent of those describing themselves as working class. These figures point to a demographic that is struggling to make ends meet against a backdrop of rising immigration, pressure on public services and contracting wage growth.
At the same time as alienating these core working-class voters, Labour is in danger of losing some of its more idealistic middle-class supporters by appearing to compromise on the Brexit negotiations . They are not pleased to see Labour MPs supporting the start of Brexit negotiations when it’s clear that, in their hearts, these MPs are not really happy to do so.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the chasm between the Labour Party and its erstwhile supporters has grown, as demonstrated recently in two by-elections. In Richmond, the Labour candidate received less than 4 per cent of the vote, and the result in Sleaford and North Hykeham left Labour finishing behind UKIP and the Liberal Democrats, with no more than 10 per cent support.
“Labour comes fourth as Brexit stance baffles by-election voters” was The Times headline on the Lincolnshire result – and with some justification. Labour has not yet found its way to a convincing and coherent place on Brexit.
Unfortunately, this situation mirrors the problems which Labour has had in dealing with the European Union for a long time. The party’s attitude to the EU has been drifting away from that of its non-metropolitan supporters for many years. However, instead of adopting a critical but constructive stance – recognising the views of the electorate on control, legal primacy, immigration and cost – Labour’s national policy has been almost fervently pro-EU, reflected in the attitude of many Remain Labour supporters who seem to think that the end of the civilised world had come when the referendum result came through.
There is still a lingering tendency among Remain Labour people to think that, if only they had an opportunity to explain properly what the benefits of EU membership really are, most of Labour’s traditional supporters who voted Leave would see the error of their ways and switch over to the Remain side. There is also a tendency for those who voted Leave to be regarded by the Party collectively as old, stupid, ill-educated and ill-informed. Actually, the overwhelming majority of Labour supporters who voted Leave were very well aware of what they did not like about the EU, the impact it was having on their daily lives and what they were voting against. Both these attitudes are completely toxic in terms of winning back the support which Labour has lost and which it very urgently needs to recover.
The root of the problem is that the Labour Party at Westminster sees the world through a different lens to many of those who voted Labour at the 2015 general election – which even then, of course, Labour lost. Some 90 per cent of all Labour MPs favoured Remain whereas a substantial majority of all the Party’s 2015 working-class support voted for Leave. Worse than this, of the 9.3 million people who voted Labour at the last general election, not only did nearly 40 per cent – close to 3.5 million of them – vote Leave in 2016 but a recent poll indicated that half of these people no longer feel that Labour represents their point of view and do not intend – at least at the moment – to vote Labour in future.
This is a situation from which Labour has to recover. And they must do so despite the fact that the vast majority of Labour MPs clearly wish that Remain had won. MPs evidently know that the result must be accepted because they are well aware of the sentiments of their voters and they know that appearing to disrupt the Brexit process would be electoral suicidal. This is why therefore, by a large majority, they supported the recent House of Commons vote for triggering Article 50 in March 2016. But they still have a big problem because it appears to the public that their main reason for doing so was not conviction but electoral expediency.
So, what can be done? The only practical way ahead is surely for Labour MPs to stop looking backwards and to stop wishing that the referendum result had been different, and to concentrate constructively on helping the UK to get the best possible deal out of the current negotiations.
There will inevitably be a tendency, however, to try to score points off the government as the negotiations proceed and there may be some who still want to see the whole Brexit process derailed. Labour should, however, be very wary of these sorts of tactics. The danger for the Labour Party, if there is obstruction and point scoring, is that they will be seen as half-hearted about Brexit.
If this happens they will alienate still further the blue-collar Leavers. They will also anger the wave of new support that the Labour Party has seen over the last two years. These new supporters do not want to see a Parliamentary Labour Party whose attitude looks like an unattractive mixture of pragmatism over principle and unenthusiastic support for bringing the Brexit negotiations to a satisfactory conclusion.
Fighting hard for a successful Brexit may not be where most Labour MPs would really like to be right now. But the alternative may be that the party loses so much more support that it stops being a credible electoral force capable of achieving anything at all. Putting the referendum result behind them and concentrating on producing the best achievable outcome without reservation is for Labour MPs and the whole labour movement – a very much better strategy.
John Mills is an economist, entrepreneur and political commentator