Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Labour’s Brexit dilemma

On quite possibly the most important issue facing our country, restructuring our political and economic relations with Europe after the Brexit vote, the Labour Party lacks a coherent policy. When you consider Labour’s electoral coalition this is understandable, but it is also potentially very damaging. Labour’s problem is that it’s traditional electoral base, a coalition of traditionally working class (disproportionately public sector), liberal/leftist middle-class and ethnic minority voters is hopelessly split on Brexit, and the associated issue of immigration. Generally speaking working-class voters were more likely to vote for Brexit, with income as well as age being a strong indicator of how someone voted in the referendum, whilst the middle-class liberals voted ‘Remain’. Labour’s challenge is to find a position on Brexit which holds this coalition together, and is logically coherent.

So far they have failed to do so. Labour’s current Brexit policy is, essentially, to mumble some general platitudes and then try and change the subject. But considering how important Brexit will be as an issue over the next few years, this isn’t good enough. Labour risks alienating both its ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ voting supporters. Rather than being the party of the 52% or the 48%, it could become the party of the 0%. The Liberal Democrats are, unsurprisingly, presenting themselves as the anti-Brexit party. So far this is working well for them; they’ve hit 14% in the opinion polls, taken the Richmond Park parliamentary seat from a renegade Tory and roughly doubled their share of the vote in the recent Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election. On the other side the Conservative Party has remodelled itself as the party of ‘sensible’ Brexit, though it remains divided on what concessions should be made for single market access, whilst UKIP remains the party of ‘hard’ Brexit.

In these circumstances, if the impact of Brexit is a major issue at the next general election (as is likely) it’s not clear who Labour will appeal to. They are currently polling at an abysmal 29%, and have a leader whose approval rating matches that of various tropical diseases. Labour performs best when the main political issue is the distribution of wealth within society. When this gets replaced by issues related to identity the party struggles. In Scotland, after independence replaced economics as the main political division after the 2014 referendum, support for the Scottish Labour Party collapsed. In the 2015 UK General Election they lost 40 of their 41 seats, and in 2016 they were replaced by the Conservatives as the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP, as the party of Scottish nationalism, got the support of previously Labour voters who voted ‘Yes’ in 2014. Correspondingly the Scottish Conservatives branded themselves as the assertive party of the union, and got an increased share of the unionist vote. As a result Scottish Labour was squeezed out.

The risk for Labour is that what happened in Scotland could be replicated, to some extent, across the rest of the UK. If Brexit, and associated identity issues like immigration, become the main cleavage in British politics the party could lose support to rivals with a clearer and firmer position on both sides. Broadly speaking it will lose ‘Remain’ voters to the Liberal Democrats, and ‘Leave’ supporters to the Conservatives and possibly UKIP. An interesting test will come with the Copeland by-election, after sitting Labour MP Jamie Reed decided he had a better chance of getting close to power in the nuclear energy industry rather than the Parliamentary Labour Party. The Conservatives are currently the bookies favourite to win the seat, which has been Labour since it was first contested in 1983. If they do so, and the Liberal Democrats increase their share of the vote, it will be a clear indication that the Labour Party really is in trouble. The Labour Party needs a position on Brexit which is both consistent and firm. At present it has neither, and it looks likely to start paying the price.  

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