Both wings of the Labour party share some culpability for Thursday’s defeat. David Cameron has the ultimate responsibility, having gambled our place in the EU and the world in an unnecessary referendum as an electoral ploy to appease potential UKIP voters and a party management tactic to buy off his own Eurosceptics. But Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn are also to blame.
Blair is strategically responsible because the alienation from the EU and progressive politics more generally of midlands, northern, east of England and Thames Gateway white working class voters is a direct result of the decision he and Jack Straw took to allow early free movement of labour from the east European accession countries. I cannot think of a logical reason why they pursued this policy. Its consequence has been to cause personal economic hardship for many workers exposed to competition that has driven down wages; a simultaneous immense pressure on housing and public services; and cultural disruption to small towns suddenly absorbing large migrant populations. These problems are real. We didn’t listen when voters complained. We didn’t ask them if they wanted mass migration. Worse than not listening, when we responded we dismissed them. We suggested their problems had other causes (obviously other causes contributed, not least a global recession followed by austerity, but migration of hundreds of thousands of people a year has a huge impact). We sanctimoniously accused them of being racist or under-educated about the benefits of immigration, dismissing their actual lived experience because we ‘knew best’. We’ve reaped the whirlwind now.
Corbyn is tactically responsible because of his insouciant approach to campaigning for the most important ballot in recent UK history. This might be down to simple lack of top-level campaigning experience or the communications skills necessary for a party leader. It might also be down to his attempt to hold onto the anti-European views he had vociferously expressed in parliament for 30 years whilst pretending to his mainly Euro-enthusiastic young followers that he agreed with them. A combination of lack of campaigning vigour which meant many Labour voters did not know the party’s position, half-insinuated indications that voting for Brexit was OK, and a bizarre focus on the merits of the hugely unpopular freedom of movement policy rather than economic arguments, helped ensure a third of Labour’s already diminished support voted for Leave.
The short term impact of Brexit is clearly a massive blow to progressive values and politics in the UK and a boost to the populist right. However, it is wrong to assume this is the end of the game for the centre-left in Britain. I would have preferred that we remained part of the world’s most successful supranational body and pursued progress alongside comrades from other European sister parties through the EU institutions as well as here at home. But it is not a requirement of progressive politics that it can only happen in EU member states. Two of our own majority Labour governments predated Common Market membership. Norway, Canada, Australia and the USA have been quite capable of pursuing centre-left politics in one country.
Whether the vehicle for centre-left politics remains the Labour party depends on whether we can rebuild our relationship with not just the one third of current Labour supporters who voted for Brexit, but also the millions of former Labour voters, now identifying as Tory or UKIP, who also backed it. If we do not re-engage with these voters we are gifting up to one third of our current meagre support to UKIP.
We need to rebuild an electoral coalition whose fundamental glue is the economic self-interest of the less well off half – plus enough to win – of society. The interests of ordinary working people have to be restored to the driving seat in Labour party policy making. We should welcome well-off social liberals who want to be part of our coalition but we have to start from the principle that they don’t get to impose policies that fit their moral values on working people who are adversely affected by them.
The alternative electoral strategy of building a coalition around cultural values rather than economic interests – a ‘progressive coalition’ attractive to former Lib Dems and Greens and shaped in the image of the Guardian’s editorial stances – has been tried and failed under Ed Miliband and now doubled-down on by Corbyn. There is no ‘progressive majority’ even in a binary referendum with an obviously more progressive option. Any delusion that the 16 million votes for Europe are the potential starting point for a winning Westminster first-past-the-post coalition is destroyed by their lop-sided geographical distribution. You can’t win a Commons majority by piling up 70 per cent of the vote in bits of London, Brighton, Bristol, Oxford, Cambridge and the student quarters of northern cities because there just aren’t enough MPs elected there.
Labour’s requirements are:
- A genuine contrition for the mistakes made in exposing our own core supporters to the economic blizzard of free movement of labour.
- Party policy-making that reflects the views of our potential voters, rather than the prejudices of a self-selecting and very middle class and metropolitan membership.
- A leadership which can communicate with, empathise with the values of, and not terrify, the third of our voters who backed Brexit and the voters we had already lost to the Tories and UKIP.
Labour can either make itself attractive once more to midlands, northern, east of England and Thames Gateway white working class voters, as we were just 10 years ago, or we can die as political force capable of governing in Britain.
We need to move fast because the battle between us and UKIP for those voters may be just months away in an autumn snap election.