How Labour abandoned its Brexit-supporting grassroots

By MARCUS STEAD

Me September 2019
Marcus Stead

AS THE MEDIA circus focussed on events at the Supreme Court, the Labour Party Conference in Brighton demonstrated the extent to which there is now an enormous disconnect between the Labour membership and the voters in its heartland constituencies.

By sitting through an hour of BBC Parliament’s uninterrupted coverage of the conference on Monday afternoon, it became clear that the demographic in the hall was far removed from a typical Labour constituency in the valleys of South Wales, the former mining towns of Yorkshire and the ex-mill towns of Lancashire.

This was an occasion for the middle class university student, the college lecturer and the white collar public sector worker, rather than the ex-miner, the self-employed plumber or the school leaver who can’t find a steady job.

The entryism in the period shortly before and after Jeremy Corbyn became leader that saw the Labour Party membership jump from below 200,000 to around half a million has changed the character of the grass roots party completely, and in ways that has resulted in an alarming detachment from its working class voters.

The atmosphere in the hall was frenzied and slightly unhinged. There was intense howling where there would once have been polite applause. The tradition of standing ovations and enthusiastic cheering was replaced by the chanting of aggressive slogans. These people had bought into the dangerous personality cult of Corbyn, and their behaviour was akin to that of a cranky fringe religious sect.

Few present at the conference would have been there a decade ago, when the dividing lines were between shades of social democracy. Back then, you were either ‘Old Labour’, in the mould of Neil Kinnock and John Smith, or you were a disciple of the ‘New Labour’ project, as either a Blairite or a Brownite.

This year, you were either on board with ‘Project Corbyn’, or you were someone to be scorned and despised. A very large number of backbench Labour MPs, legacies from the Labour party of the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s, stayed away completely.

But most concerning of all was the way in which one speaker after another took to the stage to denounce the Brexit referendum result. Everyone, from prominent members of Corbyn’s front bench, to purple-haired students with rings through their noses took a similar tone: They believed that people in Labour constituencies had been conned and misled into voting Leave in 2016, though some went further and came very close indeed to saying on the stage what they’re probably saying in private, namely that working class voters were too stupid to understand Brexit, but that they, the enlightened ones, knew what was best for them.

The delegates in the hall had little idea how condescending they will have appeared in their party’s own heartlands, and it contrasted sharply with the Labour party of old, which was based around the principle of working class people using their collective power to improve their standard of living.

Indeed, the Labour Party of old-school patriotic socialists was, to a very large extent, ahead of the Conservatives in understanding the dangers of the EU project from its very earliest days.

Hugh_Gaitskell
Hugh Gaitskell

The greatest ever eurosceptic speech made in Britain was delivered by Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell in 1962. Tony Benn, long-time mentor to Jeremy Corbyn, was against the EU project from the outset, primarily because he understood the dangers of a lack of democracy and accountability at the heart of its institutions.

The underrated Peter Shore opposed EEC membership in the 1970s, and in the early 1990s accurately predicted that the Maastricht Treaty would lead to unelected bankers and officials imposing austerity and privatisation on EU member states.

Jeremy Corbyn himself had a forty year track record as a euroscpetic, and opposed every single EU treaty from the time he entered Parliament in 1983 until he became Labour leader in 2015. He almost certainly still is deep down, because whenever he tries to defend the EU or offers lukewarm support for Remain, he sounds like a hostage reading our his captor’s demands. On Brexit, Corbyn is very much at odds with those who elected him as leader, but by standing in the middle of the road he is repeatedly being knocked down by both sides and is pleasing nobody, something he doesn’t seem to have grasped despite doing this for four years.

Five million Labour voters backed Leave in 2016. According to Professor Chris Hanretty’s research, of the seats Labour held at the time of the referendum, 148 voted Leave and 84 Remain. Even allowing for a margin of error, the pattern is clear – a clear majority of Labour voters backed Brexit.

There isn’t a stand-out reason why those five million Labour voters supported Brexit. Yes, a small minority will fit the cliché painted by snobby Remainers that working class people voted Leave because they don’t like foreigners.

But for many, concerns over decades of uncontrolled mass immigration has nothing to do with a dislike of the immigrants themselves. The sheer volume of immigration has resulted in the suppression of wages and put huge strain on public services. Others feel they’ve been ignored by the political elite for decades. A significant number have seen their standard of living stagnate or go backwards over many years, with no tangible improvement in supposedly good economic times.

The one overriding factor as to why five million Labour voters backed Brexit is this: For these voters, life just isn’t very good. A vote for Brexit was their way of making their frustrations known.

Far from regretting their decision in 2016, many of the five million Labour Leave voters broke the habit of a lifetime and helped Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party to a resounding victory in May’s European Parliamentary elections.

The Brexit Party did best in the north east of England, followed by the valleys of south Wales, yet the Labour leadership still doesn’t get the message – they voted Leave in 2016, they meant Leave, and they haven’t changed their minds.

Unlike previous European Parliamentary elections, where working class communities leant their voted to UKIP, only to return to Labour at the following general election, there is strong evidence something more profound and permanent is happening this time.

In July, a YouGov poll in Wales showed that support for Labour had halved since the start of the year, and for the first time in more than a century, the Conservatives were in the lead. There had been a ‘Boris Bounce’ that had seen the Tories gain seven percentage points, but even then, they were only on 24%, with Labour on 22%, with the Brexit Party in third place on 18%.

In large parts of south Wales, as with much of northern England and the former industrial Midlands, the scars from the Thatcher era run too deep for many to vote Conservative, but there is every reason to believe these communities are willing to abandon a Labour Party that has this week made it abundantly clear that it has abandoned them.

What is less clear is which party these former Labour voters will lend their support to. Unlike European Parliamentary elections, general elections are contested using the ‘first past the post’ system, and this presents a danger of its own.

If the eurosceptic vote is split several ways in what were once ‘safe’ Labour seats, there is every possibility pro-Remain candidates will ‘come through the middle’ and win, which would lead to an even greater level of disconnect between working people and the political establishment.

Author: Marcus Stead

I am a freelance journalist and author living in Cardiff, UK. In my career to date, I have worked in newspaper, radio and online journalism. I have also had three sports biographies published, on jockey Frankie Dettori, rugby star Brian O'Driscoll and controversial cricketer Kevin Pietersen. The purpose of this blog is to give you a chance to read some of my work that has not yet been published in print form. If you wish to use any of this material, please drop me an email at: marcusstead@hotmail.co.uk. I am willing to adapt or expand the work in question to suit your publication.

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