Alena Ivanova says Labour’s previous triangulation has failed so it’s time to bury the idea of a Labour Brexit
A few months back the Chartist held its Annual General Meeting where I was pleased to be invited for a second year to discuss the Brexit challenge for Labour and how we campaign for Remain. The topic dominated most of the panels and a variety of views were comradely expressed, with or without substantial evidence backing. With the situation changing by the minute, it is doubly important to be mindful of what the data is telling us beyond the pithy headlines of the not always reliable media, and the myth of the Labour heartlands’ support for Brexit is one that needs continuous debunking.
It is an undeniable fact that around 60% of Labour-held constituencies voted to Leave the European Union (and around 70% of Tory-held ones too). It is also true that Labour cannot rely on electoral safety as it needs to make up ground to win a majority – and therefore reach beyond its safe seats to capture marginals. The path ahead has never been clear, or easy, and for Remainers such as myself the argument was always that we need to make up our minds about what is politically and morally right, and then campaign for our lives on it. Therefore, I have spent the last two and a half years shying away from the argument around the electoral necessity for Remain.
But of course that is not to say that such an argument does not exist. Taken on average, most polls show a consistent – if small – reversal of the Leave/Remain percentage, with roughly 55% to 45 % now backing Remain. While some of this is explained by the natural demographic changes of the electorate (voters coming of age, older people dying), it is also the case that some sections of the population have been changing their minds. Peter Kellner reports that this is particularly the case with Labour voters, nurses especially, who have previously believed some of the fairy tales of more funding for public services.
This matters not only because these will be the very Labour voters we’d need to regain marginals, but also because it confirms another piece of statistical evidence: for Labour Leave voters, Brexit comes after the NHS and decent services on their list of priorities. Meaning that when Labour inevitably has to accept the democratic will of its membership and back a Remain position, it still has the full arsenal of its bold domestic programme to respond to its own Leavers’ concerns.
And to go back to the constituencies themselves, it is a truth not spoken out nearly as often as ‘Labour constituencies voted to Leave’ that these voters were not the Labour voters in those constituencies! The majority of Labour voters, even in the marginals, voted to stay in the European Union. Of course that doesn’t mean that the party should ignore this previously inactive electorate – but it is lazy and untrue to think of Labour voters as Leave voters, just because that was the overall outcome in the constituencies they live in.
In terms of numbers, we now know (although you won’t hear it nearly as often) that the imaginary geography that emerged soon after the referendum in terms of Leave/Remain = North/South is just that – imaginary. As professor Danny Dorling points out, Essex – not Sunderland – is the capital of Brexit. In fact, it was the Home Counties – Kent and Essex in the South – that won Brexit, and the Labour party should not feel any additional allegiance to a result that was not the obvious will of the people the party was created to represent, when it clearly is not in their interest either.
Ultimately, dwelling on the numbers is not going to save us – it will not stop No Deal (or any) Brexit, it will not make a general election more or less likely and it will not be a substitute for a better, bolder, socialist campaign in a potential referendum. Whatever the supposed merits of Labour’s triangulation so far, they failed. The electorate is either unclear or uninterested on the party’s position regarding Brexit – Leavers think we’re Remain (because mostly we are), Remainers think we’re for Leaving (because mostly they spend hours on Twitter with the Lib Dems’ fake pie charts).
We have reached a point where we need to bury the alternative deal corpse – for the sake of the party’s survival more so than electoral gains. I am writing this as various journalists are debating whether Corbyn and McDonnell’s latest statements could see Labour go into an election promising a referendum and then remaining neutral once it’s called. Whether you’re a Leaver or Remainer, you’ve probably made up your mind – so why would you back a party that can’t?