Editorial: Divisive Politics
David Cameron made a monumental blunder when he promised a referendum on UK membership of the European Union, and put it in the Conservative Party’s 2015 general election manifesto. It was a promise based on a fear that the Eurosceptics in his party would continue to cause immense trouble unless he offered them what they most wanted: the opportunity to take the country out of the EU. The Conservatives were also losing votes to Nigel Farage and UKIP, and risked losing seats.
“We want our country back” was a prominent slogan of the Leave campaign. Cameron believed that the reforms he won from Brussels would placate the Tory Eurosceptics. However, they merely added strength to their case that the EU was unreformable and that the only alternative was for the UK to leave. An unreformable, undemocratic EU, alongside immigration, was at the core of the Brexit case. Those on the Remain side who believed that further reforms were possible, leading to a more democratic, socially responsible EU, were simply brushed aside.
Cameron’s gamble on a Remain victory ended unexpectedly in a UK vote to leave the EU by 51.9% to 48.1%, on an overall turnout of 72%, with England and Wales supporting an exit, against Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to stay. With the bulk of the population England held the key to the outcome, and it was clear over the duration of the campaign that discontent with the perceived adverse effects of EU membership ran deep in areas outside London, which has long been an ethnically mixed city living in relative harmony. Problematically for Labour, opposition to the EU was at its highest in traditional Labour strongholds in the Midlands, East Anglia, the north of England and Yorkshire. Of those only the University cities of Cambridge, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Norwich voted to remain.
Cameron’s decision to resign and force an election for a new Tory leader and Prime Minister in October killed off further criticism of his premiership both within the Tory party and the anti-Cameron press. On hearing of his resignation those who were his most vocal parliamentary critics were fulsome in their praise of his leadership. They were no doubt happy to see the back of him in spite of the letter of support signed by 84 Tories on the eve of the referendum vote. His resignation came earlier than he had previously announced and prompted an immediate assumption that Boris Johnson would be the favoured candidate and likely winner. But Johnson surprised everyone by announcing that he will not contest the Tory leadership.
Labour on the other hand, has the difficult problem of reconnecting with its supporters who have become alienated and disillusioned. Importantly, this requires a change in the method of selecting parliamentary candidates. For too long potential candidates have been chosen from a narrow band of political professionals, often imposed by the Labour hierarchy. This should no longer be tolerated. A thorough study of the backgrounds of candidates is needed with the unions involved in this. And if Labour is to persist with all women short lists, then why not short lists of working class candidates with roots in the local community and experience of the world away from the Westminster bubble?
At the present time, winning back these supporters appears to be a forlorn cause. But a closer look at what has happened in traditional Labour areas over the last three decades or so reveals a more nuanced picture than simple opposition to the EU. Working class Labour voters in the Midlands, the north of England and Yorkshire were affected badly by the accelerated decline in coal mining, shipbuilding, steel and manufacturing, which began under the Thatcher government and continued under Major and Blair. Hundreds of thousands of skilled and semi-skilled jobs were lost and not replaced in equal numbers and quality. Families with a single breadwinner became dependent on both parents working, where jobs were available, at low rates of pay topped up with tax benefits. This has become the norm in many areas of employment. And the 2008 economic crisis caused by the banks exacerbated their situation as austerity bit into their meagre incomes. The personal crises experienced by many families and individuals created anger and frustration and a feeling of alienation from the political process. Ultimately a pent up anger was directed at the political class in Britain and Brussels. It exploded in the polling booths where they voted to leave the EU.
But directing anger at the EU was misplaced. The EU was not the source of most of their problems. Most were internally inflicted. Many of those who voted to leave the EU know very little about how it works as was revealed in the pre-referendum debates and discussions. But elitist politicians like Michael Gove persuaded them not to trust the elites of Brussels bureaucrats who impose unwanted rules and regulations on suffering voters and urged them to ignore think tank and Treasury experts forecasting an economic downturn following a leave vote. Gove’s warnings resonated with disillusioned voters, blissfully ignoring that Gove himself is a leading member of the political elite who was happy to use economic experts to criticise a Labour government.
The Leave campaign was focused heavily on immigration, a real concern of many voters. Responsibility for this lies with the Blair government which supported the expansion of the EU, and opened the door to European migrants in 2004 when they rejected the option of a 7 year waiting period. And the Blairites in the Parliamentary Labour Party at the time went along with this and other policies that alienated many Labour supporters. So it’s a bit rich of them now, with seats in the Midlands, the North, East Anglia and Wales, to criticise Corbyn for failing to present a convincing case for Remain, when the majority of their constituents voted to leave. If Corbyn failed, then so did they. They, not Corbyn, are responsible for the anger of Labour’s voters.
Their criticism of his campaign is merely a means of undermining him further. It is also wrong. Corbyn addressed meetings up and down the country almost every day. His message was broadly that what was needed was a social Europe not the Europe negotiated by Cameron and that the problem with immigration was largely a problem of employers seeking cheap labour. A problem of inadequate protection of the UK working class. He put the question of class interest at the centre of the debate. His message was almost exactly right but it did not excite the media and was consequently not reported. Corbyn remains one of the very few politicians who deserves the most elementary respect.
Rome was not built in a day, but Corbyn’s opponents expect him to deliver quick positive results. He has a long-term project, the core of which is to re-connect with working class Labour voters deserted by a Blairite Labour party. But they are not prepared to go the long haul. They want Corbyn out and used Margaret Hodge’s call for a vote of no confidence in his leadership as a means to achieve this with mass resignations from the Shadow Cabinet pressurising him to resign. (Incidentally, this is the same Margaret Hodge who, as a radical leftist and ally of Corbyn, led Islington Council in the 1980s against Thatcherite policies). However, their behavior is not so much designed to get rid of Corbyn in the short term but to provide the conditions for a situation where Labour cannot take advantage of the current Tory mess. Then, when that comes to pass, they will attempt to shift the blame onto Corbyn’s leadership.
Corbyn reacted well in sacking Benn as that to some extent lanced the boil but his mistake was to include these people in his cabinet in the first place. The prospect of the Conservatives calling a premature election remains on the cards as that would make sense in the face of the chaos that currently prevails in Labour. All that is inhibiting such a decision is the fact that, given the level of support for Brexit among Conservative voters, it would be difficult to construct an election manifesto that got around the current Brexit vote. What they could do however is to mandate any new leader to return to the EU for further concessions as a forerunner for a second referendum. All the talk about it taking two years to plan Brexit and Angela Merkel’s call for treating the UK with kindness has to be viewed in such a context.
Corbyn’s opponents claim that Labour will not win the next general election with Corbyn leading it. But where is the evidence for this? What little evidence there has been so far in by-elections and the recent local elections tends to suggest that given time Corbyn’s programme for a fairer, more equal country will gather support. The main threat to Labour’s future success is the turmoil that they are hell bent on causing within the PLP which disables it from being an effective opposition.
Corbyn has rightly refused to resign, in spite of the 172 to 40 PLP votes of no confidence in his leadership. He has made it clear that he intends to carry on with a new Shadow Cabinet. But a challenge to his leadership has been mounted by Angela Eagle, a member of the Blair/Brown governments that took the support of working class voters for granted. There is conflicting legal advice as to whether Corbyn will need the support of a required number of MPs to appear on the ballot paper or as leader his place is guaranteed. However, it seems that Corbyn’s opponents are determined to press ahead with a leadership election but any change in the method of electing Labour’s leader, which currently requires the involvement of party members, may require the approval of Labour’s conference where it could face strong opposition from constituency parties and the unions. An attempt to ignore conference and effect a change through the parliamentary party could scupper Labour’s chances of forming a government for the foreseeable future. But perhaps they believe that that is a price worth paying for the unseating of Corbyn.