Remainers, the “elite” and Corbyn

An open-top double-deck bus, painted white with the Union flag painted across the back with the words "Believe in Britain: Leave Means Leave". On the right-hand side the text reads "Stop the Brexit betrayal".
The Leave Means Leave battle-bus in the City of London

I’m a remainer. So why do I feel more and more sympathy for leave voters? by Joseph Harker (the Guardian)

This piece, published today on the Guardian’s website (probably for the Observer tomorrow), reiterates a series of Brexiteer stereotypes about remainers (despite the author being one): that they are a “metropolitan elite”, that their concerns are centred on London and the surrounding area, that they have “little or no interest in northern and working-class people” and are particularly contemptuous of northerners who voted to leave, calling them “stupid northerners”, over-emphasising the risk to the economy despite these people being worst affected by the Thatcher economic reforms and never having recovered from the 2008 crash. He also accuses Remainers of failing to understand Corbyn’s strategy over Brexit; that he ran in the 2017 election on a “soft Brexit” platform and, against predictions, gained 3.5 million extra Labour voters. He fails to take two things into account: one, that that election was nearly two years ago and two, that he lost.

Harker says that he has increasing sympathy with Leave voters:

Not to the Boris Johnsons and Jacob Rees-Moggs, of course, nor to the middle-class little-Englanders across the Tory shires – nor either to the thuggish nationalist bigots of the far right: but to the millions of ordinary working-class voters who saw leaving the EU as a way to improve their lives and finally have their voices heard.

The thing is that the Brexit vote was a coalition of these different groups; some of whom had legitimate economic grievances and some of which are, at best, middle-class Little Englanders. If people have legitimate economic grievances (which are about things which coincided with Britain’s membership of the EEC, as was, but are not caused by that), it stands to reason that these may be addressed through such things as investment in infrastructure which has been neglected in the north for decades. This is why polls last year suggested that the areas where the Leave vote had hardened were in provincial Tory seats, not in ex-industrial Labour seats. It may also be why in the recent rallies for the group “Leave Means Leave”, most of the attendees were middle-aged and middle-class, even in places like Bolton where you might have expected a substantial working-class turnout. Despite the often-referenced diversity of the Leave vote, 43 of the 44 prominent supporters featured on LML’s website are white men; 25 of the 26 MPs it claims as supporters are either Tories or DUP (a suspended Labour MP is the other).

As for the 2017 election:

They forget that in the general election of 2017, less than two years after becoming leader, he gained 3.5 million extra Labour votes (and 1.5 million more than David Cameron had for his majority government in 2015). Corbyn did this backing a soft Brexit. And he did this when there was a clear remain option on the ballot paper – in the form of the Lib Dems, whose vote bombed. Much as the Labour membership is clearly pro-EU, Corbyn’s stance helped Labour in large parts of the country beyond the south-east – it held on to all three seats in Hull, a city that voted 68% leave. He correctly judged that, above all, people wanted to be listened to, and for the misery of austerity to end.

But that was nearly two years ago. A ‘soft Brexit’ is no longer on the table: it depends on our joining EFTA (which we were in prior to joining the EEC) so as to remain in the European Economic Area. This would mean a minimal increase in autonomy but that we remain subject to all EU regulations but without representation in the bodies that set them. Furthermore, the Norwegian government has indicated that they are opposed to our joining EFTA. The Liberal Democrats did not make much headway (though they increased their share of seats) for many reasons besides a voter rejection of Brexit: they were still tainted by association with the former coalition; their leader, Tim Farron, came under hostile scrutiny as soon as the election was called for his views on homosexuality. They were a third party which in many areas had never held seats and people did not vote for them because they did not believe they would because parties do not go from 10% to 40% in two years; in many seats they were challenged by an anti-Brexit Tory or Labour candidate or, in Wales and Scotland, a nationalist.

And when we talk about Corbyn’s popularity in 2017, we need to remember that he and Labour lost. Yes, the Tories lost their majority and Labour increased their vote share by nearly 10%, securing 40% of the vote, but they still won fewer votes than the Tories who, although they lost seats, increased their share of the vote by 5.5% and dramatically increased their base in Scotland. Labour did not win back any of the seats which had seemed secure in Scotland when Labour were last in office but were lost to the SNP under Ed Miliband’s leadership. But even though they did not suffer the dramatic defeat that some were predicting and won a few seats unexpectedly (e.g. Canterbury), they still lost.

Labour will not win another election by concentrating on its core vote; this has always been a losing strategy. If it tries to appeal to them by running on a pro-Brexit ticket, it will lose the youth vote everywhere else, including the student vote that accounts for its victories in places like Canterbury, and the likely victors will be the Tories because many of those people will just not vote because they do not see anyone to vote for. Labour built its vote back up from the late 1980s and won the 1997 election by developing its appeal to voters outside its usual base; it had the luxury of being able to count on those voters, but now that UKIP and the BNP have been gutted with UKIP having produced no politicians of any repute and its only big name having left the party, the danger to the Labour vote in these areas has receded somewhat. This does not mean they should assume the working class has nowhere to go, like Peter Mandelson notoriously did, but Labour should not appeal to that one sentiment because it is not universally shared even in those places and will cost them votes elsewhere.

Labour Centrists often infuriate with their harking back to 1997, harping on the virtues of power and forgetting that 1997 was 22 years ago and that first time voters were not born then and that people turning 30 were eight years old and will have only sketchy memories of it. I agree that Labour’s policies in office laid the grounds for today’s crisis and that in the two years since, those things have not been addressed. However, it is now January 2019; we are two months and two weeks from the cut-off date. Sadly we do not have the time to address them now. If the May deal is not approved (and there is every suggestion that it will not be) and a snap general election is called, the new government will not have time to conduct meaningful negotiations with the remaining EU states in the few weeks between taking office and the cut-off date. There can be no re-run of 2017 or 1997; Labour cannot dismiss anti-Brexit voters with stereotypes of an elite or a “Beltway mentality”. They had better hope that the Prime Minister does what her repeated talk of a “threat to Brexit” suggests she will, and withdraw Article 50 unilaterally. This will buy them some more time to work out an appeal to both of the sets of voters they need to win an election. But that time will not last forever.

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