There’s no point in hiding from the scale of Labour’s European election defeat. 14% is the party’s worst performance on a national level in more than a century. Gordon Brown’s Labour Party came close in 2009 (15.2%)—but that was in the teeth of a historic financial crisis. The headline results show dramatic losses in both directions. Islington, the home of Labour’s leader and Shadow Foreign Secretary, was won by the Liberal Democrats. In Bolsover, Dennis Skinner’s constituency, which has elected a Labour MP every year since its creation in 1950, the Brexit Party won around three times the level of votes that Labour did. In ordinary times, these would be unthinkable results.
But these are not ordinary times. Buried beneath the media’s preferred pastime of pronouncing the death of the Labour Party was an even worse result for the Conservatives. 8.4% is a league below any national result for the party since their foundation in the 1830s, or the Tories in the decades before. The party of government for the last nine years has been reduced to less than a fifth of the vote share it received in a general election just two years ago. World wars didn’t produce shifts that dramatic.
You could argue that there is more continuity in these results than it first appears. The Brexit Party took up where UKIP left off in 2014, winning the elections albeit with about a million more votes. The Liberal Democrats have a record of doing decently in European elections, polling 14.4% and 13.3% in 2004 and 2009 respectively. And European elections have historically been poor predictors of general election performance: Labour beat the Tories in 2014, then lost in 2015; David Cameron stormed home in 2009 then failed to win a majority in 2010; most famously of all, William Hague’s Conservatives won handily in 1999 before suffering a landslide defeat in 2001.
Brexit’s Two Camps
However, it would be a mistake to discard this election. What it confirms is that British politics is polarising into two camps: the Leave camp, which combines the Tory shires with postindustrial regions in England and Wales; and the Remain camp, which is concentrated around larger urban areas but also includes much of Scotland with its civic nationalist movement.
Voters increasingly identify more with these camps than with political parties. A recent Populus survey found that 88% of people identify with Leave or Remain, and 72% strongly, whereas only 66% identified with a party, and less than half did so strongly.
These camps are not divided primarily by class. If you are a younger, university-educated, service sector worker in a bigger city, you probably voted Remain; if you are middle-aged, A level-educated and working in manufacturing in a town, you probably voted Leave.
The Brexit vote can’t be reduced to a ‘working-class revolt,’ as Spiked and its newly-elected Brexit Party MEPs would have it. That claim is typically based on polling from the C2DE category, which voted Leave by a wide margin. But in Britain’s modern economy, that category simply doesn’t correspond with the working-class, the majority of people who rely on their wages to live. It can be said that more disadvantaged workers tended to vote Leave: those with lower education, engaged in manual labour, living in social housing or in regions with lower incomes and worse public services. But fundamentally, the Brexit divide cuts across class.
It remains the case that the day-to-day realities of a worker in Islington—from the workplace to the home, the school to the hospital—are far more similar to a worker in Bolsover than to their Remain-supporting millionaire neighbour. On these terms, the left’s traditional politics hold up. But that is not the terrain on which the Brexit battle is being fought. What divides the Leave and Remain camps is not their interests but their views.
That poses a serious problem for those of us who believe in class politics. This has been the historic basis of socialism, the project to socialise society’s wealth by building a coalition of working people to take on the concentrated power of ownership.
In recent decades, socialism has declined and been replaced on the left by progressivism, a project to build majorities by uniting those with progressive social views. These views often extend to the economy too, with theses like Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level summing up the alignment between progressive social views and economic equality. But the coalition they imply remains based upon attitudes rather than interests.
This tension, over which coalition the party wants to build, underlies the debate in Labour today about whether to embrace a second referendum. Is Labour now fundamentally a progressive party, which means leaving behind workers in some of the most deprived parts of Britain to chase the votes of ‘progressive’ Tories and Liberal Democrats in Remain-voting areas? Or is it a socialist party, which means trying to unite workers across the culture war divide on the basis that a Labour government would improve their lives?
After the European elections, a lot of people will argue that it is neither of those things. But only two years ago Labour managed to build a class-based coalition that was aligned on economic issues. There has been a lot of weak analysis of the 2017 general election, including plenty of articles arguing that Labour had ‘lost the working-class’ because of its poor showing among C2DE voters. However, if you look instead at who defines themselves as working-class, the picture is different.
A plurality of 2017 general election voters defined themselves as working-class. Almost half of those who voted Labour did so. Only 17.3% of Labour voters defined themselves as middle-class. Seen in sum, Labour won a clear majority of all those who defined themselves as working-class while the Tories won a clear majority of middle-class voters. So much for class politics being over.
And what’s more, Labour’s coalition was united on the basis of economic issues. Labour’s Remain and Leave voters shared almost identical positions on the wealth gap, trade unions, public services and privatisation. But on social issues Labour Remain voters were closer to Tory Remain voters, and Labour Leavers almost identical to Tory Leavers.
The Risk Value
The 2017 general election seems like a long time ago. The consensus in Westminster now is that its coalition is no longer sustainable and to retain even a substantial portion of it Labour must back a second referendum. The European election results appear, at first glance, to bear this out.
But this was an especially bad set of circumstances for Labour. The party’s domestic agenda is hugely popular, but was not considered by the public or the media to be relevant to European questions. So, Labour ended up fighting an election defined by Brexit polarisation with a compromise position. In some ways, it is surprising it got 14%.
There are numerous reasons to believe a general election will be different. For instance, while Labour polled poorly before these European elections, it has continued to lead Westminster polls. In fact, the party has led in every general election poll conducted since early April. This is the longest stretch since the immediate aftermath of 2017’s result. Some polls even have it winning an overall majority. It is true that the party has been trending downwards, but far less dramatically than its European results.
Proponents of a second referendum would argue that trusting these numbers is a risk when an actual election has shown how vulnerable Labour is. Polls suggest it is losing around two Remain voters for every one Leaver at the moment, which is the basis for saying that a second referendum commitment would stop the slide. However, this is far from clear. Labour has twice whipped for a second referendum vote in parliament. It made no appreciable difference to the polls.
If voters are committed first-and-foremost to Remain, to the point that they would disregard Labour’s domestic policies in a general election, surely they would vote for one of the parties that defined itself as anti-Brexit from the beginning.
Especially since the high number of Labour MPs in Leave-voting areas means the media will simply pivot from attacking Labour over not backing a second referendum to attacking it for backing a second referendum, with plenty of willing guests for panel shows. Labour’s ambiguity is not just tactical, nor is it an invention, it has a real political basis.
And on the subject of risks, questions should be asked of second referendum supporters too. Is it not a risk to write off so many areas which have voted Labour for generations, and in which the party has deep roots, for voters who are more politically transient? Is this risk not increased by the fact that a majority of Labour’s seats, and a super-majority of their target seats, are in Leave-voting areas?
And is the risk worth it, considering how much of what Labour values is protected by a Customs Union deal, and how likely it is that this would become a Norway-style deal if Labour ever won an election? The latter option having the benefit of a simple solution for the Good Friday Agreement.
What Coalitions Mean
For the Labour left, these questions are particularly crucial since the issue of a second referendum is framed against Corbyn’s leadership. This is not incidental, the result of some tactical misstep or scheming “Stalinists,” but because of the fundamental contradiction between Corbynism and the politics that animate the People’s Vote campaign.
Second referendum advocates like Paul Mason have argued that the Leave camp is driven by “nostalgia,” and that is undoubtedly true. But it is no less true of Mason’s own allies. People’s Vote is a movement for the restoration of the ancien régime. Its nostalgia is for a more recent past — 2016 before the arrivals of Brexit and Trump; 2012 and the London Olympics, before nationalism was a dirty word; 2008 and the years of social liberalism before the financial crisis.
Corbynism, by contrast, is defined against the recent past. Its analysis of British politics sees the country as having passed through decades of social retreat since the Thatcher years, which reached their apex during Tory-Lib Dem austerity. Its memory of the New Labour era cannot be divorced from the Iraq War or neoliberal policies like private finance initiatives (PFIs).
These perspectives are not compatible. You cannot have nostalgia for the recent past alongside an analysis that believes austerity tore Britain’s social fabric apart. You cannot build a common project between those who believe Brexit would be the first time a government voted to make its people poorer and those who believe governments have been voting to make people poorer for decades.
Even if Corbyn was to pivot in the coming days to backing a second referendum outright, and won an election on that basis, this distinction would follow him into office. How many Tory or Lib Dem Remainers, who take far more right-wing positions on the economy than Labour Leavers, are going to get behind an agenda of even renewed social democracy, with the nationalisation and redistribution implied? Certainly nothing more radical than that is going to be achieved without the support of working-class people in the poorest regions of Britain, who have the greatest incentive to upturn the economic order.
Corbynism doesn’t make sense with a landscape defined by views rather than interests. It would have little to say if Britain was to devolve into a 2016 Groundhog Day, because its adherents don’t believe that either Remaining or Leaving will solve any of the country’s fundamental problems. That, more than anything else, is what prevents it from adapting to the second referendum cause.
Labour and Migration
Arguing that interests should be the basis of your political coalition doesn’t mean that people’s social views don’t matter. They do—and the left has a responsibility not to shirk these fights.
Certainly, in the Brexit debate, immigration has been a leading theme. At times, the Leave side descended into outright racism. The left should never follow its framing. Migrant workers are no less important than those born in postindustrial areas, and there is no such thing as the ‘white working-class.’
There is no disputing that the Leave camp has a more negative opinion of migration than its Remain equivalent. Even with European free movement’s significant problems (some of which are detailed here in relation to Norway’s deal), it was a mistake for Labour to triangulate on this terrain. Hardline racist and xenophobic movements are on the rise across the West and now is the time for vocal defences of migrants and their contributions to society.
But framing Brexit’s culture war as a fight over migration is wrong-headed. On the eve of the Brexit vote, 56% of people listed ‘immigration and asylum’ as the most important issue facing the country. Fewer than half that number believe the same now. Yet, there has been no appreciable decline in the Leave vote. The departing Theresa May prioritised ending free movement above concerns like trade and sovereignty in her deal with the European Union. Despite this, it remained hugely unpopular with the Brexit camp.
The divide runs far deeper. It pivots on how people have experienced the last 40 years of politics. Do you see globalisation as a positive phenomenon that has tended to improve your life? Or a negative one that has diminished living standards? Has the deepening influence of the market and its technologies been liberating or limiting? Has liberalisation been about social progress or the erosion of communal institutions?
Most working-class people will have experienced both sides—which is why this emerging polarisation is characterised by caricature and suits the commentariat more than it ever will workers.
Brexit and Europe
The consensus position of Labour’s European election campaign, utilised by those for and against a second referendum, was that Britain and Europe had a rising far-right that needed to be challenged. The increase in racist incidents since the Brexit vote makes clear that this is a serious issue. But it’s difficult to believe that the solution is to deliver huge swathes of traditional Labour voters to the political leadership of Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson.
It is worth reflecting on what the Brexit Party actually said in order to secure such a strong vote in these elections. Clearly, opposition to immigration was a theme. But it wasn’t the dominant one. Any sustained engagement with campaign videos or rallies would show that democracy and sovereignty were the basis on which they appealed to voters. The emphasis was on sending a message to Westminster even more than to Brussels.
The Labour Party cannot afford to ignore, or worse end up on the wrong side of, disillusionment with established politics. The increase in Labour Party membership brought about by Corbynism is a rare break in the long-established hollowing out of politics outlined in studies like Ruling the Void. But even the Corbyn leadership has neglected constitutional questions for too long. Labour’s message should be one of renewing the political system rather than returning it to a status quo ante.
Aligning with a second referendum campaign led by architects of technocratic politics, advocating the overturning of a referendum, at a time when faith in Britain’s political class is at an all-time low, is a risk. And what about the genuine democratic concerns about the European Union? Those that prompted left-wing Remainers like Paul Mason to say the EU “is not and cannot become a democracy”?
They must surely exist in whatever demographic can be presumed to be the swing vote in a second referendum. How will Labour answer them? The plan seems to be to invoke the slogan ‘remain and reform.’ It is a vague answer for democratic deficits reflected in the fact that an enormous 92% of British voters couldn’t name an MEP going into these elections.
What would a Labour referendum campaign say about the pro-market nature of the European Union? Will Labour pretend that the Fourth Railway Package, which prevents the same public body both owning rail infrastructure and providing the service, is consistent with its vision of nationalisation? Will it pretend that EU State Aid rules, which are clearly an impediment in situations like the one facing British Steel, are consistent with its vision of industrial policy? We would hear ‘remain and reform’ here too.
And yet at every major juncture since at least Maastricht, the European Union has been moving in the opposite direction. If a Europe of Hollande, who won a convincing victory in 2012 on a platform of reform, and Renzi, who came to power in 2014 promising the same, couldn’t even begin the Social Europe journey, what are the prospects for a Europe with Le Pen and Salvini on the rise? The centre-left in Europe is now far less strong than it was, and with less of a reform agenda.
Syriza briefly offered hope in 2015, but their left-Europeanist approach was decimated on contact with reality. In the coming weeks they will be turfed out of power. In the meantime, their radical left, remain-and-reform allies in Podemos have declined dramatically. Varoufakis’ DiEM25 barely registered where they stood in these European elections. So where is this reform coming from? Ambiguity on Brexit is a problem but, three years on from the referendum, the remain-and-reform case is just as ambiguous. In all likelihood it would evaporate during any campaign.
Class Conflict or Culture War
One thing second referendum advocates are correct about is the risk of a No Deal Brexit led by someone like Boris Johnson. Any such exit under current circumstances would be led by the right and result in Britain becoming a province of American capital, the tearing up of the welfare state and trade agreements that make TTIP look like the alter-globalisation movement. The Brexit Party’s MEP list is a perp walk of libertarian fantasists who wouldn’t hesitate at putting any public institution on the auction table. With the leadership candidates emerging in the Conservative Party, it looks plausible that this will be the direction of travel.
This should provide even greater incentive for Labour to resist the call to embrace a second referendum. If British politics continues down the path of polarisation that leaves a choice only between Remain and No Deal, who can seriously argue that staying in the European Union is more likely based on the current landscape? At best, it’s a toss of a coin.
If prominent second referendum voices like Keir Starmer continue to make the campaign look like an establishment stitch-up by saying only “credible leave options” should be on the ballot paper—ruling out the option favoured by the party which won these European elections—the odds will get worse.
Supporting a negotiated Customs Union, and further developing a Norway model as an alternative, provides Labour with the flexibility it will need to prevent a No Deal Brexit in the tumultuous months ahead. The election of a Tory Prime Minister willing to pursue No Deal could also make a general election more likely–as softer Tories begin to ask whether they can stand behind the chaos that would ensue.
The European elections did not go well, but it is worth remembering that Labour is in a far better position than the Tories. Fighting a general election against a Tory Prime Minister brought down by their own party’s votes and with little plan for No Deal, on a Labour platform that maximises the vote against crashing out and allies it with a popular domestic agenda, is a serious basis on which to defeat someone like Boris Johnson.
It is also grounds on which some form of renewed social democracy might be won in Britain. A coalition reliant on liberal business interests is simply never going to sustain the kind of confrontation with capital needed to protect the welfare state we have, let alone expand it into the future.
The next decade of politics will either be defined by class conflict or by culture war. If it’s the latter, the left will be on the sidelines. Hard as it may seem at the moment, it’s time to hold the line.