Build a winning coalition of Remain and Leave voters is possible if Labour displays the competence to deliver a better post-Brexit Britain than Theresa May, argues Christabel Cooper
It seems a very long time ago that the United Kingdom Independence party was regarded as an existential threat to the political establishment. In the last few weeks they have lost the Stoke byelection, their only member of parliament, and their principal financial backer. The party now seems to exist merely as a vehicle to publicise Nigel Farage’s whining about his missing knighthood, and Paul Nuttall’s fantasies about his previous career. Fear of Ukip had paralysed the Labour party, leaving it unable to decide whether to abandon its Remain instincts and shift its focus to pursuing Leave voters; Ukip’s decline now opens the way to a more sensible debate about Labour’s approach to Brexit.
Knocking on doors in my local area recently, I have come across many left-leaning, pro-European Union voters who have been bewildered and dismayed by Labour’s indecision, so it was a relief when Keir Starmer recently articulated a much clearer anti-hard Brexit position – that Labour would vote against any deal which did not deliver ‘the exact same benefits as single market membership’. As polling expert John Curtice has pointed out, even in constituencies which had overall voted to leave the EU, a decisive majority of Labour supporters had voted to Remain. Particularly at the moment, it makes little sense to alienate existing voters by failing to properly oppose Theresa May’s hard Brexit.
But this is easy to say, I live in one of the most Remain-supporting local authority areas in the country. If Labour is ever to extend its ambition beyond merely continuing to exist, and dare to think about actually winning elections, then we will have to make an appeal beyond our comfort zone and reach out to those who voted Leave. The same set of data used by Curtice to draw his conclusions also shows that the voters who deserted Labour between 2005 and 2015 – the ones we will need win back to have any hope of gaining power – are mostly Leavers. Clearly we need to be able to speak to both sets of voters.
But looking at the bitterness generated by the referendum, this ambition appears almost laughably unrealistic. There seems to be no compromise between the passionate pro-European marchers who took to the streets last weekend, and Leavers who are angry that Brexit is not happening fast enough. Academics and psephologists have been queuing up to to inform us that our referendum votes are proxies for more immalleable divisions of geography, education, age, class and race. They tell us that our nation is irrevocably divided into two tribes that have nothing in common with each other.
But this is too bleak. It is possible to build a winning coalition of Leave and Remain voters – we know this for a fact, because that is what the Tories are already doing.
Around 40 per cent of those who backed the Tories in the 2015 election, voted Remain. Some of those voters have subsequently defected to the Liberal Democrats – reflected by the recent uptick in their support. But the Liberal Democrats have only gained two or three percentage points and even if these were all voters gained from the Tories, they would only have captured a fifth of the Tory Remainers. The majority have continued to stay loyal despite May’s drive towards the hardest of Brexits.
Much as it might distress those of us who are still drinking our coffee from blue and gold-starred mugs, this must mean many fellow Remainers are not prepared to change their vote for purely Brexit-related reasons. But then again, the same is probably true of many Leave supporters. A poll conducted by Michael Ashcroft, taken directly after the referendum, estimated that four out of ten voters across both camps, made their minds up less than a month beforehand. In other words, 40 per cent of voters did not have a strong ideological commitment to their position.
Polls show that only a minority want a second referendum, but also that only a minority would be willing to be personally worse off as result of Brexit. With the prime minister currently judged to be streets ahead of her rivals in terms of leadership abilities, trustworthiness and economic competence, what brings together Leavers and many non-ideological Remainers is the belief that Brexit should go ahead, and that the Tories under May are the best bet for delivering a post-Brexit deal that broadly works for Britain.
But May’s agenda is ultimately dictated by her terror of offending the Daily Mail, rather than getting a deal which works for Britain. The triggering of article 50 today, is the start of a two year process during which the fantastical nature of the prime minister’s promises regarding the kind of deal she can get from the EU, will gradually be revealed. This will be a betrayal of Remain supporters, but an even greater betrayal of the people who believed those promises and voted Leave as a result.
This will give Labour an opportunity to unite the many people – Remainers and Leavers – for whom their standard of living is more important than ideology. We must offer the vision of a ‘better Brexit’ than the destructive version that the Tories plan to impose on us. What is crucial is that at this point, Labour must be displaying the leadership, conviction and competence to persuade the electorate that they can trust us to deliver a better post-Brexit future than May.
Christabel Cooper writes a regular column on the Progress website. She tweets at @ChristabelCoops
Photo: Richard Gardner
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.