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The Labour Party and Brexit


It’s a source of extraordinary frustration that the British Labour Party doesn’t take a firm stance against the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. One argument for the much ballyhooed policy of “constructive ambiguity” on the fundamental question of Brexit is that there are a lot of former “Labour heartland” constituencies in the north of England that voted overwhelmingly for leave, and we mustn’t upset those loyal Labour voters.

This is a classic example of the ecological fallacy. The lazy assumption is that because a constituency represented by a Labour MP voted leave, the Labour vote in said constituency must have voted leave. Some did, of course. But at the margins. This piece from last month from the former president of YouGov discusses some evidence from (what effectively is) a panel survey which includes voting intention for the just passed EU Parliament election in the UK along with the respondent’s vote in the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 UK General Election. One of the many findings is that

“. . . the largest block of leave voters were middle-class Conservatives, followed by working-class Conservatives. Just one in eight leave voters was a working-class Labour supporter. To be sure, had even half of these 2.2 million voters backed remain, the result of the referendum would be different. But to suggest that the referendum’s 17.4 million leave voters were dominated by working-class Labour supporters is simply wrong.”

A further error in this strategy is the assumption (made by many, for several reasons) that the attitudes held on 23 June 2016 are locked in stasis. The article linked above suggests that one in ten Labour leavers have since switched their positions.

The elephant in the room isn’t the handful of Labour-supporting Leave voters in Sunderland (it’s always Sunderland). Rather, it’s the bloody open secret that Jeremy Corbyn himself, is a staunch opponent of the European Union. So, too, are those in his innermost circle. Corbyn’s history of opposition to the EU is well documented (even in that older article), and those to whom I’ve spoken that served in parliament with him during his days on the back benches confirm this. And he’s not going to change.

The plan that he and the leadership team has is that Brexit happens without any undue electoral consequences, then they can get on with the business of winning a general election and installing a socialist paradise. They fooled the electorate in 2017, and the overwhelming majority of Labour’s support in that election was remainers, hoping for, at worst, some sort of softer Brexit. Membership of the party is even more strongly remain.

I helped run our polling day GOTV operation for the 2019 European Parliament election here in Plymouth. By (our) design, the doors we knocked on were known Labour supporters, who had told us at least once in the past several years that they vote for us. On the day we spoke to hundreds of these voters, and our “promise retention” rate was just over 55%. That sounds impressive, but the general rule of thumb in a normal plurality election (e.g. city council, parliament) is we start getting very nervous when that figure dips to around 85%. Hence, it’s no surprise that we lost nearly half our vote when contrasted with the 2014 results for the same election in Plymouth.

However, the more telling figure are the members of the Labour Party to whom we spoke on the day. Over 25% of party members admitted to having voted for someone other than the Labour Party. This is likely a conservative estimate. When LP members, with clipboards, wearing stickers and rosettes, rock up to your door on election day and ask you whether or not you voted Labour — and we know they’re party members, they know we know they’re party members — the pressure to conform to socially desirable behavior has to be acute. Additionally, those that did admit to having not voted Labour went entirely to either the Liberal Democrats or the Greens (though this might have been a function of where we strategically chose to run our polling day operation — it concentrated on the three (our of 20) remain wards in the city from the 2016 EU referendum).

The electoral strategy here is clear. If Labour want to win a general election, they need to come out unambiguously in favor of a second referendum and support remaining in the European Union. However, the evidence strongly suggests that the leader of the Labour Party simply will not take this step. He’s a classic Lexiter, the folly of which I wrote about here three years ago. This is a position he shares with his Communist pals over at the Morning Star, who believe that “fanatical Remainers” like myself are part of a larger plot against Jeremy Corbyn (because, well, everything is a conspiracy against Jeremy Corbyn):

Too many Eurosceptics at every level of the labour movement have stayed silent about the undemocratic, capitalist, militarist character of the EU in the vain hope of appeasing the more fanatical Remainers in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Now, finally, they need to break cover, before the pro-EU extremists and their allies in the anti-Labour parties and mass media succeed in destroying the prospect of a Corbyn government pursuing left and progressive policies.

Yes, I know people who believe this. I lead a charmed life.

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