Can Europe Make It?

After Corbyn and Brexit, where will Labour go?

It would be wise to get rid of the illusion that simply changing the vessel will automatically improve its electoral results.

Noam Titelman
31 December 2019, 1.22pm
Poster for Pride, film by Matthew Warchus (2014). Screenshot.

Back in 2014, the film Pride shed a light on one of the most captivating episodes that has inadvertently shaped recent British politics. The movie is a dramatization of the true story of a group of lesbian and gay activists from London during the Thatcher era, who decide to support miners striking in South Wales. The story managed to portray an alliance between the traditional working class, represented by Welsh miners, and Londoner activists for sexual diversity. Perhaps this alliance is best described by the speech given by Dai Donovan, a Welsh unionist, in a gay club in London:

" You have worn our badge, Coal Not Dole, and you know what harassment means, as we do. Now we will pin your badge on us, we will support you. It won't change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know that there are other causes and other problems. We know about blacks and gays and nuclear disarmament and we will never be the same."

Now, years later, a lot has been said about Labour’s failing alliance between socially liberal city voters and its traditional working-class support in smaller towns. In the 2019 general elections, Neath, the constituency where the Pride miners went on strike, remained as one of the party’s historical working-class strongholds. However, this was not the story for most of the so-called “red wall”, of working-class Labour-supporting constituencies.

Labour had presented a manifesto which, according to the polls, was immensely popular; including several policies aimed at redistributing wealth to the austerity hit constituencies of Northern England and Wales. Yet Jeremy Corbyn led the party into its worst electoral outcome since 1935 and lost nearly 8% of their vote share from 2017, including several constituencies which symbolized Labour’s relationship with the traditional working class. How did this happen? How can Labour recuperate from this blow? Is there something to be learned from the experience that Donovan so eloquently described?

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The basic anatomy of Labour´s defeat and some explanations for it

The first thing to notice is that the increase in Conservative vote was modest despite the massive shift in party presence in parliament. Although Boris Johnson obtained a majority comparable to Thatcher-era landslides, he improved the party’s vote share by less than 2%. Much of the Tory success in these elections was due to it winning over voters from the Brexit Party who decided to stand down in all seats held by the Conservative party.

Furthermore, as some early research has shown, Johnson was far from attaining massive heartfelt support. As the Datapraxisresearch summarizes it: “The Conservative party was described over and over again by voters up and down the country using five words: ‘best of a bad bunch.’ This was true across all ages and loyalties, male and female, young and old, Leavers and Remainers”. Thus, it seems that the results were mainly due to the failures of Labour rather than to the success of the Conservatives.

Regarding Labour´s downfall, the voters’ shift away from the party was the result of two simultaneous haemorrhages. First, almost one in four Labour Leave voters voted Tory and, particularly, approximately 700,000 to 800,000 Leave voters shifted their vote to the Conservatives in the so-called “Red Wall”. Additionally, from the other side of the Brexit debate, over 1.1 million Remain voters changed their preferences from Labour to more explicitly Remain parties (mainly Liberal democrats, but also Green and SNP) (Datapraxis with YouGov data)

The first attempts to answer the apparent contradiction between a popular manifesto and a disastrous electoral result refer to apparently short-term difficulties: on the one hand, the leadership explanation and, on the other hand, the Brexit position mis-step. The first explanation is the “right message in wrong vessel” perspective. In this view, both the manifesto policies and Brexit stance were correct, but Corbyn’s rejection by the public was simply an unsurmountable obstacle. In this line, Opinium Research finds that a lack of support for Corbyn’s leadership was the main reason given by voters for abandoning Labour (43%), and that the Brexit position and economic policies came in a far second (17%) and third (12%) place.

First attempts to answer the apparent contradiction between a popular manifesto and a disastrous electoral result refer to apparently short-term difficulties.

It is undeniable that Corbyn’s approval rates were abysmal. However, it is worthwhile giving this evaluation a closer look. There is a large body of literature that has studied the role of leaders in capturing people’s judgment of parties [i]. Leaders work as heuristics, symbolizing the perception of the parties’ policy position and, especially, party capabilities to perform effectively. Furthermore, even if aspects in Corbyn’s biography might have alienated some voters, it is hardly likely that his biography changed much between his relatively successful 2017 campaign and that of 2019. Now that Labour is commencing the process of changing its leadership, it would be wise to get rid of the illusion that simply changing the vessel will automatically improve its electoral results.

Blaming Labour’s Brexit position as the main mis-[i]step, the second recurrent explanation, is a natural assumption given the context of the elections, heavily marked by this debate. Labour moved its position from a “pro-job Brexit” to a “second referendum” position, in which the party leader promised his “neutrality” between Remain and whatever Brexit deal was negotiated. The party under Corbyn wanted to appeal to both Leavers and Remainers by maintaining a position as close as possible to two objectively opposite views. However, the Brexit realignment and its relevance to Labour´s performance is better understood as a symptom of a significant shift in the electorate, which took decades in the making, rather than a simple contingent policy issue.

The Brexit divide implies an identity realignment in which opinion-based groupings are mobilizing previously latent social identities.

As Holbolt et al. (2018) [ii] state, the Brexit divide implies an identity realignment in which opinion-based groupings are mobilizing previously latent social identities. This realignment is evident when considering the characteristics of voters in the 2019 elections which were marked by the Brexit issue. Both Labour and Conservative had similar levels of support across the social grade: in all social classes Labour’s support varied between 31% and 34% and Conservative’s support between 42% and 48%. However, age made a much larger difference in explaining voting results: support for Labour was at 56% for voters between 18 and 24 and only at 14% for voters with more than 70 years. Also, educational level was critical: only 25% of voters with GCSE or below supported Labour and 43% with a degree (or more education) did so.

With its Brexit position, Labour tried to overcome the tension between young, educated, big city voters, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, older, less formally educated, town voters. However, rather than gaining the support of these two groups, one of the reasons given for Corbyn’s fall in approval rates is the party’s Brexit position (or lack of clear position). As YouGov study in January showed, Corbyn support fell from its peak just after the 2017 elections in both Leave voters (from a net support of negative 40 to negative 72) and remain voters (from a net support of positive 40 to negative 28). The three top reasons people gave for their change of opinion were “Brexit”, “He is indecisive”, “Brexit – Not taking a position”. As the YouGov report summarizes it: “In most cases it wasn’t due to his position being too far towards Remain (just 3% thought this) or too far towards Leave (just 6% said this), but rather the fact that he doesn’t seem to have any position at all”. In trying to please everyone, he ended up pleasing none.

Labour in a post Brexit UK

An alternative to a Brexit stance attempting to cater for conflicting positions, would be to find a way to attract voters across the Brexit divide, by reaching out beyond their positions on the subject. Why would a Remain or Leave voter, support a party offering a soft Brexit? Why would someone who prefers a soft Brexit support a party offering remain or hard Brexit? The answer is as old as social groupings: solidarity.

Parties, at least successful ones, manage to group people who do not necessarily share views and interests in all issues, because they conceive their common interests as more important and, therefore, they extend their solidarity for the sake of a greater good and have a sense of common identity.

Voting behaviour is not simply a utilitarian “rational choice” where politicians compete for an electorate that is completely detached from loyalty to any collective. The voter does not choose his or her vote, case by case, in a market-like fashion, by comparing the available offer of policies and selecting the candidate whose policies are the closest to his or hers. Instead, social and political identities play a major role in this decision. Therefore, it is possible to have a party with a clear stance on Brexit – be it a soft Brexit, a hard Brexit, or remain – and at the same time, appeal to both Leave and Remain voters, if they perceive themselves as united by a wider common identity. What is not possible is to have a party which is simultaneously a Remainer and a Leaver party, i.e. a party for people whose main identity is defined by opposite sides of the Brexit divide.

In this respect, Labour would be wise to look at what their competitors managed to do. Approximately 300,000 Remain voters switched from Labour to the Conservatives. Perhaps more surprisingly, approximately 200,000-250,000 Leave voters also changed their votes from Labour to Remain parties (Datapraxis with YouGov data). Indeed, rather than uniting Leave and Remain voters behind Labour, Labour’s intermediate position ended up alienating both.

But now that Brexit is going to “get done”, as Boris Johnson has so frequently reiterated, why is this divide still relevant? Just like it would be a mistake to believe that simply replacing the Labour leadership will automatically recuperate the lost votes, so it would be mistaken to believe that the Brexit divide, and its underlying conflicts will disappear as soon as a deal is approved by parliament.

It would be mistaken to believe that the Brexit divide, and its underlying conflicts will disappear as soon as a deal is approved by parliament.

Negotiations with the EU, despite what some have claimed, will go on and on, and the UK’s relations with the continent will never cease to be a major issue. Additionally, and more importantly, neither will the social identities underlying the Brexit divide go away. Thus, new approaches are required to address them.

Beyond checklist politics

Perhaps the biggest lesson of the recent general elections, is the limits of “checklist politics”. This time, simply attempting to “tick the boxes” to fulfil the requests of as many possible constituencies, was not enough to gather massive support. The fundamental question for the future of Labour is to find a way to generate a common ground, an identity, that transcends the divides that Brexit mobilized. The “many” in Labour’s “for the many not the few”, was meant to erase that referendum divide, and replace it with more traditional socioeconomic differences from the wealthy few. This was entrenched in both the 2017 and 2019 manifestos and it seemed to have been successful in the 2017 elections. But for the 2019 elections, it came across as too weak and not persuasive and comprehensive enough.

In 2017, Bridget Phillipson wrote a piece warning about some of the risks she observed in the euphoria after that year’s elections. Specifically, she was concerned about the narrative around the manifesto as the key element that explained Labour’s surge:

A political strategy that secures and shores up support through election-specific fiscal transfers rather than by putting forward a convincing, relevant, and clearly articulated vision to command the country for the long term is unsustainable. It wouldn’t take much for that electoral house of cards to come crashing down.

Similarly, from a different wing of Labour, James Meadway recently wrote on why, in his view, the 2019 manifesto did not manage to get the expected traction. He argued that the Tories this time around were promising an end to austerity and backing it up with spending: “simply trying to outbid them on spending alone was always going to be difficult… the basic argument that all we need to do is increase spending … will no longer quite cut it”.

If Labour is to recuperate those voters who have left it, driven by the new salience of different social identities, there is something that is entirely different from checklist politics that is required. There are some ideas in this regard worth noting. Sunder Katwala’s notion of overcoming Blair-era open versus closed framing (which substituted for left versus right) might point towards the necessary kind of narrative:

Polarising the choice of ‘open versus closed’ has too little to say to the sceptical middle, those who were on the fence in the referendum, and who will play an important role in the choices ahead: those who know that we live in an increasingly global age, but who feel the benefits of global engagement are too narrowly spread.

This is not trying to please both Remainers and Leavers. It is not about finding a combination of policies that triangulates their different preferences, but rather about locating a third identity that can integrate people who voted both ways in the referendum. Its not trying to be “open” and “close” simultaneously, but finding a way to bridge that split with a new identity that overcomes that divide, putting forward a convincing vision to command the country for the long term.

When the miners of South Wales joined sexual diversity activists, they did not do so solely in a transactional way. The main advancement was not done by one group supporting the miners’ strike in exchange for the other one’s support in their struggles (although that did happen, and the miners were crucial in placing gay rights in Labour’s 1985 party conference). As Donovan said, they managed to do much more. They were able to see their own struggles reflected in each other’s demands. They could identify with the harassment each received.

Labour at its best is more than a federation of interest groups united by a list of demands, in a quid pro quo fashion. It is a common ground of solidarity that unites a diversity of interests in a complex identity of the kind that Donovan so clearly summarized by declaring that the London activists had used their badges and that the miners had pinned on their Londoner friends’ badge, and that neither were ever to be the same.

[i] For example, see: Clarke, H. D., Sanders, D., Stewart, M. C., & Whiteley, P. (2004). Political choice in Britain. Oxford University Press on Demand.

[ii] Hobolt, S. B., Leeper, T., & Tilley, J. (2018). Divided by the vote: Affective polarization in the wake of Brexit. American Political Science Association, Boston.

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