Labour's leavers are lukewarm for Brexit

Despite much heated criticism of 'lexiteers', new data shows Labour's leave vote taking a patient and measured approach to what Brexit means to them. Are they the key?

Julian Sayarer
9 March 2018

Labour's leave voters might be less certain than some think. Wikicommons/Ilovetheeu. Some rights reserved. Prevailing wisdom dictates that to avoid harm being done to you by politicians, you must not trust them. There are good and valid reasons for this, but the logic leaves us vulnerable to one key risk : that we doubt politicians when they are in fact telling the truth. As a result we are left exposed to the threat we anticipate rather than a security we refuse to believe in.

In recent times there have been no political soap operas with so ready a supply of bad faith actors as Brexit and the saga of Corbyn and Labour. Shadowy think tanks (Legatum), misrepresented wills of people (Farage et al), billionaire media (Murdoch, Barclay Brothers, Rothermere) the machinations of Labour’s Blairite rump, still spurned and licking its wounds. As so many of these quarters bemoan a supposed loss of truth, new research from the British Election Study (very neatly summarised here) details attitudes that reveal much about Labour’s crucial Leave voters, and in so doing offer useful, and corrective, advice to those still hoping to clinch remain from the jaws of leave. The research points strongly towards the idea that leaving the EU was a means and not an end.

The research, first of all, shows that Labour’s leave voters still care more about housing and public services than about the leaving of the EU, with 26 per cent of respondents citing it as their number 1 concern (24 per cent cite Brexit). The proportion citing foreigners or immigration is lower again, at 17 per cent. It goes almost without saying, but nevertheless still should be said, that the same does not go for Tory voters - just 15 per cent of leave-voting Tories prioritise housing and public services (interestingly, in what it says of the assumed progressivism of remain voters, a higher rate of concern than the 10 per cent of remain-voting Tories), while 24 per cent of leave-voting Tories have a primary concern of immigration and foreigners.

Labour’s Remain voters – its ridiculed and supposedly out of touch urbanites – meanwhile, share priorities every bit as ‘left’ as Labour’s traditional base, with 20 per cent of them citing public services and housing as an issue bigger than the EU. Between these two groups, you find a party that either wants the EU and the fairer society project of Corbynism, or wanted to leave the EU in 2016 but nevertheless care more about the fairer society than about doing so. You find a party that either wants the EU and the fairer society project of Corbynism, or wanted to leave the EU in 2016 but nevertheless care more about the fairer society than about doing so.

On other relevant themes, Labour’s leave camp also stack up as 44 per cent in favour of a ratification referendum on the final deal (compared to just 18 per cent of Tories), and also self-identify as paying less attention to politics, so that their 2016 vote might more readily be regarded as an accurate mood of the times, rather than a firm commitment. For this group, and unlike their Tory equivalents, the research points strongly towards the idea that leaving the EU was a means and not an end.

Much of that which has been written on Corbyn and the apocryphal “Lexit” has felt more like the obsession of a voiceless political centre getting a taste of the disenfranchisement already familiar to most. Against that, a thought experiment: 

Imagine that Jeremy Corbyn gave the EU “seven and a half out of ten” because he felt the EU warranted, if pressed to give one, a rating of seven and a half out of ten. Contrary to the outsized ‘Lexit’ narrative, imagine that Labour voters back and backed remain, voting for it to the tune of 63 per cent, favourably comparable to the 64 per cent of the remain-backing SNP and the 70 per cent of the avowedly Europhile Lib Dems. 

Whether it was accurate or deceitful (it was deceitful), imagine that voters did simply want £350million a week for the NHS, as promised on the side of the bus. Imagine that to leave the EU really was no more than the  project of a Tory fringe that eventually lucked-in on post-financial crisis timing and the rise of a referendum thanks to a political chancer such as David Cameron.

Stripped of the certainty that Labour are engaging in deceit, or that a section of the electorate (half of it) is a homogenous out-group determined to leave the EU for nefarious reasons, there is a clear constituency – present in the recent data – for Labour under Corbyn to deliver the fair society without the EU departure, or at least with further public consultation on it.

The proviso, also evident in the data, is that it must be a joint-project that does not jettison one for the other, a trade that would anyway ensure both failed together.

This is, admittedly, a far cry from Labour’s first response to Brexit, encapsulated on June 24, 2016, by Corbyn’s ill-thought through and snap call for an immediate Article 50 notification to be delivered. The moment, understandably enough, is something critics will long hold onto as evidence of his Eurosceptic bent, where a more forgiving reading is that it was rather a sign of the poorly-drilled outfit from which Labour have since drastically upped their game.

This accidentally full-blooded beginning in the brave new world of Brexit nevertheless set the Labour Party’s tone for the following year. Not yet strong enough to contend a general election as a party against the ‘will of the people’, Labour overhauled the Tory majority on the backs of dissatisfaction with a naked Tory haughtiness, and fuming, energised remain voters. With that result of June 8 , 2017, a confidence has emerged, and with it the potential to differentiate the Labour EU offer from that of the Tory Party. The new direction is typified by a Labour now comfortable enough to assert that there will be a customs union with the EU, and industrious enough to make the announcement together with the CBI. The party is, without doubt, the UK political centre.

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 11.28.52.png

Screenshot: British Election Study tweet.

Tory Remainer votes?

That process will be done no harm at all by the information on offer in this latest research, suggesting that Labour leave are ready to compromise in return for the fair society promised by project Corbyn. The data, however, does present a few important questions still to be asked. While the Labour leave vote has been scrutinised almost exhaustively, its equivalent, the Tory Remain vote, has not – this despite the latter having more votes in it.

If Labour’s leavers seem to dislike the Tories more than the EU, and value fair society above an EU exit anyway, might Tory remainers be brought on-side at no political cost to Labour’s own base? The question then will be the inverse – do Cameroon Tories like the EU more than they dislike Labour? The key test, as it always has been, will be if George Osborne will vote Jeremy Corbyn. While there is often the refrain from remainers that Corbyn should back remain to win an election, more seldom comes the assertion that centrist remainers must back Corbyn to win a remain.

If this is the current mood of the electorate, then it will need to be matched by changes in the thinking of the Corbyn team. Where Labour seemed once to operate with an assumption that they must cede Brexit to get socialism, a bargain many in the Corbyn team would have been happy to strike, the contrary logic now becomes more valuable: Labour get socialism by giving remainers their EU, or at least a stab at a ratification referendum. While there is often the refrain from remainers that Corbyn should back remain to win an election, more seldom comes the assertion that centrist remainers must back Corbyn to win a remain. True, politicians are our servants – let them come to you – but Corbyn is also servant to 17 million leave voters, some hard, most lukewarm, but disregarding the nature of that duty is not only the attitude that brought us to Brexit, but will also be sure to lose the day.

As the political centre and momentum moves, as it was inevitably always going to, towards customs union and reason – Labour’s interrogation will now also shift from domestic priorities (what degree of Leave to accommodate in getting Corbynism) to European ones (what degree of Corbynism will the EU accommodate). These sort of questions become possible with a sense that hard Brexit can be taken from the table, and that what John Major once called "the Bastards” of the Tory Party would break their own government sooner than concede to common sense over the EU. At that point, Labour becomes ever more the government in waiting that they already take efforts to present themselves as.

Evidence of this process can be seen in the opening up of space for serious discussion of particulars in the Corbyn project. George Peretz QC, of Monckton Chambers, recently provided an open-minded but neat rebuttal of how that sacred cow of some left-wing leavers, EU state aid law, actually does little harm and even much good to the aims of Corbyn. The tone is instructive, however, in that it assumes Labour's position on the EU to be misunderstood, not malicious. 

First by accident and then by design, Labour have for two years given the Tories enough rope for them to be strung up in the knots of their own Brexit. As the electorate becomes more amenable to, and even hungry for, rationality on the matter, now comes the time to question, seriously, if the EU is at-odds with the Labour Manifesto, and if not, to mend for good the rift that once existed between Corbyn’s Labour and remain voters. The external variable to this, beyond our control and with a clock ticking, is whether or not – come that time – Brussels can still be made to care.

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