Economics and politics - comment and analysis
Labour’s anti-Brexit grassroots rebellion is its... Labour’s anti-Brexit grassroots rebellion is its last chance...
7. February 2017 I Will Denayer I Countries and Regions, Europe, General, General Politics

Labour’s anti-Brexit grassroots rebellion is its last chance to stave off electoral massacre

Corbyn and the Brexit

I wrote up several articles on Corbyn, Labour and the Brexit in 2016 (see here, here, here,  here, here, here, here, here, here and here). It is important. Currently, social democracy is in decline everywhere in Europe, but in Great Britain the Labour Party gained over 200.000 new members in less than a year. This happened because of Jeremy Corbyn, who steered the party to the left, proving that there is enormous electoral potential support for anti neoliberal policies. Left Labour argues, among other things, for more investment, rebuilding the industrial infrastructure, support for the NHS, better wages, more housing, social welfare and the renationalisation of certain former public goods, such as the railroads. It is almost time. This is a great program.

The only problem is that Labour needs to win the election before it can implement policies. This is impossible if the party does not gain substantial support of several electoral groups. Corbyn needs the support of the young urban multiculturals (who oppose the Brexit), he has to win back, say, some 50 % of the seats in Scotland (Labour lost 40 of its 41 seats in Scotland in 2015), he needs a decent percentage of the vote of Britons living abroad and, most importantly, he needs the ‘Brexit heartlands,’ the old industrial centres in the North with its blue collar workers, many of who voted for the Brexit. How can this be achieved? Corbyn and his leftists need to take the train to the North and explain what is really the problem – many years of conservative, anti-social, austerity politics and yes, the EU too (but is leaving a solution?), not immigrants. Labour has to present a political program to these communities and workers which will give them a better life – more investment, more work, more services, more affordable housing, less exclusion, turning back privatisation  – everything social democrats should stand for to begin with.

According to some political science research, this is nonsense. If Labour would dare to even change one iota of its pro-Brexit position, the Brexit heartlands will defect, Labour will sink to the bottom of the sea and many cities in the North will turn brown (or purple). It is all so very convenient. I do not believe a word of it. The contrary is true. Any political strategy based on fear will lead to complete disaster. If Labour wants to lose the election in 2020 (or whenever it will take place) in great style, it just has to continue holding fast to its incoherent, unclear, counter-productive and non-social democratic stance and try to outpace UKIP in making concessions to the racists and the xenophobes. That is what it is doing now.

Of course, Corbyn and this group are not racists, far from it. I consider Corbyn to be a completely decent human being. It is just that his political strategy guarantees electoral disaster. Leaving the single market, but being a member of it is an impossible policy goal, so stop talking about it. It will never happen. Stop contemplating or making concessions to free migration – this is not what social democracy stands for. Stop saying that the Brexit is not about lowering wages and living standards and about eroding social, civil and political rights (the human rights act is a case in point) because this is exactly what the Brexit is about. This is what the Brexit will amount to for those living in the deprived former industrial heartlands. If you do not want these regions to fall into the hands of UKIP – and the country in the hands of a super aggressive conservatism – stop producing clichés and untruths and produce an argument instead – reasoning. The great majority of people, whoever and wherever they are, will always listen to and consider a well-made argument. People can very well work it out themselves. That is what a political party – a pro emancipation, a social party – has to do. This is your role. Those putting forward the argument that ‘democracy has to be respected’ show complacency to the highest degree: during the referendum many things were respected, but not democracy. Not open debate. Not factual information. The people that Labour has to win over (or keep) are not idiotic children. They are the victims of policies that social democracy should oppose with all its might. Labour has to provide an alternative. The problem, it seems, is that they are too afraid to even try.

Labour has to give the people in the North something they can believe in, something they can stand behind, something they can fight for, something positive. If people hate their Indian or Polish neighbour, Corbyn needs to tell them that they are mistaken. This will cost some votes. It will win many more. UKIP – and the extreme right all over Europe – are singing the age old song: fear from this, fear from that, our country is being overrun. It is never the political class itself. It is always someone else. That is what Labour needs to address and confront.

Corbyn manoeuvred Labour into the unenviable position to support the Brexit. This is the outcome Labour campaigned against in the build-up to the referendum. It is a position which is losing support in the UK among practically all social strata (surely, if there would be a new referendum, the Remain would win) (see here). It is a position that de facto supports the Tory government, a government which found itself in shambles after the referendum, which was disorientated, where enormous in-fighting was happening – Labour did not hit the Tories as hard as it could when they were weak, it was too busy with its own soul searching and navel staring and so an historical chance was missed – making the government fall, call for new elections and win. Corbyn’s position puts him at odds with the two-thirds of Labour voters (near 67%) who backed Remain and fellow left-of-centre opposition parties in the House: the SNP, the Lib Dems, the SDLP, and the Green MP Caroline Lucas – parties and people that oppose austerity and want to rebuild a social UK but, as they oppose the Brexit, Labour is not interesting in working together (see here). The result is clear. Labour is losing the young urban multiculturals. It does not seem that their pro-Brexit stand generated even one more vote in the Brexit heartlands either – Labour is terrified of losing a by-election on the 23rd in Stoke-on-Trent, caused by the resignation of Tristram Hunt, and another the same day in Copeland in Cumbria. In Stoke, where nearly 70% voted to leave the EU, UKIP’s leader Nuttal campaigns to be elected in a city that has returned Labour MPs to parliament for decades. It may now on the verge of breaking with that habit. The party is now losing members and, far more important, it is losing voters. Meanwhile, the Tories feel incredibly confident. Their plan is working. With such opposition, they cannot lose.

Most Labour MPs know that leaving the single market is a terrible idea. It will result in Britain becoming even more unequal, even more dysfunctional, even closer to a neoliberal hell. This is the side of the shrinking state, massive deregulation, low tax for high incomes and businesses, the side of less human, social, civil and political rights (such as the human rights act), less social welfare, less everything which does not benefit the very rich (see here).

According to YouGov’s voter intention polls of January 23-24, the Tories would win the election by a landslide. The only other winner is UKIP (remarkably, they only win 2 % – I leave out the heterogenic ‘Other’). This was before the vote in Parliament (last week), which, undoubtedly, further decreased support for Labour. Do not forget that polls tend to overestimate support for Labour. That is an incredible result for a party which, last year, gained the most members of any political party in Europe. This malignant exercise in self-harm has to stop.

Voting intention 23-24 Jan-01

Figure 1: Voting intentions of the British electorate according to YouGov (Source: Yougov.uk).

Polls are only polls, but there is also scientific research. According to John Curtice, professor of politics in Strathclyde, the apparent rule in British politics is that oppositions that fail to establish a poll lead early on are doomed to fail at the subsequent general election (see here). This is, of course, not an iron law. Being ahead in the polls at an early stage is no guarantee of subsequent electoral success. Miliband was narrowly ahead of the Conservatives in the autumn of 2011, yet he still crashed to defeat in 2015. However, Curtice explains, so far at least, being behind after sixteen months has always been followed by electoral defeat (see here).

According to YouGov polls, in November 2017, Labour was 10 to 11 points behind the Conservatives. At 30 per cent, the party’s average rating was no better than the 31 per cent it secured at last year’s general election. If that would be the election result, taking the new boundaries for the constituencies into account, the Conservatives would be likely to secure an overall majority of circa 70 seats (see here). Now, in January, Labour is 16 points behind. It begins to look like the biggest electoral disaster in the post-war period. It is clear that Corbyn needs to stop ‘delivering Brexit to the people’ (dixit his new year’s message). Last November, in the general population, more than twice as many are ‘dissatisfied’ with Corbyn’s leadership as ‘satisfied.’ No less than 68% feel that that he ‘does not have what it takes’ to be Prime Minister. An unusually large proportion of the electorate are not convinced that the Labour leader is up to the task. The balance of those perceptions is heavily negative (see here and here). Last month, 47% of the respondents thinks that May is a good prime minister, while only 15% thinks that Corbyn would do a good job as prime minister. Why is this? There are, without a doubt, several reasons, but the essence of the problem is that voters belonging to any of the four groups mentioned (the young urban multiculturals, the Brexit heartlanders, the Scots and Britons abroad) that Labour has to keep or win over see little reason to vote for the party, while many within the Labour – and this time it is not only the Blairites – are dissatisfied with, if not radically dismayed by Corbyn’s handling of the Brexit.

Best Prime Minister 23-24 Jan-01

Figure 2: Best prime minister according to the British electorate (source: Yougov.uk).

The social democratic opposition

“The Labour Party certainly gave every impression of falling into line with the Tories on the Brexit this week (last week, when the vote in parliament came up) and in particular on the issue of immigration,” writes David Lammy (see here). Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham. It is absurd, he continues, to talk about the trees and refuse to see the forest. It makes no sense to rail against the way the NHS is falling apart under the Tories, and yet also want an end to free movement, because, like it or not, the NHS needs immigrant workers.

This argument holds true for the British economy as a whole – from the social care system (225. 000 EU citizens work in health and social work), food (222.000 work in food services). Lammy also refers to the ‘skills crisis:’ according to the Treasury’s Productivity Plan, Britain’s skills weaknesses “are of such long standing and such intractability that only the most radical action can address them.” Where, Lammy asks, will we find 350.000 people with the high level skills to work in the IT, finance and professional services sectors which drive our economy, contribute to GDP and therefore to public services (see here)? A recent study published by The Economist showed that between 1995 and 2011 migrants made a positive contribution of more than £4 billion to Britain. It is not the ‘fault’ of Eastern Europeans either. Of course not. Between 2001 and 2011, the net fiscal contribution of recent arrivals from the eastern European countries that have joined the EU since 2004 has amounted to almost £5 billion. Even during the worst years, those between 2007 and 2011, these immigrants made a net contribution of almost £2 billion to British public finances. Migrants from other European countries contributed £8.6 billion (see here). Why exactly does Corbyn wants to deliver the Brexit? The sad truth is that a lot of people in the Brexit heartlands are basically too ignorant of these simple findings and/or too indoctrinated by right wing poison to understand that the Brexit will cut into their flesh the most. That Labour now supports these people on the basis of the argument that ‘democracy has to be respected’ is more than miserable. It is also utterly self-defeating. If Labour would follow the correct political course, it should not have to fight for its own survival in these heartlands. But this means proposing leftist policies. Some MPs will never do it – consider Rachel Reeves in Leeds, who promised in 2015 to be harder on welfare recipients than the Tories. Corbyn, the eurosceptic, will not do it. The only ones who are standing up are the members of the social democratic opposition within Labour. For the moment, they are a minority.

Nor are immigrants more on benefits than UK-born workers and they are also less likely to live in social housing. There is no argument here (although a good argument starting with “even if” could be also produced). These findings – simple objective facts and data – are being ignored because they do not fit into the political narrative of the Tories and part of Labour. That is a shame, Lammy says – and I completely agree:

“We in the Labour Party ought to be getting these messages out, to be engaging in a frank and straightforward conversation with the British people. Let’s meet the arguments about austerity, structural decline and about the concentration of money in London and the South East head-on, not allow the agenda to be set for us by the extreme right” (see here).

“Preventing migrants from coming into our country will not help our economy, it will mortally wound it,” Lammy continues. The Brexiteers claim that we can have open borders when it comes to selling our goods and services and moving private capital, but not in terms of labour. It is ridiculous. The EU – 27 other countries – are saying no. To pretend otherwise is fundamentally dishonest. When it becomes clear that this goal is non-sensical, agreeing to restrictions on free migration is betrayal – something Left Labour should never do. What another Labour MP said is also true: “When the pain hits, as it will, and when people lose their jobs, you need to be on the right side.” When the pain hits, people will blame Labour for delivering it (see here).

Lammy is far from the only one who is dissatisfied with Labour’s position. Corbyn is facing a serious revolt by grassroots Labour supporters who backed him to be leader as the party’s crisis over Brexit escalates. With several members of Corbyn’s frontbench considering resigning, the rebellion is spreading among local party members, who are furious at his support for May’s plans for triggering the article 50 process (see here).

On Saturday night a highly critical open letter to Corbyn, circulating on Facebook, had been signed by almost 2.000 members in constituency parties across the country. These people are not Blairites. The letter, organised by a group called Labour Against Brexit, accuses Corbyn of a “betrayal of your socialist values” and of backing a policy that will hurt working people. One of the organisers, Jonathan Proctor of the North Tyneside constituency Labour party, made it clear that the motive was not to destabilise Corbyn, but to stand up for Labour principles and values. The letter is the first real sign of grassroots unrest against Corbyn in his own power bases in the constituency parties. It makes clear that his support had been based on a belief that he would create a more democratic party that would be true to Labour values, including opposing the Brexit (see here).

Alex Salmond, the SNP’s international affairs and Europe spokesman, said Labour was “running scared of Ukip and failing to do its constitutional duty of holding the government to account.” This seems, indeed, to be the essence of the situation. He added: “The referendum happened as a result of Tory fear of UKIP and now it is bulldozed through without proper opposition because of Labour’s fear of UKIP” (see here).

A shadow cabinet member told the Observer: “This is not easy for Jeremy and I feel sorry for him. But the way it has been handled is corroding our support. It is falling away fast.” Chris Leslie, Labour MP for Nottingham East said Corbyn was losing support over the issue and asked why he had not put the matter to consultation in the wider party. “There is a very noticeable change of mood among many members who joined recently to support Jeremy. It is surprising, given that he backs giving the membership a say and did so over military action in Syria, that he does not do the same over article 50.”

As for the Tories, I still do not believe that May means it. I felt vindicated in this opinion (that no one else seem to share) when, last week, Boris Johnson compared Hollande to a Nazi prison guard (see here). It is clear why May choose this Frank Spencer-like genius in high diplomacy and everything else to deliver the Brexit – disaster is guaranteed. The last couple of months everything went wrong. The Tories are winning. Labour will be electorally destroyed – it already is: May has the luxury of calling an election any time she wants. She will reap a major victory. It will be achieved without transforming UKIP into a major force to reckon with (their number of seats will remain modest). The Tories can look towards the future with confidence. They will govern for many years. Or perhaps not. The only chance the left has at this point is that the Brexit crisis within Labour explodes as soon and as hard as possible.