News, Politics

UK Labour’s Failure to Understand Its Voters Has Sent It Into Existential Crisis

In the chaotic days since the EU referendum, the Labour Party has apparently been tearing itself apart, culminating in a full-blown challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. He has been hit with a volley of co-ordinated shadow cabinet resignations, with the promise of more to come.

But this is something more than a party political brawl. It’s not just that the party leadership campaigned for Remain, whereas a majority of the British people (and one-third of Labour supporters among them) voted to leave the EU. And it’s not just that Corbyn must now assemble a new shadow cabinet and fight a civil war in the Parliamentary Labour Party even as the government itself melts down. The problem is far deeper.

Labour was already at risk of falling into a state of shocking disrepair, but now that Britain has voted to leave the EU, it seems to have entered what may be a terminal decline.

Under Corbyn, the party has proven wholly incapable of reconnecting with its own supporters in traditional strongholds, the same voters it has seen slipping away two elections in a row. In places such as Sunderland, Oldham and Rochdale they not only voted to leave the EU, but in some instances did so by more than 40 points.

This is just the latest act in a long tragedy. In the minds of many of its traditional supporters, Labour has long since ceased to represent those people it was set up to defend.

Above all, it has failed those left behind by globalisation, who are subject to a combination of economic insecurity and cultural anxiety, unemployment and precarious work. They have profound concerns about the impact of immigration (more about this later). These left-behind voters associate this miserable status quo with the UK’s membership of the EU, and view the Westminster elite as accomplices of the faceless Brussels bureaucrats who forced it upon them.

A series of Labour leaders and swaths of Labour MPs have ignored the core values of the party’s traditional supporters, and have instead appealed mostly to a small section of the electorate – essentially a coalition of university graduates, public sector workers and certain ethnic minorities.

What these sections of society share in common is a metropolitan, liberal outlook that is at odds with the more “small-c” conservative disposition of the working-class and many older voters in the towns and villages across England – a concern for family, work, place and community.

It was these more socially conservative voters who voted so strongly for Leave. As YouGov polling showed, around a third of all Labour voters voted to leave the EU and almost two-thirds of them came from less affluent socio-economic backgrounds. Even if middle-class lefties outnumber them, those Labour supporters are indispensable if the party wants to have any hope of winning the next general election.

But far from mobilising voters, Labour is haemorrhaging support to other parties, chief of all Nigel Farage’s UKIP. At the 2015 election, UKIP came second in 120 constituencies across England, 44 of which are held by Labour in its traditional midland and northern heartlands. Many of these seats’ Labour MPs have majorities of fewer than 1,000 votes, making them extremely vulnerable – especially if the next Tory leader calls a snap election after David Cameron steps down in the autumn.

If Corbyn leads the party to a general election in its current terminal state, Labour’s ranks could collapse to as few as parliamentary 150 seats and cease to be a serious national force.

Culture matters

As Jon Cruddas’s inquiry into the dismal 2015 defeat found, Labour is now toxic with more socially conservative voters who are concerned about immigration, welfare, patriotism and Europe. Of those voters, Cruddas found that an overwhelming number consider immigration the single most important challenge facing both the party and the country.

But even though this problem was flagged long before the referendum campaign began, Labour’s leaders and the bulk of its MPs don’t actually seem to understand why so many Labour voters are anxious about immigration: first, competition in terms of jobs and the downward effect on wages; second, the impact on public services and the allocation of social housing or welfare benefits; and third, the loss of tradition, culture and community. Among Labour’s old supporters, the second and the third reason are the most significant.

The old myth that economics trumps culture should therefore be considered dead. The politics of identity and belonging is far more potent than the transactional politics of retail-style technocracy. Against many predictions, globalisation is not turning the world into a vast cosmopolitan monoculture; on the contrary, we have seen a surge in nationalism and tribalism, a proliferation of struggles for devolution and self-determination, and a renewed concern about ethnicity, shared culture and patriotism.

In Britain, the task is to marry metropolitan modernity with English small-c conservative culture, and to fuse them into a common sense of national purpose. This would mean acknowledging and incorporating all the things both London and Brussels elites have dismissed as anachronisms: tradition, a respect for settled ways of life, a sense of place and belonging, a desire for home and rootedness, the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighbourhood.

Far from being reactionary or jingoistic, this is a call to rediscover English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish patriotism in popular culture, in language and in historical narratives and popular practices.

For Labour, Brexit is not just another wake-up call: it looks like the party’s last chance to rediscover a proper purpose. Getting rid of Corbyn will be the easy bit. The real task is to regain popular trust and a place in the life of ordinary people.

Adrian Pabst is Reader in Politics; Director, Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent

This article was originally published on The Conversation.



Filed under: News, Politics


Adrian Pabst is Reader in Politics; Director, Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent.


  1. Jon says

    One important thing that the Brexit vote demonstrates is that voters have learnt how to game the system. People who planned to vote for leaving clearly knew in advance that if they made their intentions known the better-resourced Remain side would pour money and effort into bringing out more of their own voters: so they kept their plans to themselves — perhaps even lied about them to pollsters — until polling day, with spectacular success. And the lessons from this coup will not be lost on other underdog movements.

    • You are correct on one thing.

      “they kept their plans to themselves — perhaps even lied about them to pollsters”

      But this wasn’t a plan to win, it was a basic survival instinct. It’s a rare breed who is happy about being called an ignorant bigot and cares not about upsetting loved ones with devout left leaning ideals. People tend to avoid such situations, and the best way to do that is hide one’s politics if they differ from the left.

      Because to be openly for Brexit opened one up to ridicule as an ignoramus, demonisation as a racist and the potential of estrangement from friends and family.

      Brexiters kept shtum because the chattering classes and the establishment dominate the narrative in mainstream politics and social media.

      It’s the shy Tory thing all over again.

      People see how lefties dogpile wrong thinkers so rather than declare that one disagrees with the left and open oneself up to a storm of mocking abuse, people keep quiet and vote with a silent enthusiasm.

      The left have successfully made it embarrassing and difficult to disagree with them and people resent that. I believe it is that resentment which motivates the counter vote and the left’s continued shock defeats.

      • John Dupre says

        I don’t understand either of these points. The polls had the two side neck and neck right up to the end. And if you joined the leave campaign social media streams you would have seen that they were most certainly not shy. This was just a protest vote fuelled by growing inequality and fanned by propaganda spread by Murdoch and Dacre. Whatever you say about Corbyn he has consistently campaigned against the forces which have caused these phenomena to spread.

      • Ditto here for the United States. Trump’s true support is greatly under-represented in most liberal polling. His support was under-represented in polling during the primaries.
        There’s a lot of silent Trump supporters out there who will show up to the polls on election day and confound all the experts. – Eric, Texas USA

  2. As an American I make no claim to any special insight into the thought process of those who actually voted. The culture of America has some significant differences from Britain. I think our politicians are more closely related. You have Mr. Johnson and we have Mr. Trump. Our political leaders have fueled misconceptions and failed to understand the actual dilemma of working class people. When leaders seek self preservation rather than honest service, the misconceptions and lies become the truth. The final outcome for both our countries could be disasterous.

    • Every day we white Americans get bombarded with liberal media telling us how bigoted we are, how we’re in decline, how we’ll be a minority according to the US Census by year 2060, how California is already majority Mexican. It has an affect. Whites don’t want to speak out against all this pro-white genocide talk by the politicos and pundits. But the experts may get quite a surprise come election day with a win for Donald Trump.

  3. Pingback: Morning Ed: Brexit III {2016.07.10.Su} | Ordinary Times

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