National Security & Defense

How Labour Blew It

Jeremy Corbyn at a “Vote Remain” event in Manchester, June 21, 2016. (Phil Noble/Reuters)
A half-hearted campaign and aloofness from members’ concerns lost too many votes in areas that should have been Remain strongholds.

When the first results came in from Sunderland last night, you could tell something was going wrong.

Sunderland, an industrial city on the North Sea, had voted 61 percent for Leave, a far larger margin than had been expected. It was an ominous sign for the Remain camp, and a hopeful one for Leave, which had begun the night expecting defeat. But with a victory deep in the Labour heartland, the signs looked a little bit rosier for Leave.

Sunderland proved the first data point in a pattern that persisted throughout the night. Newcastle, another northern industrial city, voted Remain, but by a far narrower margin than Leave had anticipated. In the Pennines, Leeds also went for Remain by the thinnest of hairs. And Sheffield, where a Remain victory had been forecast, came down on the side of Leave.

Those results mark an uncomfortable truth for observers of the Brexit debate on both sides of the Atlantic. What pushed Leave over the edge was not bright-blue Tory England; many of those areas did indeed cast their ballots for Leave, but not by wider-than-expected margins. For Leave, the real victories came in the north, deep in the Labour heartland, where working-class disaffection with immigration, elites, and the European Union proved a potent force in pushing traditionally left-wing voters to side with Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage in their quest to leave the European Union.

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This is a truth likely to be subsumed by the general furor among the American Left over Brexit, much of which has taken on ugly tones of classism, ageism, elitism, and resentment for a democratic process that didn’t go their way. Leave won not because right-wing voters in the south rallied to its cause any more than they were expected to, but because left-wing voters in the north rebelled against the Labour leadership. Leave’s success owes just as much to social democrats as it does to Eton-educated libertarians.

Take Hartlepool, for instance. Hartlepool is a port city in County Durham, one of the places where high unemployment has been the norm since the 1990s. It’s solidly left-wing: For decades, it has elected a Labour MP to Parliament. But on Thursday night, Hartlepool went 70 percent for Brexit.

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The story reads the same throughout the north. In Doncaster — a city represented by three Labour MPs, one of them Ed Miliband, the party’s former leader — 69 percent of the vote went for Leave. Burnley has had either a Labour or a Liberal MP since the First World War, but two-thirds of its voters favored leaving the EU. Wigan is a safe Labour seat, and has been since 1918, but it, too, voted heavily for Leave.

That so much of the Labour heartland, of the constituencies over which Labour has enjoyed a stranglehold for a century or more, should vote for Leave is surprising, but not a wholly unpredictable. It is the direct result of the lackluster backing that the leadership of the Labour party, especially Jeremy Corbyn, offered for the Remain campaign. If this referendum has exposed any stark new reality about British politics, it is the sheer level of disconnect between the governing elites and the people they represent; nowhere is that reality more visible than in the Labour party.

#share#The Labour party officially supported the Remain campaign. Corbyn had his reservations, to be sure — the man views the EU as something of a capitalist conspiracy to stifle the welfare state — but he campaigned for Remain. Yet a poll in late May found that only just over half of Labour voters could correctly say their party’s position on the issue. Either Labour MPs weren’t making the case for Remain to their constituents or their constituents weren’t listening. In any case, Labour failed to corral its voters into opposing Johnson and Gove and into embracing the cosmopolitan stance the party seeks to espouse.

Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to sell Remain to his members has put the party in mortal danger.

Part of this comes from the fact that the cosmopolitan stance that now characterizes the Labour party is not quite the traditional left-wing stance — and, from a certain perspective, is actually antithetical to left-wing beliefs. One of the foremost proponents of an anti-EU position was the late Tony Benn, known to all as a staunch socialist and defender of the Left. He was an ardent Eurosceptic, opposed to his country’s membership of the EU on grounds that he framed in terms of sovereignty and democracy. Jeremy Corbyn descends from the Bennite tradition, and many suspect that his views align far more closely with Benn’s than he would care to admit: hence, perhaps, his apparent lack of enthusiasm for the EU, and his insistence on making the campaign against Brexit a campaign against Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage rather than a campaign for the EU. Indeed, Tariq Ali, a prominent left-wing writer and confidant of Corbyn, recently said the Labour leader would have supported Brexit had he still been a backbencher. In northern England, Labour voters have retained that Bennite outlook, though their party has moved past it. The stunning gap between leaders and the people has never been more evident.

Typical of election post-mortems, the losing side has begun to point the fingers of blame inward. Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, explicitly faulted Corbyn and his “bizarre refusal to share a platform in the face of the greatest challenge our country has faced in a generation” for Leave’s victory. Corbyn already faces a no-confidence motion within his own party. The message is clear: In this generation’s ultimate political moment, you failed. Corbyn campaigned on a strictly anti-Tory theme, but it turned out his party’s voters felt more strongly about the EU than they did about the Tories.

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And Corbyn’s failure has put his party in mortal danger. Much post-referendum commentary has focused on the Tory party, and, to be certain, that party now faces a critical juncture, with its prime minister set to step down and its future dreadfully murky. But Labour may face a similar moment, and one perhaps more threatening to its long-term viability as a party.

The roots of this brewing crisis began under the leadership of Tony Blair, when Labour shifted away from its working-class base to become a party of liberal cosmopolitanism, of London rather than the post-industrial north. Signs of unease were evident at the 2015 general election, when UKIP bested the Tories to come in second in many Labour constituencies across the traditional left-wing strongholds of northern England. Now the process is nearly complete. By voting en masse for Brexit, Labour voters turned away from their party’s official position and lodged an incisive protest against what the modern party stands for. In places like Sunderland, Doncaster, and Wigan, they rejected cultural cosmopolitanism outright.

#related#Labour is now wounded, in a position of vulnerable weakness. Any political momentum the party might have gained with a Remain victory now lies firmly with UKIP, assuming the party can capitalize on Leave’s victory (which is, admittedly, not certain to occur). The referendum revealed the hollowness of Labour’s support in the north — yes, it’s the Labour heartland, comprising the bulk of the party’s seats, but it is a place with which the party’s leadership is desperately out of touch. If a general election is held in the coming months, Labour must grapple with the very real possibility of losing dozens of seats to UKIP or Johnson’s wing of the Tory party.

The Left’s weakness in modern Britain is nothing new, but Leave’s victory has exposed just how deep the crisis runs. Against the wishes of their party, Labour voters have delivered victory for the Leave campaign. Corbyn’s Labour faces an existential moment. The choices the party makes in the next few weeks will define its prospects for a generation. And this introspection must address, first and foremost, the unalterable fact that the most solid of Labour constituencies turned against the party and pushed Britain out of the European Union.

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