When the general election took place in 2015, 9.3 million people voted Labour. When the EU referendum was held in June 2016, according to the most authoritative poll at the time, carried out by Lord Ashcroft, 37% of these labour voters – just under 3.5million of them - voted Leave. Subsequent polling showed that about half these people no longer intended to vote Labour in future, at least partly because of the Labour Party’s attitude to the EU.
Now move on to the bye-election held in Richmond at the beginning of December 2016, dominated by the aftermath of the Brexit decision. Because a majority of Labour MPs were minded to vote for Article 50, Labour achieved 4% of the vote in a constituency which had opted massively for Remain. Indeed, almost all the seats with both the highest Leave and the highest Remain votes are currently held by Labour. This is the agonising dilemma which the Party has had to face. What do the results of the two bye-elections held on 23rd February 2017 tell us about how things are now going?
The poll results in both Copeland and Stoke on Trent provide little comfort. The last time the major opposition party lost a seat to the party in government was in 1982, so the Copeland result, with a 6.7% swing the Conservatives sets a deeply depressing precedent. Of course, other factors, as always, were involved but the Copeland electors, who had voted strongly for Leave in the EU referendum, do not seem to have been very happy with Labour’s relatively half-hearted stand on the way Brexit negotiations are going.
Labour did a least win in Stoke but the very low total poll – only 38% despite the massive amount of effort put in by all parties to get the vote out – shows that many potential Labour voters probably stayed at home for the same reason. Again there was a swing to the Conservatives. Their vote was up as a percentage of the poll by 1.9% while Labour’s fell by 2.2%. Bearing in mind the current saliency of the Brexit process it is hard to avoid the conclusion that in both cases EU scepticism worked against Labour.
There was some comfort for Labour. UKIP received only 6.5% of the votes in Copeland and just under 25% in Stoke – a seat which they really had to win to provide themselves with any long-term credibility. The Conservatives have evidently stolen almost all UKIP’s clothes on Brexit, leaving them with no other clear policies on which to campaign. Nor was the Lib Dem result at all impressive. Their 7.2% of the vote in Copeland and 9.8% in Stoke was a far cry from what happened in Richmond, suggesting that fervent attachment to Remain is largely a London/metropolitan rather than a national phenomenon. The Greens were nowhere – 1.7% in Copeland and 1.4% in Stoke.
What has clearly happened is that – at least on Brexit – the Conservatives have caught the national mood much better than Labour. As a result lost Labour votes have not gone to UKIP – or to the Lib Dems or to the Greens – but to the Tories.
What is the lesson for Labour from these results? Surely, especially looking at the national rather than the London picture, it is that the only viable way ahead is for Labour to stop looking backwards at the EU referendum and to the reasons why so many MPs and Party members favoured Remain, but to work now to make Brexit a success. This means not obstructing the government’s negotiating stance or trying to reverse the EU referendum result. It means pressing the government to fight hard for the maintenance of social and employment legislation and other specifically Labour concerns, but generally to fight for the country’s corner rather than to score tactical points off the government.
If Labour is to recover the credulity it needs on the EU this side of the next general election in 2020 it needs to realise that the big numbers of lost Labour votes are not among metropolitan Remainers but among disaffected Leavers in the 70% of seats held by Labour which had Leave majorities – probably close to 90% if London and a few other university towns are excluded.
Of course, there are other thing which Labour needs to do too, to start winning elections again, but if it can’t get on side with most of its out-of-London potential support on the way ahead on Brexit, it is unlikely to succeed overall. Brexit is going to be a key issue all the way to the next general election.
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