After a superb campaign that confounded the critics Labour is in the driving seat. And they are the best option on Brexit
Labour may not have won the general election but in every sense it seems to have momentum on its side.
Once purdah conditions were imposed, requiring broadcasters give parties equal treatment, Jeremy Corbyn’s team began to climb rapidly in the polls. The leaked release of a fully-costed manifesto – which included eye-catching policies designed to appeal to a fairly broad cross-section of society – was perhaps the tipping point.
Labour ended up securing 40% of the vote, a far cry from the 24% predicted at its lowest ebb and almost a full 10% more than it won in 2015.
The Conservative party got a couple of percent more and finished with more seats, but the desperate coalition it’s seeking with the homophobic, anti-abortion, terrorist-supporting DUC is a far cry from the ‘strong and stable’ majority Theresa May insisted she needed to navigate Brexit negotiations. Many constituencies that used to be Tory safe seats are now marginals. Others, like Canterbury and Kensington, have already flipped. It would only take a swing of a few percent for Labour to secure an overall majority next time.
What’s more, demographics are in its favour. The younger a voter was, the more likely they were to vote Labour. A massive 66% of 18 and 19-year-olds opted for the left-wing party, but so did the majority of 30-49s, who make up a far bigger proportion of the electorate. The Tories rely disproportionately on the elderly and also struggle to attract voters from ethnic minority communities.
A support base like this simply cannot hold for much longer. No wonder many in the party are panicking, with Harlow MP Robert Halfon ludicrously suggesting it needs to rebrand as ‘the Worker’s Party’. (On Twitter, some were quick to observe how easy it is for anyone in possession of a marker pen to change an ‘o’ to an ‘a’ and an ‘r’ to an ‘n’.)
It would be easy, in this context, to get complacent about Labour’s future prospects. As an avowed supporter of the party I’m certainly feeling more optimistic than I have in a good while. However, while electoral victory is definitely a realistic prospect, it requires a voting coalition that brings together groups with very different views. Younger, liberal residents of larger cities and more socially conservative individuals in its traditional northern and midlands strongholds.
For an election that was ostensibly called to improve Theresa May’s negotiating hand (precisely how, it has never quite been clear) Brexit was actually a surprisingly peripheral issue during the campaign period. The predicted Liberal Democrat surge never really happened, meaning that the vast majority of voters opted for a party promising to exit the EU without a second referendum. It’s true that many Remain voters do now say they’d prefer for us to just get on with it, but it would be wrong to take Labour and the Conservatives’ combined vote as public support for exiting the EU.
What happened, in reality, is that Labour neutralised the issue. By whipping the Article 50 vote and talking about ‘managed migration’, Corbyn erased one of the biggest differences between the only two parties capable of forming government. Because of this, the party managed to hold on to a much larger percentage of voters in leave-voting parts of the country – particularly in its traditional northern heartlands. However, its biggest gains seem to have been in parts of the country that skewed heavily remain, and the younger voters it relied heavily on are statistically likely to be pro-EU.
It would be a mistake to judge the election result mainly through the prism of Brexit. Polling suggests voters prioritised issues like the NHS and housing more highly when deciding how to cast the vote. At the same time, Labour is walking a very difficult line.
Many of its supporters are worried about the potentially catastrophic effects of a badly-managed Brexit. At least some proportion opted for Corbyn because they thought he was more likely to opt for a ‘softer’ deal. Some would prefer single market membership (and, consequently, continued freedom of movement) over the ‘full single market access’ Labour suggests it would aim for. Indeed, it’s hard to know whether the sort of arrangement it’s seeking is even possible. Only time will tell.
This, I think, is where the difference between the two parties lies. In some ways, the specific claims they make right now are meaningless. Everything depends on how the negotiation process goes. Labour’s current stance is less a promise about what would actually happen and more a signal of how it intends to approach things.
Protecting the rights of EU citizens currently resident here is a priority. Safeguarding jobs and workers’ rights is top of its agenda. If it’s impossible to secure the sort of immigration concessions Keir Starmer is seeking without causing significant economic damage, it could be persuaded to change its approach. Even its more anti-immigration supporter might change their minds if it became clear large numbers of jobs were at stake.
It would be much harder for the Conservatives to similarly change course without alienating a significant chunk of its retired, more anti-EU voter base. What’s more, Eurosceptic elements within the parliamentary party are pushing for a Hard Brexit at all costs. Theresa May’s ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ rhetoric seems like nonsense (no deal is the worst possible outcome) but it tells us everything about her party’s position. It has attempted to ride a wave of anti-immigration sentiment with no thought for the consequences, now it risks plunging the country into economic disaster.
While Corbyn has condemned employers who exploit migrant workers to bring down wages, he’s also regularly spoken about the positive benefits of immigration. Our NHS relies heavily on the work of EU migrants, as does our social care system. Though Labour needs to tread carefully to avoid giving the impression it intends to ‘block Brexit’ or ignore the result of a democratic referendum – which many voters do see as a demand for freedom of movement to end – it’s potentially possible to make a stronger case for the benefits of migration. It’s also vital to effectively counter the long-running, false narrative that migration is the cause of over-stretched public services and housing shortages.
Public opinion has been turning against austerity for a while. Labour needs to hammer home a simple message: migrants aren’t the cause of your problems, the Conservatives are. The scapegoating of recent years has been a deliberate tactic to distract from fundamental failures of government. Elect us, and we’ll ensure that public services are properly funded. We’ll build houses. We’ll introduce rent controls so you’re not priced out of your home by greedy landlords trying to maximise profits. We’re spend the money necessary to make this a country that works for all, and pay for it by taxing the wealthiest few percent. Crucially: we’ll encourage necessary immigration because we recognise our collective well-being and success relies on it.
After decades of increasingly toxic discourse around immigration, things might finally be looking more positive. Once Brexit negotiations begin in earnest, we’ll be forced to confront the reality of the options. Tabloid claims about the harm migration causes will be exposed as the lies they are. The EU referendum result sent the message that voters were dissatisfied and things needed to change. Any politician worth their salt should recognise this requires offering real solutions to people’s problems – not pursuing the sort of kamikaze Brexit that will only make everything worse.
None of this will be easy to navigate, but Labour is the party best placed to bridge the gap. If Theresa May’s DUP deal collapses and another election is called, it’s really the only viable pro-European choice.
Abi Wilkinson is a journalist and writer