23 December 2016

Brexit has left Labour staring into the abyss

By Matthew Goodwin

Since the EU referendum, party politics in the UK has undergone considerable change. Each of the three most popular political parties in the opinion polls – the Conservatives, Labour and UKIP – have held leadership elections. While the Conservatives replaced David Cameron with Prime Minister Theresa May, Labour re-elected Jeremy Corbyn and UKIP – who held not one but two leadership elections – finally settled on Paul Nuttall, a Northerner and long-time deputy to Nigel Farage.

While Corbyn was the only leader among the top three to survive the year, there are big questions about his party’s ability to survive as a competitive opposition.

To assess the scale of the challenge that faces Labour, it is useful to recall the reality that met the party after its defeat at the 2015 General Election. That contest saw Labour reduced to barely 30 per cent of the vote and 232 seats in the House of Commons – its lowest number since 1987 and third-lowest since the 1930s. In Scotland, it got only one seat.

In the aftermath, analysis revealed that unless Labour dramatically improved its situation in Scotland, it would need a poll lead of at least 12.5 percentage points to stand any chance of winning a majority at the next General Election.

To put this in perspective, Labour is now typically 12-16 points behind the Conservatives, who since the referendum has enjoyed strong poll leads. The prospect of a Labour majority at the next election is therefore very slim.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Labour faces other pressures – perhaps the most severe in its history. These also throw light on how British politics more generally has been evolving since the referendum.

First, it has been estimated that nearly 70 per cent of Labour-held seats voted for Brexit, with industrial, Northern and economically left-behind seats leading the way.

That an estimated 70 per cent or more of voters in Labour constituencies like Kingston-upon-Hull East, Stoke-on-Trent North, Doncaster North, and Walsall North opted for Brexit, while over 70 per cent of voters in Labour constituencies like Hornsey and Wood Green, Streatham, Hackney North and Islington North opted for Remain, exposed a deep and widening divide in the political geography of Labour support.

This tension between Labour’s working-class, struggling, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration wing and its more financially secure, middle-class, pro-EU and cosmopolitan supporters poses huge strategic dilemmas – and provides huge opportunities for its main rivals.

In particular, despite infighting among some Conservative MPs, Theresa May and her government are in an extremely strong position. According to August polling, May is seen far more favourably than Corbyn among almost every group in society.

Among pensioners – the demographic most likely to vote – she leads Corbyn by 57 points. Among those aged between 50 and 64, it is 26 points. Across the population as a whole, it is 17 points. Only among 18-24 year-olds – who generally vote in lower numbers – and voters in Scotland, where Labour has fallen off a cliff, is Corbyn ahead.

On the issues, too, the Conservatives are dominant. Far more voters trust May and her government than Labour on the economy, Brexit and immigration – the three main concerns cited by voters.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, were a General Election held tomorrow, forecasts suggest that Theresa May would be handed a much larger parliamentary majority, perhaps of more than 100. Labour, meanwhile, could be reduced to its lowest number of seats since the 1930s.

But it is not only the Conservatives who are causing Labour problems. Since the referendum, polls show UKIP continuing to attract more than one in 10 voters. Its new leader, Paul Nuttall, has now declared his intention to target Northern Labour seats.

UKIP is already entrenched as the second party in 44 Labour-held seats, and will now be looking to target seats where a large majority of voters endorsed Brexit and Labour’s majority is within reach. Examples include seats like Hartlepool, Heywood and Middleton, Mansfield, Stoke-on-Trent and Great Grimsby in the North, and Dagenham and Rainham in outer-east London – although it is important to note that even here UKIP’s grassroots organisation remains weak.

Labour’s dilemma is magnified by a simultaneous problem at the other end of the political spectrum, namely a resurgent Liberal Democrat party. Fresh from their win at the Richmond Park by-election in December, the Liberal Democrats are looking to capitalise on angst over Brexit among pro-Remain voters.

Some are suspicious that they can replicate this performance in a general election – but the fact that the Liberal Democrats were able to take Richmond Park from Zac Goldsmith, while Labour failed even to make the 5% threshold, is a further warning shot to Corbyn.

Should the Liberal Democrats, rather than Labour, manage to project themselves as a new political home for Remainers who loathe Brexit and the Conservative Party, but also despair of Corbyn’s leadership, then in some seats this holds the potential to divide the more socially liberal and Remain-focused group of voters – at the same time as UKIP is trying to win over working-class voters who used to support Labour.

In pro-Remain Labour seats where the Liberal Democrats are already second, Labour could find itself further squeezed by the beginnings of a realignment: places like Hornsey and Wood Green, Bristol West, Cambridge, Bermondsey and Old Southwark, and Cardiff Central.

Of course, were the Liberal Democrats and their leader Tim Farron able to project themselves as the architects of a “Remain Revolt”, it could also cause problems for Conservative MPs in seats where a majority backed Remain.

There are 17 Conservative seats where Remain won a majority at the referendum and the Liberal Democrats are already in second place: after Richmond Park, attention should turn to seats like Lewes, Twickenham, Kingston and Surbiton, Bath, Cheltenham, Cheadle, and Oxford West and Abingdon. That said, any such revival would still leave Britain’s traditional third party a long way from its glory years in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The year 2016 has taught us to be wary of predictions. And if the past six months are anything to go by, it appears fairly safe to predict that volatility and change will remain firmly on the menu in 2017.

Yet at the same time, the electoral landscape suggests that the Conservative majority is as strong as it has been in decades. If Labour loses either of its two supporting tribes, or Theresa May wins back even a modest proportion of Tories who had defected to Ukip (likely, given the more socially conservative tone she has struck), then Labour face an electoral wipe-out.

This also, of course, has implications for Brexit. With Labour in disarray, May has little need to prop up her centre: her political and electoral imperative is to shore up her right flank, both within the Tory party and in the country as a whole.

That makes a “hard Brexit”, which puts concerns over immigration above the need for single market access, all the more likely – even as it makes the Brexit deal itself that much less palatable for many of those who voted Remain, and that much harder to negotiate.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. This article is adapted from ‘Brexit: Six Months On’, a new report from The UK in a Changing Europe and the Political Studies Association. You can read the full report at www.ukandeu.ac.uk