Anushka Asthana: Could the Labour party be the first casualty of Britain’s new culture war?

Posted On: 
19th January 2017

The EU referendum, like the Scottish vote before it, has driven a dagger through Labour's fragile electoral coalition. And this time it could prove fatal. 

Jeremy Corbyn at last week's Fabian Society conference. Senior shadow cabinet members have expressed discomfort with the leadership's position on Brexit, Asthana writes
Credit: 
PA

When it comes to exiting the EU, the Liberal Democrats have a clear strategy that has been shown to be electorally explosive when deployed at the right time and in the right place.

But it’s easy for Tim Farron, isn’t it? After all, the Lib Dem leader is winning votes among a group of committed Remainers who’d like to reverse the referendum result. As the psephologist John Curtice recently pointed out to me – it’s fertile territory, but it’s also niche. Which is perfect for a small europhile party desperate to plough its way back to electoral relevance.

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But the challenge facing Britain’s second largest party, which ought to be troubling the Conservatives for a parliamentary majority, is not quite so straightforward.

For Labour – as it grapples with the complexity of a historical electoral coalition that spans wide from socially liberal Remainers to a working class core vote among which many passionately backed out – the Brexit question is complex.

All of which helps explain why the party’s response to the most important speech of Theresa May’s premiership was far too nuanced to cut through.

First there were too many messages being put out. Jeremy Corbyn wanted to stress May’s threat to slash tax rates, which he said would turn Britain into a “bargain basement economy”. Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer agreed, but chose to focus more on May’s call for a comprehensive trade deal – which he argued would be good enough if it replicated key elements of being fully in the single market.

Then from Brussels, a different take from MEP leader Glenis Willmott, furious that the Tory government was giving up on membership before the talks had even begun. And Diane Abbott pressing on the positive case for immigration.

Labour might say those differences were just of emphasis, but it would be hard to deny that it felt muddled.

But there was another issue that meant the response attracted the ire of some backbenchers, and that was over the positioning itself, set out in the Commons by Starmer. A number of MPs wanted their Labour party to be the most powerful voice shouting “stop” in the face of May’s blueprint for a hard Brexit.

Instead they got what sounded like implicit backing for a Conservative prime minister’s plan.

Some MPs said they were particularly upset not to receive a single line from the leadership after May’s speech to ensure a unified response, and even senior shadow cabinet members expressed discomfort with the position to the Guardian.

After all – despite May’s politically astute speech that managed to please all factions of her party to some extent – it was the Boris Johnsons and the Peter Bones, as well as the Brexit-backing Sun and Daily Mail newspapers, that were salivating most at her intervention. Even Nigel Farage was happy.

As European figures were quick to stress – this was a prime minister ready to force a full and clean break from the EU and its common market: so why wasn’t Labour getting angry?

Starmer might argue that Labour needed to listen to the pounding Brexit vote from the party’s heartlands in the north and across the Midlands; that failure to act on free movement could mean that millions of voters who abandoned Labour in recent years could switch from not voting to backing UKIP instead. He would certainly suggest that any change on free movement would be likely to result in the EU saying no to the single market membership. So why try to achieve what is probably unachievable?

He will now hope to score political points by calling May out if and when she falls short on her promise.

Some backbench MPs cannot believe that their party would not be pushing May to at least start the Brexit process with an ambitious demand to retain market membership alongside managed migration. To at least oppose hard Brexit for now.

Starmer took an approach that was arguably honest, but also littered with political pitfalls; because by accepting the premise of May’s speech to leave the single market, the opposition was barely distinguishable from the government on the central argument.

It is understandable how Labour got here. And polls showing that people are increasingly lining up in their two new Leave and Remain tribes, rather than identifying with political parties, show how hard it is for them to escape. This is the second referendum to drive a dagger through Labour’s fragile coalition, and everyone knows that in Scotland the wound was almost fatal.

Some in the party are desperate to regain the working class base but others ask: “What about the impact on the other flank of Labour support?” After all, it was Remainers who made up a much more significant proportion of the party’s vote in 2015.

Labour wants to look in two directions at once. The risk is that in doing so it tries to speak to everyone but ends up being heard by no one as other parties, including the Conservatives, are minded to take sides in Britain’s new culture wars.

Labour is in the midst of a Brexit conundrum – and it might be impossible to solve.   

Anushka Asthana is political editor at the Guardian