Labour must seize the political space opening up before us – and banish the poisonous myth about Leavers and Remainers
"Under new leadership, the Labour party now has a chance to try and earn again the support of 'red wall' voters," Ruth Smeeth writes
Labour failed to understand voters who wanted an end to the failed status quo. As we rebuild after the pandemic, the party has an opportunity to build a future based on empathy, connection and security
In 2016, 72% of my then constituents in Stoke-on-Trent North voted to leave the EU. Although I had campaigned to remain, from that point onwards I chose to respect the decision my constituency had made. I chose to respect the result of the referendum, and I chose to respect – and to try to understand – the reasons why my constituents opted for leave.
Since then, I think it's safe to say I’ve learnt more than most of those people who voted remain about what motivated people to choose a different path. Let's be honest – in an often bitter debate, many politicians and commentators have made lazy assumptions about why people wanted to leave the European Union. One particularly pernicious myth has been the idea that people like my former constituents chose opted for Leave because they resented EU rules and regulations.
I’ve never believed this to be the case. The idea that voters would choose a certain path because they wanted their workplaces to be less safe, their seas and rivers to be more polluted, and their food to come from dubious sources is palpably nonsensical. Of course, that hasn’t stopped certain policymakers from peddling this falsehood in order to bolster their ideological demands to cut the so-called ‘red tape’.
But polling published today by Unchecked UK should finally bust this myth once and for all. Their research found strong support from younger Leave voters across the political spectrum for a diverse range of EU-derived rules; including food safety, consumer, health and safety, environmental and financial regulation.
The polling shows that most younger Leave voters (66% or more) would like to keep or increase regulation in 11 out of 11 categories – such as consumer protection, food safety and the environment. Most younger Leave voters (70% or more) think the UK should keep or increase EU regulations and standards. And nearly 80% of respondents agree that regulation is necessary to ensure there is fair behaviour by both people and businesses. Seven in ten younger Leave voters think that large businesses should be regulated more, or that current levels are about right.
Clearly, these voters see strong rules not as an inconvenience to be removed where possible, but as a valued public good. They didn’t choose to leave the EU because they felt our nation was held back by regulation. What they voted for was change to a status quo that simply doesn’t work for the majority in this country. And in 2019 the Labour party failed to understand or capture this mood.
Under new leadership, the party now has a chance to try and earn again the support of these voters – many of whom live in the fallen ‘red wall’ of seats which form a crucial part of any path back to power.
The response of the nation to the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that there is space opening up for a new political settlement. At its heart is a growing awareness of our interdependence on one another, and more importantly, the recognition of this as a good, rather than bad, thing. It's reflected in the countless acts of kindness being carried out every day, in our willingness both to help and be helped, in the gratitude we feel towards the key workers who are putting themselves at risk every day to keep us safe and provided for.
The idea that voters wanted their workplaces to be less safe and their rivers to be more polluted is palpably nonsense
And it’s echoed in the views that this new polling demonstrates: that people value shared rules as the framework of a decent society – where if we work hard and play by the rules we know that the food we eat and the things we buy will be safe, the natural environment will be protected, and our homes and workplaces will be secure.
As we turn our thoughts to the kind of world we want to live in once this pandemic has passed, Labour must look to the future with new policy approaches which sit squarely within the public’s current inclination towards empathy, connection and security.
From proper investment in public services, to common sense regulation, to new norms for business, there may well be and really should be broad public appetite for instinctively Labour policies which have previously failed to land with some voters.
Let's banish once and for all the poisonous myths about Leave versus Remain voters, and look to a future political settlement that works for everyone across the United Kingdom.