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Labour’s core vote is now the liberal middle class – it will determine which way the party finally jumps on Brexit

The defeat of Theresa May’s Brexit deal in the Commons followed by her survival of a pro-forma confidence vote signals the end of the Brexit ‘phoney war’.

Labour under Corbyn have, until now, avoided taking a clear position either way on the matter, and for understandable reasons. They want to hold together their fragile electoral coalition for as long as possible, try to force a general election, and capitalise on the chaos. It is a reasonable tactical approach, if not a principled one.

The failure of the confidence vote seemingly puts an end to this strategy, with the Lib Dems telling Labour that ‘spurious further attempts at no confidence motions right now would only facilitate Jeremy Corbyn’s ongoing procrastination … It’s time for Corbyn to choose – does he back Brexit or does he back the people?’

Notwithstanding that the people chose Brexit, the Lib Dems are right: Corbyn must now choose, and recent research by YouGov concluded that ‘if Labour is seen to facilitate Brexit in any form, [our] results indicate that the party would be deserted by millions of Remain voters – without gaining any extra support from Leave voters. Thus Labour risks losing Remain seats where the party did well in 2017 – famously Kensington and Canterbury, but also a host of other constituencies in and around London, and others with a large student population – while failing to recoup any of the ground it lost in the party’s traditional heartlands.’

It is worth recalling that when Theresa May called the election in 2017 Labour were polling in the twenties, had disastrously lost a by-election in Copeland, and were faced with a non-zero prospect of being reduced to something below 200 seats. Labour avoided disaster in 2017 largely through mobilising Remainer urban liberals, and now they are calling in the debt. They are Labour’s core vote now, and the political logic is ineluctable.

Coming out unequivocally against Brexit damages Labour less in purely electoral terms than coming out for it, as much of Labour’s working class base deserted the party long ago. The Oxford researchers Jon Mellon and Geoffrey Evans found in 2014 that ‘Labour’s move to the ‘liberal consensus’ on the EU and immigration left many of their core voters out in the cold a long time before UKIP were an effective political presence. These voters left Labour in 2001, 2005 and 2010.’ Labour accepting the liberal agenda on first Brexit, and then presumably everything else, only further exacerbates this process.

If one wants to give the Corbyn leadership some credit, one might say they at least have some vestigial awareness of the danger taking this path entails. When Transport Secretary Chris Grayling recently said that blocking Brexit would ‘open the door to extremist populist political forces in this country of the kind we see in other countries in Europe’, Labour’s David Lammy accused him of ‘gutter politics’ and ‘appeasement’ while Nick Ryan of Hope Not Hate said the remark ‘simply plays into the hands of those extremists seeking to use Brexit as a platform to boost their profile.’

While Grayling’s timing may well have been cynically motivated, the observation is not wrong. What most of the political, economic and media elite have wanted since the Brexit vote is as close to neo-liberalism as usual as possible, with the minimum of disruption emanating from this democratic aberration. Should they succeed, any semi-competent populist right movement would be able to adopt a narrative of class and democratic betrayal, and position themselves as the alternative to the entire condescending liberal establishment. It’s a narrative that would have resonance for one simple reason: there would be a good deal of truth to it.

And where the BNP took over half a million votes at the 2010 general election, close to a million in the 2009 Euro election, and UKIP 3.8 million votes in 2015, this narrative would in the first instance have a pool of 17 million disproportionately working class Leave voters to pitch to. So while middle-class ultra-Remainers like to pitch the idea that Brexit = fascism, it is the contempt for democratic expression, and the longer-term fundamental retreat from class politics by the left, that creates the imminent risk. Furthermore, there is nothing the Labour party can do to address this: it is a task for the class itself and those who believe in it as the ultimate agent of change.

This article first appeared on the Independent Working Class Association facebook page on the date given above and has been transferred here in August 2019.

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