Tuesday, February 07, 2017
Let me just make a few points.
Traditional working class
First of all, the article acknowledges that 65% of Labour voters supported Remain, as Corbyn asked them to do. But it then asserts that the 35% who didn't represent more closely "the traditional working-class Labour voters the party is struggling to keep hold of". If you go and look at the early post-referendum data being cited here, it's clear enough what he means: disproportionately, those who backed Leave are from social grades C2 and DE. ABC1 voters, described as the "professional classes", backed Remain. Thus, some sort of commitment to some sort of Brexit is needed to placate 'real' Labour voters.
Leaving aside the practical conclusion for a moment, the analysis should be rejected. We should stop putting up with outdated social grading systems, developed purely for the non-social scientific purpose of flogging stuff to people, as proxies for class. Most C1 voters are not middle class professionals. When I worked in market research, the list of occupations ranked as C1 were mostly menial, low-skill, low-level, low-wage, but considered 'white collar' because you didn't have to get your hands dirty. Call centre workers, the epitome of the exploited, precarious worker in this day and age, are C1. Most of the so-called middle class professionals in the Labour base who backed Remain will just be workers. And that means that the working class was split -- a split that was partly right-left and partly regional.
This isn't just a wonkish detail: polling results and their representation play a critical part in the cultural battles of our age, which attempts to reduce the working class to one of its sectors (those workers stuck in the most declining, provincial, isolated parts of the country, and those who tend to skew to the political right), while overstating the size and relative progressiveness of the middle class. This leads to the kinds of toxic politics wherein some middle class progressives, with a tragedian sniff, accept the need to go along with racist, anti-immigrant politics to keep the poor white workers on board.
Lost Leave Voters
Secondly, the article asserts that:
"Among 2015 Labour voters who backed remain, 60% have remained loyal to Labour, and would vote for them tomorrow. When it comes to leave voters who backed them in the last general election, only 45% would vote for the party now."
The data cited doesn't show anything like this, and it is bewildering to claim that it does. What it says is that among 2015 Labour voters who backed Remain, 74% would vote Labour tomorrow, and among those who backed Leave, 63% would vote Labour tomorrow. The claim that Labour has "lost the majority of its leave voters" is simply not true. Labour has, in large part as a consequence of the coup which triggered a precipitous collapse in its share of the vote, lost a minority of both Remain and Leave voters. There is a gap between how many Leave voters and how many Remain voters have abandoned Labour, but it is nowhere near as polarised or as catastrophic as the article suggests.
Stay or Go
Thirdly, the article identifies a divide between Labour Leavers and Remainers over what Corbyn should do about Brexit:
"Remainers predictably go for opposition to Brexit. Some 50% of people who voted Labour and remain want Labour to have a policy that is anti-Brexit (23% are for total opposition and 27% want a second referendum) and 30% want a policy that is in favour of Brexit.
Labour Leave voters are just as predictable – 69% want Labour to have a policy that is pro-Brexit, and either seek a purely trading relationship with the EU (46%) or a close relationship outside the EU (23%).
Can Labour find a policy that doesn’t wholly alienate one half of its support?"
First of all, as YouGov's data shows, it is not a relationship of two halves. Leave voters comprise a minority, one third, of 2015 Labour voters. The reason why this matters is that when YouGov tests various solutions with its respondents, the article concludes that Labour campaigning for Remain would be the "most divisive policy", while supporting soft-Brexit would be the policy most likely to reconcile the party. But this depends on treating Remain and Leave constituencies among Labour voters as equivalent, which they aren't. If you review the data for yourself, you'll see that in fact, a Remain campaign gets the support or acceptance of 54% of 2015 Labour voters overall, while 24% would be angry or disappointed with such a stance. Soft-Brexit would have more support overall (57%), but for some reason it would also make more people (31%) angry. The option that gets least support or acceptance (48%) is hard-Brexit, with 35% clearly opposed. But interestingly, the option that really annoys the most people (37%) is a second referendum, which nonetheless gets the support or acceptance of 53%. Just looking at explicitly positive answers, 45% are outright positively for Remain, 42% for a second referendum, 36% for soft-Brexit and 28% for hard-Brexit.
As always, the opinion presented here is just a snapshot of raw material. There are a lot of "don't knows" and people wavering in the middle, so the field is open and malleable -- how Labour voters feel in 2020 depends a lot on how Labour's leadership campaigns here and now. There is also the question of which voters Labour wants to win over by 2020, to expand on the 2015 vote (supposing that's possible). To build in Scotland, you might fish for Remain voters. To build in provincial England, you might look for Leavers. It's a much more indeterminate and murky situation than pollsters and some pundits would have you believe, and all options have their own hazards. None are particularly good. The interesting thing is that what pisses off most voters, more than anything, is seeming indecision -- being asked to vote again on a referendum question they've already answered, or being sold a soft-Brexit that looks like a fudge. One of May's advantages is precisely to appear decisive on this question, even if her decisiveness is brutal.
And, to be clear, while it's obvious that Labour's 2015 voters skew toward Remain, the difference in the overall balance for each of these options is not massive. So, there are choices. What overall strategy Labour now decides to adopt is not primarily an issue of how to reconcile a divided base, because there are different ways to do that badly. If it opts for soft-Brexit, as it is doing, that is because it is in a purely defensive position. It is unable to advocate Remain given the result, and has no viable economic programme for any kind of left-Brexit, and none of the political or cultural resources to sustain support for such a programme.
The narrative according to which Labour's proper working class supporters are Brexiteers, and thus that Corbyn's job is to win them over, is basically one variant of the "white working class" thesis, which explains reactionary politics in terms of workers being 'left behind' by globalisation, and as such it should be rejected.