Fraser Nelson

Labour’s losing its old heartlands. Backing Remain could make things worse

Labour’s losing its old heartlands. Backing Remain could make things worse
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A moderate, halfway-competent Labour party could crush the Tories. But given that Labour members are Corbynite in inclination, what are the chances of a moderate leader emerging? In my latest Daily Telegraph column, I argue that to change leader now in order to make Labour the party of Remain might well make this even worse for Labour – and create an opportunity for the Tories.

The Morten Morland cover image we ran a few weeks ago – Corbyn depicted as a scarecrow being picked apart by the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats – has come to pass. The Brexit crisis has started to polarise voters, with many moving to the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems. Labour and the Tories are suffering badly. The Tories look set to respond by sending Boris Johnson to get ready for a no-deal Brexit. So what should Labour do?

Jeremy Corbyn’s position has been one of strategic ambivalence: he’s against Brexit (or so he says) but accepts the result of the referendum and doesn’t talk much about it. This enrages people like Tom Watson who recently said that Labour’s 'hearts are Remain and our values are Remain.' But almost a third of Labour voters support Brexit: what about their heart and values? And might these voters be about to be abandoned? If there is a coup against Corbyn this summer (and in this week’s magazine, Nick Cohen says there could well be) it would be intended to reposition Labour as the party of Remain, with a message cruder than the 'Bollocks to Brexit' motto paraded by the Lib Dems. In this scenario, Labour would risk alienating its Leave voters – thinking this is a price worth paying to win back its Remain voters, and perhaps more.

But the Labour voters defecting to the Lib Dems will also be appalled by the anti-Semitism rows, the Chris Williamson debacle and the general capture of Labour by the neo-Marxist left. But swapping Jeremy Corbyn for John McDonnell or someone of the same ilk will not assuage them. It’s often forgotten that the Corbynite movement was the takeover of party membership, not just the leadership. Labour had 500,000 members not so long ago, most of whom joined after the 2015 election, a triumph of mass digital entryism made possible by Momentum. These new Labour members defended Corbyn 62/38 when he was challenged by Owen Smith three years ago. It has since been argued, including by Stephen Daisley on this blog, that remaining a member of Labour under such leadership is morally indefensible. Word is some 100,000 have quit. But those who remain would most likely only replace Corbyn by someone else of the same project. This is the trap that Labour MPs have been unable to escape.

In my Daily Telegraph column, I mention an internal Labour analysis of the local and European elections which outlines concerns about the party retreating into metropolitan safe spaces. This leaves plenty of areas open to the Tories, who could use Brexit to win in.

David Aaronovitch of The Times has asked me (on Twitter) which areas I have in mind: a fair challenge. The Labour document identifies its Leave-voting vulnerabilities as Hartlepool, Great Grimsby, Ashfield, Redcar, Bolsover, Barnsley Central, Barnsley East, Penistone & Stocksbridge, Wentworth & Dearne, Dudley North, Bassetlaw, Scunthorpe, Stoke-on-Trent Central, Stoke-on-Trent North. It also mentions Labour target seats: Mansfield, Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland and Stoke-on-Trent South.

The document also mentions two trends: the 'consolidation and strengthening of Labour support in what urban/city area and their professional commuter hinterlands' and  'the instability and fragmentation of Labour’s vote in non-metropolitan Britain, including the industrial communities which comprised Labour’s heartland at least until the 1980s.' It also notes that some of Labour’s most serious electoral setbacks have been in areas which also voted heavily to Leave.

But interestingly, it also says that Labour has been losing these areas anyway. So might it now give up? If respecting its Leave voters means it loses the Remain vote to the Lib Dems, is this a price worth paying?

We can expect to hear more Labour voices saying that the party might not have been punished for Brexit ambiguity in 2017 but is being crucified for it now. And that it has to become the full-throated party of Remain in order to survive. If there’s an election before Brexit, there might be merits in this policy. But if there’s a no-deal Brexit in November, it’s far from clear that the Brexit Party would survive or that the Lib Dem bounce (still a very recent phenomenon) would continue.

Anyone can see why Labour would despair at Corbyn. But to depose him now when the alternative would likely be someone just as hardline but avowedly Remain could not be an obvious improvement.