In the chaotic days since the EU referendum, the Labour Party has been tearing itself apart, culminating in a full-blown challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. He was been hit with a volley of co-ordinated shadow cabinet resignations throughout Sunday, with the promise of more to come on Monday.
But this is something more than a party political brawl. It’s not just that the party leadership campaigned for Remain, whereas a majority of the British people (and one-third of Labour supporters among them) voted to leave the EU. And it’s not just that Corbyn must now assemble a new shadow cabinet and fight a civil war in the Parliamentary Labour Party even as the government itself melts down. The problem is far deeper.
Labour was already at risk of falling into a state of shocking disrepair, but now that Britain has voted to leave the EU, it is staring at the prospect of oblivion – alienated from its old working-class base, distrusted by the over-55s, and increasingly identified with a small, socially-liberal metropolitan population. At present Labour is associated with a politics of protest that speaks to a small minority.
Under Corbyn, the party has proven wholly incapable of reconnecting with its own supporters in traditional strongholds, the same voters it has seen slipping away two elections in a row. In places such as Sunderland, Oldham and Rochdale they not only voted to leave the EU, but in some instances did so by more than 40 points.
This is just the latest act in a long tragedy. In the minds of many of its traditional supporters, Labour has long since ceased to represent those people it was set up to defend.
Above all, it has failed those left behind by globalisation, who are subject to a combination of economic insecurity and cultural anxiety, suffering unemployment and precarious work. They have profound concerns about the impact of immigration (more about this later). These left-behind voters associate this miserable status quo with the UK’s membership of the EU, and view the Westminster elite as accomplices of the faceless Brussels bureaucrats who forced it upon them.
A series of Labour leaders and swaths of Labour MPs have ignored the core values of the party’s traditional supporters, and have instead appealed mostly to a small section of the electorate – essentially a coalition of university graduates, public sector workers and certain ethnic minorities.
What these sections of society share in common is a metropolitan, liberal outlook that is at odds with the more “small-c” conservative disposition of the working-class and many older voters in the towns and villages across England – a concern for family, work, place and community.
It was these more socially conservative voters who voted so strongly for Leave. As YouGov polling showed, around a third of all Labour voters voted to leave the EU and almost two-thirds of them came from less affluent socio-economic backgrounds. Even if middle-class lefties outnumber them, those Labour supporters are indispensable if the party wants to have any hope of winning the next general election.
But far from mobilising voters, Labour is haemorrhaging support to other parties, chief of all Nigel Farage’s UKIP. At the 2015 election, UKIP came second in 120 constituencies across England, 44 of which are held by Labour in its traditional midland and northern heartlands. In many of these seats, Labour MPs have majorities of fewer than 1,000 votes, making them extremely vulnerable – especially if the next Tory leader calls a snap election after David Cameron steps down in the autumn.
If Corbyn leads the party to a general election in its current terminal state, Labour’s ranks could collapse to as few as 150 parliamentary seats and cease to be a serious national force.
As Jon Cruddas’s inquiry into the dismal 2015 defeat found, Labour is now toxic with more socially conservative voters who are concerned about immigration, welfare, patriotism and Europe. Of those voters, Cruddas found that an overwhelming number consider immigration the single most important challenge facing both the party and the country.
But even though this problem was flagged long before the referendum campaign began, Labour’s leaders and the bulk of its MPs don’t actually seem to understand why so many Labour voters are anxious about immigration: first, competition in terms of jobs and the downward effect on wages; second, the impact on public services and the allocation of social housing or welfare benefits; and third, the loss of tradition, culture and community. Among Labour’s old supporters, the second and the third reason are the most significant.
The old myth that economics trumps culture should therefore be considered dead. The politics of identity and belonging is far more potent than the transactional politics of retail-style technocracy. Against many predictions, globalisation is not turning the world into a vast cosmopolitan monoculture; on the contrary, we have seen a surge in nationalism and tribalism, a proliferation of struggles for devolution and self-determination, and a renewed concern about ethnicity, shared culture and patriotism.
In Britain, the task is to marry metropolitan modernity with English small-c conservative culture, and to fuse them into a common sense of national purpose. This would mean acknowledging and incorporating all the things both London and Brussels elites have dismissed as anachronisms: tradition, a respect for settled ways of life, a sense of place and belonging, a desire for home and rootedness, the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighbourhood.
Far from being reactionary or jingoistic, this is a call to rediscover English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish patriotism in popular culture, in language and in historical narratives and popular practices.
For Labour, Brexit is not just another wake-up call: it looks like the party’s last chance to rediscover a proper purpose. Getting rid of Corbyn will be the easy bit. The real task is to regain popular trust and a place in the life of ordinary people.
This article has been updated to incorporate the wave of shadow cabinet resignations.