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28 June 2024

This is the long Brexit election

Without a programme to heal the wounds of the referendum, Labour will struggle to achieve a second term.

By Jonathan Rutherford

On 4 July, Labour will win the election but not the country. Its victory will be built on a broad, shallow and fragile coalition of contradictory interests. It will win political domination but not popular consent. The Conservative Party meanwhile has suffered a post-Brexit disintegration, agonisingly slow at first, and then all too sudden, a punishment for its chronic failure to change the political order. This is not a contest without feeling: if there is any emotional life in this election it is the collective desire to cast the Conservative Party, an institution some two centuries old, into oblivion. Labour has only avoided a similar Brexit reckoning thanks to Boris Johnson’s personality, Liz Truss’s ideology and Rishi Sunak’s ineptitude. Ultimately, it will win by default.

This has been a Brexit election pretending it isn’t. Its politics have been defined by the fault lines dividing Westminster government and the metropolitan graduate class from the rest of the country. Populism may have revitalised democracy, but it left political power embedded in that ruling consensus. It broke the rules of the political game without taking back control. But, despite the strenuous efforts of Westminster to restore business as usual, nothing is settled. Only the first-past-the-post system enables this electoral contest to keep up appearances of normality and the illusory promise of stability.

The popular mood is cynical and fatalistic. People want change but do not believe it will happen. Successive Labour and Conservative governments have drained the politics out of democracy by using administrative and judicial forms of political management. The tribal party loyalties that grew around the old industrial class system have disappeared. Many voters no longer recognise the party they once voted for. Many have been left politically homeless and feel robbed of a meaningful voice.

“Something is happening out there,” Nigel Farage announced at the beginning of his campaign. He is right. And neither Starmer nor Sunak have the political register to capture the public mood. Farage understands it – inchoate, volatile, deeply disillusioned. And this campaign has proved that he has the ear of this forgotten stratum: the “just about managing” swathe of the English petit bourgeoisie and working class.

These are the voters who abandoned Labour in 2010 and 2015, who voted for Brexit in 2016, who Theresa May appealed to in 2017 and who Boris Johnson won over in 2019. They have now deserted the Conservative Party. Politicians know who they are – they make or break governments. Their material interests are the costs of their homes and cars. They believe in family, fairness, hard work and decency, with family first. In politics they are radical on economic issues and conservative on crime, immigration and welfare. They are deeply concerned about the environment but sceptical of net zero. And while they have tolerant, “live and let live” attitudes towards their neighbours, they find the intra-elite culture wars both incomprehensible and intrusive.

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Their country has changed in profound ways, over which they have had no say. The economy does not provide the kind of work and wages they need to support their families. They believe politicians have diminished the country – in fact, even dislike it – and they feel the humiliation. There is an intangible sense of loss and grief for the passing of a way of life they inherited from their parents and grandparents. Farage has their ear – but hasn’t won them, and probably can’t. His appeal is limited by his Thatcherite economic politics, a set of beliefs that these voters are also hostile to. Brexit was never about that programme to them. They want a democracy by and for them, and a governing class they can recognise as their own and which governs in their interests.

They will be the decisive factor in Labour winning a second term. So far, Labour has followed Morgan McSweeney’s electoral strategy which has focused on winning back these voters with ambivalence on the EU, Union Jack symbolism and conservative-left politics. But the leadership has no post-election narrative that will sustain this in government. Labour will take command of a failing ship of state. It will confront one crisis and campaigning demand after another as they loom suddenly out of the darkness. It will have no political compass to guide it. And while “mission government” may improve delivery, it is not a substitute for politics. Labour cannot build popular consent with a technocratic government guided by focus groups and polling.

Labour will enter government with two innate weaknesses. The first is the absence of real intellectual renewal and a coherent political narrative around which it could assemble a set of illustrative policies. Voters would then have understood who and what Labour stood for. The second is its own liberal progressive instincts that command only minority support, mostly among the graduate class. They reveal Labour’s culturally exclusive class values and its tendency to impose them upon others. If it is to fulfil its rhetoric of national renewal, a Labour government will have to campaign to reach out to a very different constituency. It will not help its efforts by giving votes to 16- and 17-year-olds, or by increasing the bureaucratic powers of HR departments with an ill-conceived attempt to expand the equity, diversity and inclusion apparatus, or by continuing to promote the erasure of the female sex.

Labour needs a diagnosis of the crises it faces and a political programme to solve them. It has about two years to undertake the political thinking and renewal it has not done before voters lose patience. If it fails to move beyond a technocratic mindset and if it seeks to impose its progressive social engineering on the country while claiming it is ending the culture wars, it will suffer the same fate as the Conservatives. The long arm of Brexit reaches into the future, and those who feel betrayed and disillusioned today will become the political actors of tomorrow.

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