Voters who backed Brexit changed something. The problem for Labour is they like the feeling

With Brexit, "we" made something happen. Labour's popular policies cannot compete. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

"If voting changed anything they’d make it illegal," said the American anarchist Emma Goldman. Ms Goldman might find canvassing in this UK election rather disconcerting. For large numbers of voters - mainly Leavers but some Remainers too - voting has changed something. They like the feeling. With Brexit "we" made a choice; "we" made something happen. (And "we" did something that most of "them" didn’t want us to do). That is more important to many than whether the decision was necessarily a good one; after all no one can really tell.

That mood on the doorstep provides some explanation for the growing number of "Re-Leavers" who want to finish the job. Focus groups have heard that voting Tory is the "democratic" thing to do. We are not seeing much support for the "let’s have another Brexit vote" party. For newly empowered voters, too many Remainers still manage to sound aghast that voting did actually change something. (I’m embarrassed by my fellow Remainers who make snide remarks about ill-educated voters; perhaps we’d be happier with a more restricted franchise?)

It’s all too rare to feel your vote connects to power. Many felt it on that "bright new morning" in 1997. (The late political scientist Anthony King famously compared Tony Blair’s victory to "an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth".) After 18 years of Tory government, it suddenly seemed as though it was possible to change something, even if it wasn’t entirely clear what would be changed. But most of the time, voters are pretty cynical about their politicians and it’s been getting worse.

Labour’s manifesto may be radical in the scale of tax and spending, but the political relationship on offer is very familiar. "Vote for us, and we will do good things for you." The problem is that fewer and fewer voters trust that deal any longer. A pound, please, for every canvasser of every party who will be told "It doesn’t matter who you vote for"; "they all promise you everything but when they get in they forget all about you".

Promising more doesn’t make you more believable. Being promised more doesn’t make you feel your vote is more powerful. It’s quite possible to think your vote is an important right without believing it makes any real difference. This gap - the gap between voting as power, as a way of making things happen for us, not just me, and voting as mere personal preference - is part of the political dynamic of this election.

Labour policies are popular. On many doorsteps it is Labour that is dealing with the issues that matter most to voters. But they are all on that long list of promises that many voters assume will never be delivered whoever gets in. Brexit, on the other hand, is a decision that we the people, the people of this country and this place have taken, and we took it together. To go back on last year’s vote would be to surrender the power "we" took for ourselves. The one thing we can make sure on its that our decision is followed through. To that end, voters will choose the leader and party most likely to keep faith with their decision.

Not everyone was empowered by Brexit. Labour’s polling is slowly improving. But most support is still coalescing around the party that has put Brexit at the heart of its campaign. The party with popular policies but politics as usual is well behind.

At such an extraordinary time in politics, punditry and prediction is fraught with risk. My sense, though, is that former Labour voters backing May are far from committed Tories yet. Their votes will be predicated on her delivering for them, not them supporting her.

There are lessons and future potential here for Labour. Moments when voters feel empowered are to be prized, not feared. They show that radical change is possible when a party becomes the vehicle for what people want; for themselves, their community, their nation. Today’s Labour and its leader (as he keeps reminding us), is a vehicle for the change its members want. To put it another way, Labour comes across as a "they" party, not a "we" party.

On some issues people and party are clearly on the same side; on others - of nation, patriotism and community - they are too far apart. After the election we will find out whether Labour can bridge that divide, and whether it wants to.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University