Has Brexit, like indyref, changed the political axis to Leave vs Remain?

In Scotland, a referendum changed the debate. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Not that long ago, politics in Scotland seemed to follow a familiar left-right divide. It was a Labour stronghold, and the fact there was only one Tory MP left seemed only to burnish its left-wing credentials. In the Scottish Parliament, too, the Labour narrative dominated.

Even when the Scottish National Party captured Holyrood, this left-right split was still taken for granted (the SNP were still, at that point, doing a good impression of becoming a centrist replacement for the Tories). 

But then came the Scottish referendum, and a Yes campaign that captured the imagination of not only SNP members, but Labour voters, and Greens. Meanwhile, sceptical No voters on both left and right found themselves in an uneasy coalition.

Labour backed the winning side, but ended up the biggest losers. While Ruth Davidson rebranded the Scottish Conservatives as the pro-union party, and Nicola Sturgeon put the SNP in touch with the wider left-wing Yes movement, Kezia Dugdale has been caught in the middle. The party lost all but one MPs in 2015. 

“That is the axis – independence,” Daniel Johnson, a Labour MSP who bucked the trend and won Edinburgh Southern in the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections, told me in August. “We have to move it on from there. But, by default, that is what it will be.” I heard similar sentiments from Labour campaigners, exhausted after months and years of campaigning with little to show for it. 

Now, after another referendum, are we seeing a similar axis emerge in the UK between Remain and Leave? Just over a year ago, Lib Dem MPs were booted out of constituencies across the land. Now, a Lib Dem, Sarah Olney, has defeated the Brexiteer incumbent, Zac Goldsmith. The result is already being cheered as a victory for the coalition against hard Brexit.

Certainly, her support cut across party lines. She received the support of the Greens, which didn’t stand a candidate and, more crucially, many Labour and Tory voters.

There are important differences. The SNP, on the losing side of the Scottish referendum, nevertheless had a disciplined party, a high profile leader and a track record of centre-left government. Indeed, New Labour supporters often mutter darkly that it has "stolen our clothes". The national party with the clearest message on Remain, the Lib Dems, is by contrast, a diminished outfit after their own devastating defeats in 2015. 

Scotland’s parties also look more politically homogeneous, with Labour, the Lib Dems and the Scottish National Party all offering versions of the centre left. Under Davidson, the Conservatives have targeted the “tenement Tories” with a focus on social mobility and blue-collar traditions. It is unsurprising, then, that for many voters the overwhelming distinction is Yes to independence, or No.

In the UK as a whole, by contrast, the Remain vote is split between  the devolved nations, the metropolitan elites – Exhibit A, Richmond – and young people who may or may not be able to influence the constituency vote. 

If any party can stitch these groups together, it should be Labour. But the party is now locked in internal agonising over Brexit, and the direction of its leadership. Embracing a new axis could open the door to a soft Brexit progressive alliance, but might also mean abandoning Scotland to the SNP, and the North to Leave.

For now, it is ploughing on. Unlike the Greens, it stood a candidate in Richmond. Despite being a well-respected transport expert, he lost with just 3.7 per cent of the vote. Some things, at least, are like Scotland.    

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.