Jeremy Corbyn's Brexit strategy is paying off – for him, at least

Despite repeated predictions, it is difficult to see where pro-Remain voters can go other than Labour thanks to first past the post. 

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Labour’s row over the customs union once again has people predicting that Remainers will abandon the party.

As I explain in greater detail here, the question of what Labour should have done on the vote is not open-and-shut. Predictions that Remainers will abandon Labour are rather like an ideal public transportation system  – no sooner does one leave the station, another arrives. However, I am uncertain as to how this would work in practice.

Let’s imagine you are an angry Remainer. (As you are reading the New Statesman website this is fairly likely.) Let’s imagine you think, rightly, that around a third of the parliamentary party, including a chunk of the Labour leadership, is happy for us to leave the European Union in a fairly drastic fashion.

What do you do? Well, the truth is a large number of the most committed Remainers live in one of England’s great cities, all of which are in possession of humongous Labour majorities. Let’s take Diane Abbott’s constituency, where I live, as an example. It voted heavily to remain in the European Union, and because of the people who voted for the first time in 2016, Remainers were much more likely to keep up the habit in 2017, its electorate in general elections is even more pro-Remain than it was in the referendum. The nearest explicitly pro-Remain party, the Liberal Democrats, are in third place with just over 3,000 votes, some 36,000 votes behind Labour. Abbott can lose a great number of votes, either directly or through people just feeling dispirited and staying at home, before the seat’s majority drops from “ultra-safe” to merely “very safe”.

What about places where Labour is vulnerable? Well, the bad news for Remainers shopping around is that with two exceptions, Labour is vulnerable to the Conservatives, who have a still more drastic approach to Brexit. So the risks that come with abandoning Labour are quite high.

In England and Wales, there are basically only two seats where a pro-Remain party can credibly threaten Labour: Sheffield Hallam and Leeds North West. Elsewhere, thanks to first-past-the-post, it is hard to see where else committed Remainers can go that (a) is electorally appetising to them and (b) actually hurts Labour in a meaningful fashion. It may be that thanks to his Brexit stance Corbyn has a slightly smaller ego boost when his result is declared in Islington North. That doesn’t mean that Labour won’t win.

That does mean that in Scotland, Labour will probably need to squeeze the considerable Tory vote in third place in the seats it is combating the SNP, rather than trying to win over SNP voters. But even there, it doesn’t close off the path to winning seats entirely.

And that’s before you get into the fact that for a lot of committed Remainers, Brexit is primarily a cultural issue, not a political one. People feel angry about the referendum vote not because they have a particular affection for the acquis communautaire but because the European Union represents values they prize, values that they feel are under threat and are well-represented by Corbyn.

Now that doesn’t mean that Labour’s position on Brexit isn’t going to cause them political difficulties after they take power – in my view, it probably will. That doesn’t mean Labour’s Brexit position isn’t the wrong one for them and the country in the long term – in my view, it probably is. But thanks to the United Kingdom’s iniquitous electoral system, Labour are best served electorally by a leader whose policy position is pro-Brexit but who appeals to the cultural sensibilities of Remain voters, AKA Jeremy Corbyn. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.