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23 January 2019

Why one missing Labour tribe is setting the party’s tone on Brexit

Labour MPs who fear being turfed out in Leave seats are seen as credible – Labour MPs who fear a Liberal Democrat revival are not.

By Stephen Bush

What political tribe was hugely influential in Labour politics from 2005 until 2017 but has now vanished without trace? Answer: Labour MPs who feared that their seats would be lost to the Liberal Democrats.

Even during the Coalition years, when the Liberal Democrats plunged in the polls and lost seats in every local election throughout the period, this group’s influence was strong, because Ed Miliband’s path to Downing Street was so heavily reliant on winning over former Liberal Democrat voters. After Brexit, Labour MPs in seats that voted to Remain and had a history of Liberal Democrat electoral success (whether at a parliamentary or a local level), including those with the ear of Jeremy Corbyn, had a strong influence on how the party positioned itself.

There was also a countervailing influence of Labour MPs in seats that voted to Leave and had a history of Ukip electoral success, but both tendencies had to be managed.

Then in 2017, the Liberal Democrats, while gaining seats overall, lost ground in Liberal-Labour battlegrounds and in seats that they came close to winning in 2005 or 2010. In some cases, seats they won in the past are now miles away from contention. This isn’t to say that the Labour MPs who actually hold these seats think they are now safe – many still privately fear a Liberal revival – but it is to say that no-one else takes these concerns as seriously. But there are still Labour MPs in heavily Leave territory with small majorities (some of which actually got smaller in 2017), so their voices are still influential.

And that’s why, despite the fact that Labour could lose the next election if it alienates Remainers just as much as it could lose the next election if it alienates Leavers, the concerns of Labour MPs who fear the loss of Leave voters has a significantly bigger presence in the party’s internal discourse.

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