How does the Labour Party reconcile its urban, middle class membership and Remain support with a traditional, working-class Leave base? The tension is not new. It is the modern expression of a long-term challenge for the left: creating alliances across classes and geographical boundaries to gain and retain power. Nearly 30 years ago, in his book of the same name, David Marquand described it as The Progressive Dilemma.
I’ve been around Labour politics long enough to remember when the main concern was how we could advance beyond our working-class core vote and attract “aspirational” southern voters. Over 25 years ago, the former Labour MP, Giles Radice, drafted a series of hugely influential Southern Discomfort pamphlets that examined attitudes towards Labour in the south of England after the traumatic 1992 general election defeat. He proposed a politics to resolve the progressive dilemma that focused on electoral alliances and coalitions outside of the party’s traditional heartlands, a significant milestone in the creation and rise to power of New Labour.
We shouldn’t forget that across the UK as a whole there has only been one electorally successful centre-left political leader in the last 35 years. Tony Blair appeared to have subtly navigated the terrain of the progressive dilemma. His coalition proved resilient enough to secure three major, unprecedented parliamentary majorities. The minimum wage and record investment in public services, among other policies, were the product of this important electoral shift driven by strategic agility and internal cohesion.
Today, the progressive dilemma takes a different form from the early 1990s but requires the same level of political nerve and creativity to resolve. It is not just about choosing sides and ignoring complexity. From 2005, Labour lost millions of working-class voters and, as the Remain campaign learned to its cost, most of these lost voters went on to back Leave in 2016. It is true that two-thirds of Labour voters in 2017 were Remain supporters but only because of a significant earlier shift in Labour’s voter base.
For all the siren calls today from within our ranks, alarmed at last week’s migration of Labour votes to the Liberal Democrats and Greens in heavily Remain areas, look to large parts of the country which voted Leave in 2016. They backed Nigel Farage’s single-issue party. Millions of the votes won by the Brexit Party last week were from recent Labour voters or long-lost ones. The electoral arithmetic is clear. We haven’t won a general election since 2005. We need to restore our past electoral coalition, or we won’t win in most marginal seats, which voted Leave in 2016 and, based on last week’s evidence, still back Brexit.
There is also a wider problem. Why has Labour became so distant from large parts of its own voter base, and most parts of the country, in its attitude towards the EU? We don’t seem to even understand why Labour voters would vote Leave. Labour opinion used to be divided on the European question but now to even criticise the EU is regarded as heresy. Rebellion against the EU is rife throughout Europe, not just from the far right, because on so many fronts, economic, political and cultural, it is distant and failing to deliver for its citizens. The euro has been a full-scale disaster, but from within Labour ranks, we hear barely a murmur. Often we simply appear as defenders of a failing status quo, rather than the radical reformers that at its best the Corbyn project promised.
This isn’t about North and South, city and town, a simple binary choice. My part of London, in Dagenham, voted Leave — but also voted Labour last week. The EU hasn’t caused the sense of grievance and resentment that threatens to consume the country. But it also hasn’t helped it. This, however, is almost beside the point. The point is that the country voted to leave the EU, in part because of the distance between the people and where power lies. The worst reaction from Labour would be to demonstrate that these votes didn’t matter by ignoring them.
I welcome Labour’s attempt to resolve the current crisis through compromise, rather than reinforcing polarisation by siding against the referendum result. Last week’s election showed how difficult this will be to achieve. If Labour is to win again, it must acknowledge the modern progressive dilemma and not ignore it. We know from our own history that to gain and retain power requires reconciliation between classes and places. Ignoring this historic reality will imperil the very existence of the Labour Party.
If it proves impossible to achieve reconciliation and forge a compromise from opposition, and there is no other option than a no-deal Brexit, then we should support another referendum. This will inevitably mean that no deal would have to be on the ballot. The kicker is that after the success of the Brexit Party, and the apparent inability of Remain campaigners to understand the public desire for change, hardline advocates of a second referendum should be very careful what they wish for.