The anti-Brexit condescension of Emily Thornberry and her ilk risks losing Labour millions of its voters

The anti-Brexit condescension of Emily Thornberry and her ilk risks losing Labour millions of its voters

The Labour Party’s move away from traditional Leave voters is a conscious, active, calculated decision. We should not be giving the Labour Party the benefit of the doubt in its decision to realign its target electorate. This has not been a shift made unknowingly or without purpose. Quite the opposite in fact. 

Since October 1983 the Labour Party has been realigning its support base in line with what was considered the future path to power – graduates and affluent middle-class, city voters. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell or Jess Phillips are therefore not to blame, they are merely small cogs in the bigger wheel of change. Emily Thornberry’s appearance on The Andrew Marr Show last Sunday was the pinnacle of this almost three-decade transition. The condescending tone she used when referencing over four million of her party’s voters was symptomatic of wider changes in tone within the leadership of the party.

Some have argued these adjustments within the party are a necessary reaction to changing national demographics. The illogicality of this argument is twofold: the Brexit referendum revealed an overlooked contingent of Labour voters who voted to Leave, and the electoral consequences of ignoring them would be detrimental. And secondly, a political party must never forget the purpose of its foundation and the values and groups in society which it claims to represent.

Traditional thinking in the upper echelons of the Labour Party towards the end of the 1980s was based on a rejection of traditional socialist values, or ‘Old Labour’. Neil Kinnock’s leadership has retrospectively been seen as a transitionary period between the Michael Foot/Tony Benn strand of the party to the Tony Blair/Roy Hattersley strand. Old Labour to New Labour. The changing demographics within the country, such as the rising middle class and decrease in manual labourers, made this change a pragmatic political manoeuvre at the time.

Although the manual working class decreased, arguably the working classes changed, but did not dissipate. The party’s leaders committed a serious failure of foresight. The working classes hadn’t all evolved into the middle classes. The style of their employment had merely changed. From miners to Amazon factory workers, steel workers to zero-hours contract workers, railway workers to call centre workers. The style of oppression may have changed, but the hierarchical effect remains the same. 

The split of Labour voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum is evidence of the strategy’s failure; the Labour electorate have not all become pro-European, city graduates. Almost forty per cent of Labour voters voted for Brexit, many of whom came from the very communities which the party has systematically been turning away from for almost thirty years. 

The drift towards a second referendum, evidenced most recently by Emily Thornberry’s interviews last weekend, further drives a wedge between the Labour Party and its working-class roots. A refusal to accept the democratic vote of almost five million of their own voters could mark the end of the gossamer-thin patience of traditional, ‘Old Labour’ voters.

It is not like the Labour Party are the only game in town anymore; the Brexit Party are currently working to soak up the swathes of disenfranchised Labour voters. No longer can Corbyn rely on the ‘tribal’ Labour voters who would never vote for the Conservatives and have nowhere else to go.  The threat of Nigel Farage and his new party will become dramatically more prevalent if the option of a second referendum is adopted by the Labour Party. The ambiguity surrounding Corbyn’s position means the party is seriously struggling to retain the backing of working-class, left-wing, Brexit-supporting voters. A categorical ‘referendum and Remain’ position would sever those ties completely.

The electoral effect of this shift is likely to be destructive to the prospects of the Labour Party. Of the twenty top constituencies which Labour would need to win to come to power at the next general election, 70% of them voted to Leave. Adopting a second referendum position would entirely alienate these communities. The Labour Party would not only be turning its back on its core voters, but on 10 Downing Street.