Voter backlash may not register unless and until Labour MPs fail to vote against a final Brexit dealby Chaminda Jayanetti / February 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
Leavers leave and Remainers remain. This appears to be the attitude of both main party leaderships as they scramble to stop their fragile parliamentary and public support bases from disintegrating: don’t upset Leavers, as they’re liable to go. Don’t fret about Remainers, as they’re likely to stay.
In many ways this is understandable. Both Leavers and Remainers have reacted with intemperance to the Brexit result—but whereas this backlash was not unexpected from the referendum’s losers, two and a half years raising hellfire is not what one would expect from its winners.
Accordingly, both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have tended to try and appease Brexiters whilst effectively taking Remainers for granted. May actively demonised them in order to whip up support among Leavers; Corbyn, backed by his key advisers, has mostly paid them lip service. In both strategies, it is Leave voters whose votes take priority.
Coverage of the two main parties’ Brexit-driven civil wars has tended to cast them in similar terms: MPs threatening to rebel or even split, and coalitions of voters that are fraying at the seams.
But chaos comes in many forms. While it is true that both parties are split on Brexit, where they are split is crucially different.
Trouble in the House
The main split on the Tory side is among MPs, not voters. The European Research Group (ERG) of around 80 pro-Hard Brexit MPs exists in a state of permanent mutiny against Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Most non-payroll MPs voted against her in the party’s recent vote of confidence. The ERG has the numbers to overwhelm the government’s majority, while the gaggle of Tory Remainer rebels is tiny by comparison.
And yet the view among Tory voters is rather different. Polling shows that while enthusiasm for May’s deal is low among Conservative Leave voters, so is diehard opposition to it. May’s personal ratings among the public have recovered some of their ground since her disastrous snap election. Ukip is goose-stepping its way to the margins.
By contrast, the deepest divide on the Labour side is among voters, not MPs. Yes, there are major disagreements among Labour parliamentarians. There is a credible risk of a small breakaway party, albeit one motivated as much by concerns over anti-Semitism as by Brexit.
But Corbyn’s leadership is not at risk. The number of MPs lining up to rebel against his Brexit proposals is likely to be much smaller than the ERG; the number ready to cause lasting ructions with the leadership is smaller still.
Labour’s invisible divide
Instead, it is Labour voters who are increasingly firmly against Brexit. Polling over the last year has seen Remain voters switch from backing a soft Brexit to opposing Brexit outright—a second referendum, or even just revoking Article 50. Most Labour voters voted Remain, even in Leave-voting seats. The proportion of Labour voters who want to stop Brexit is much greater than among Labour MPs.
Why does this matter? Because MPs naturally pay much more attention to the details of politics than voters do. As a result, they are much more sensitive to changes in those details than voters are.
The hellfire among Tory MPs is based on fierce disagreements over the details of Brexit among MPs who are now overwhelmingly reconciled that Brexit itself must happen. The fact that the Tory Brexit divide is rooted in parliament means that every shift in government policy has rubbed salt into the wounds. It shows.
But because Labour’s divide is among voters, it is less visible. Most voters are not poring over the details of the backstop, or weighing the merits of Efta membership against the Turkey model—your local pub would be pretty empty if they were. The fact that many Remain voters would probably, on reflection, settle for Labour’s proposed softish Brexit is overridden by the sheer strength of feeling against any Brexit at all.
So when opinion polls don’t show significant drops in Labour support, or corresponding rises in Lib Dem support, that doesn’t automatically mean Remain voters are happy with Labour’s support for Brexit. It means they haven’t fully noticed.
Leavers aren’t the only ones who can leave
The risk for Labour is that any voter backlash against the party for enabling Brexit may not register unless and until Labour MPs fail to vote against a final Brexit deal—the kind of set-piece moment that is visible to more voters.
And because the polls are not uniformly shifting against Labour in advance of this, it may cause complacency among a Labour leadership convinced that it has more to fear from the Leavers of Lincoln than the Remainers of Peckham, when the real key to the party’s prospects are the Remainers of Lincoln—who are currently rendered invisible to political discourse.
How this all plays out is impossible to say. But an election in the throes of a Brexit deal that visibly meets Leave voters’ most basic demand—withdrawal from the EU—may pose more risks for Labour, should it acquiesce to that deal, than for a Tory party that would have just sated its support.
Labour wants the next election to be a referendum on austerity. That will be harder if its supporters are still arguing about Brexit. Leavers aren’t the only ones who can leave.