Don’t listen to the People’s Vote polling – most Labour members still back Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit

While they may themselves be Europhiles who would like very much to remain in the EU, party members are also capable of understanding that pursuing this course would be a huge risk for the party in electoral terms

James A. Smith
Thursday 03 January 2019 11:20
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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's New Year's message

Labour’s Brexit policy of blocking Theresa May’s unpopular deal, ensuring no-deal doesn’t happen, and pursuing a general election to allow it to enter its own negotiations with the EU, hasn’t changed since September’s Labour conference, or, in principle, since the 2017 general election. Yet the turn of the new year has seen a spontaneous new wave of liberal comment attacking Jeremy Corbyn, claiming he’s betraying Labour members, and about to oversee an exodus of liberal Europhiles who will not forgive him for enabling Brexit.

This is a suspiciously neat about-turn. Under Ed Miliband and in the first years of Corbyn, it was culturally conservative working-class voters who were allegedly on the cusp of abandoning Labour, usually because the party was said to be ignoring their “legitimate concerns” about immigration. As Joe Kennedy has argued in his recent book, Authentocrats, this claim was most often made by right-wing Labour figures, seeking to use the ventriloquised voice of “ordinary people” as a means of attacking any attempt to reposition the party to the left.

The success of Corbyn’s left-wing manifesto in 2017 has dispatched the fantasy that the party was facing a fatal haemorrhaging of working-class support. So now it appears that middle-class Remainers have been conjured up to replace them as the group allegedly about to abandon Labour unless Corbyn changes his ways.

It is easy to see why campaigners for a “People’s Vote” rerun of the referendum and Remainers in the commentariat would seize on the majority of Labour members who favour the idea, as well as the huge support for a People’s Vote march in October, as evidence for the fragility of Labour’s support among Remainers. A poll paid for by the People’s Vote campaign even claimed that Labour could fall behind the Lib Dems if Corbyn backs Brexit.

Yet there is nothing to suggest that the vanishing Remainers we are currently hearing so much about will prove any more real than the vanishing Leavers turned out to be in 2017.

Those Remain academics, meanwhile, who confess to “ugly thoughts” about depriving “a bunch of racist idiots in Sunderland or Stoke” of a redistributive left-wing party in future if Brexit goes ahead by refusing to vote for Labour, ought to check their own pathologies before imagining they are widely held beyond their narrow circles.

As a means of keeping together an unpromising electoral coalition that includes the constituencies of Doncaster North (72 per cent Leave) and Bristol West (80 per cent Remain), Corbyn and Keir Starmer’s Brexit strategy has been jaw-droppingly successful. Making every effort to reach a workable Brexit settlement before countenancing switching to Remain if impossible, is also arguably the only moral and democratic response to the referendum result. Voters agree.

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At the 2017 election, 80 per cent of the popular vote went to parties committed to carrying out Brexit; and polling has remained broadly unchanged since. If the Lib Dems were poised to take Labour’s place as the party of the left, we might expect some bleed of support amid the constant media complaining about Corbyn. Instead, as Dawn Foster has sardonically observed, more people in the UK believe an alien invasion has been covered up by the government than are telling pollsters they intend to vote Lib Dem at the next election.

As for the Economic and Social Research Council report on Labour members’ views on Brexit being circulated this week, the commentators who are representing the overwhelming favourability of a People’s Vote among Labour members as evidence that there may be a break with Corbyn on the way, are, again, missing the point. It is true that almost 90 per cent of Labour members personally support a second referendum. Yet it is less often being reported that a clear majority either support Corbyn’s stance (47 per cent) or are indifferent either way (19 per cent). How to explain this discrepancy?

As I argue in my book, Other People’s Politics: Populism to Corbynism (forthcoming from Zero Books in March), Labour members under Corbyn do not see themselves as mere “shoppers”, supporting whichever party most closely reflects their immediate desires and views. Rather they regard the party as having enabled them as savvy political agents in their own right. While they may themselves be Europhiles who would like very much to remain in the EU, they are also capable of understanding that pursuing this course would be a huge risk for the party in electoral terms.

This is why it has been a huge mistake for pollsters to repeatedly ask Labour members and supporters if they want to stop Brexit, and not to follow it up by asking whether they would be willing to sacrifice the chance of a Corbyn government in order to do so, and how much they trust the Labour leadership to make the right decision. As the overwhelming support for Corbyn’s leadership reflected in the ESRC report shows, Corbyn has won the trust of Labour members and supporters by successfully pursuing strategies that the liberal commentariat thought were ludicrous. These commentators and the People’s Vote campaign might reflect Labour members’ views, but they have not yet won their trust.

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