What does the centre-ground look like in a Brexit era? Gisela Stuart and Atul Hatwal survey the landscape.
The referendum in June changed a lot, but not everything. The fundamental rules of politics have not changed. You listen to voters. You campaign on an agenda they care about. As a result they put sufficient trust in you to deliver what they want that they then vote for you.
Talk about the political ‘centre-ground’ conjures up an impression of an electorate aligned tidily along a left-right spectrum that can be competed for at the margin in a two-party system as each party tries to expand its coalition of support to sufficient size to win a majority in a general election. The success of the Scottish National party in Scotland and of the United Kingdom Independence party in many traditional Labour areas in England and Wales has changed this simple logic because Labour faces competition for voters on numerous fronts, making a simple politics of so-called triangulation much more difficult to achieve.
But most members of parliament, particularly those with marginal constituencies, know that this is part, but not all, of the story. To win you need to remain connected to your constituents – for them to believe that you are listening to their concerns and that you are doing what you reasonably can to make a difference on their behalf. To do that a party needs to have a highly organised and effective campaigning structure that is not just about getting a message to the electorate – which Labour can do quite well – but about having a process in place to get the message right.
If you fail to do that and focus on the political competition between parties then you can fail to notice if a large part of the electorate becomes detached from party politics altogether. The European Union referendum showed that a large section of British working-class voters have become disconnected from Labour and do not naturally identify with either the party or the Labour movement. This is not something that began with the leadership battles after 2015 but arguably goes back to the later part of the Blair years. Labour’s challenge, therefore, is more fundamental than whether or how it captures the centre-ground but whether it wants to or can represent the views and aspirations of Britain’s working-class electorate.
Change Britain, which I chair, is a new organisation launched this autumn by a team who were at the core of the Vote Leave campaign and who are now working with some of those from the ‘Remain’ side who want to build on the connection that the referendum made with British working-class voters. Since Change Britain launched in early September we have started a series of focus groups across the country. The process has just begun but a few things are already clear.
Those who voted to leave the European Union did so above all because they reject the idea they should be subject to EU laws and EU courts. They are not anti-immigration and certainly not anti-immigrant – they see the huge value Britain gets from skilled, hard-working people coming to make a contribution here. But they believe the immigration process should be under our control and managed to ensure that housing, education and health services are not under pressure and the impact on communities is reasonable. They recognise that the free movement of people makes that impossible. They also want to see change. They feel that their vote in the referendum means they are already changing Britain and they want to continue to play a part.
Two things are worth noting from what we have learned so far. The first is a very positive lesson. The referendum has re-engaged a large part of the working-class electorate that had become disillusioned with politics. There is a strong sense of confidence, optimism and hope and a willingness to be part of making Britain’s future a success.
The second lesson is more sobering. Even those who have been lifelong Labour voters do not see the Labour party as speaking for them. Labour is seen to represent the concerns of London rather than the country as a whole. Many of the messages in Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative party conference, however, hit the precise concerns and aspirations we are hearing from our focus groups.
Labour needs to think very hard about what it does next because the signs are that many of the British working class do not think of the Labour party as their natural home. The starting point for Labour is to go back to the fundamental rules of politics and to listen to voters again.
Gisela Stuart MP is chair of Change Britain
On the evening of 23 June this year, a fog descended over the centre-ground of British politics.
The defeat of the ‘Remain’ campaign seemed to break an immutable law of politics – that it’s the economy, stupid. Instead, the result appeared to be all about immigration, and the people who had relied on economic concerns to keep Britain in Europe were the ones on team stupid.
Then there is the ascent of Theresa May. Her government’s right-turn into a world of grammar schools and the hardest possible Brexit has coincided with unprecedented Tory poll leads over Labour.
It looks a lot like the centre of British politics has shifted decisively to the right. But appearances can be deceptive.
Politically the most relevant question about 23 June is not why ‘Leave’ won, but why a campaign to remain which followed familiar economic beats failed when the same backing track had proved so persuasive at the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and at the general election.
In those campaigns, targeting concerns about the economy convincingly defeated Scottish nationalism and crushed the United Kingdom Independence party’s English anti-migrant nationalism the following year. So what changed? Answer: nothing.
The British Election Study, which conducted waves of research immediately before and after the European Union referendum with a huge panel of 30,000 voters, has helped clear the fog. Before the vote, 65 per cent thought that after Brexit either the economic situation would get better, stay the same or didn’t know, versus 35 per cent who thought things would get worse. In comparison, 55 per cent felt that immigration would be lower if we left the EU. For the majority, voting for Brexit did not definitively bring bad things but would reduce immigration and also give a whack to the establishment. This is the view of eminent academic John Curtice, whose recent article was cited by Dominic Cummings, architect of Vote Leave’s strategy, as the best analysis of what actually happened.
These BES numbers suggest that ‘Leave’ might have been on track for a much bigger win but that worries about the economy did resonate in the final vote for those who wanted lower migration (which included roughly half of Remainers) but were risk-averse on the economy.
The post-referendum BES survey shows that 93 per cent of those who thought that Brexit would make Britain worse off voted to remain while 90 per cent of those who thought it would make Britain better off voted to leave. These findings prompted Curtice to comment, ‘Rarely do survey data show so sharp a divide between two sets of voters.’
The BES numbers on the continued importance of the economy over immigration have been underlined by subsequent research. For example, a recent YouGov survey cited by Eric Kaufmann at Birkbeck highlighted that 62 per cent of the public would accept EU migration at current levels if cutting numbers meant that they would have to bear any cost at all.
In this context, the pertinent question about 23 June is: why did people not believe the economic threat?
Data is sparse but after decades where Europe has been portrayed by politicians and media exclusively negatively, not least by David Cameron, it is probably not surprising that entrenched perceptions were difficult to reverse in a six-month campaign.
The misguided notion that immigration trumps the economy has fuelled the myth that May has redefined the centre-ground. It is true that she is the most anti-immigration prime minister in decades and has secured huge poll leads, but this mistakes correlation for causation.
She might register extraordinary margins over Labour but equally she would have been similarly ahead whether a Merkelesque liberal on migration or a Trumpian hawk who wanted zero net migration.
The reason for her lead can be summarised in two words: Jeremy Corbyn. Labour is behind on the economy by high double digits, behind on preference for prime minister by higher double digits, and behind on national security by even higher double digits. Immigration is not the prime determinant of the Tory lead over Labour. The notion that the centre-ground has moved is a mirage. It’s still the economy, stupid. The problem for Labour is that politics is a comparative business. May’s hard Brexit approach might be calamitous for the economy but the public think that Corbyn would be worse.
When the economic costs of Brexit are really felt, May will be vulnerable. The public will be desperate for a party that occupies the centre-ground. If only Labour could be that party.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Labour Uncut