Labour’s Remain Cliff Edge

Reports are circulating that Labour is about to back a referendum on any Brexit, and maybe commit to campaign to remain. For its own sake it needs to hurry.

2017 Success

With two weeks to go to the 2017 General Election, YouGov’s polling suggested Labour would do well enough to cause a hung parliament. The pollster was thus labelled that most powerful of Westminster put downs– “brave”.

Two weeks later, YouGov was proved spot on and Labour celebrated what felt like a win. Against all manner of press attacks, and defying conventional wisdom about wining from the centre, it had risen to new highs in the polls and the feeling was that had the campaign lasted longer, Labour might have won.

Fortunately for Labour, much of what the supposedly far left leadership proposed was actually pretty reasonable stuff.

So why in 2019 with pretty much the exact same people in charge, and the exact same policies on offer, are Labour floundering – suffering bad results in local and European elections and collapsing in polls that accurately heralded its rise in 2017?

The answer is a very dangerous one for Labour.

Motivation

Labour’s strongest asset in exceeding 2017 expectations was it’s membership. Newly enlarged to around half a million people, Labour had a means of bypassing the media. Even if only half of members were active, each activist needed to knock on only a hundred doors – give or take – for every household to have received a direct contact from the party.

With a young and mobilised membership, that meant a lot of households who don’t trust the press, who only pay partial attention to the news on TV, and who mostly throw campaign leaflets away, all had a conversation with a neighbour about what Labour could do.

Of course, if Labour’s offer was unpalatable, that door-knocking would have achieved nothing. Fortunately for Labour, much of what the supposedly far left leadership proposed was actually pretty reasonable stuff. On the doorstep, raising taxes on the very wealthy, building council homes, and renationalising things like railways seemed less like a soviet-era attack on our way of life and more like common sense stuff most European democracies would deem normal.

News that Brexit meant the NHS might be “on the table” for America, and that industries were under threat from ever-harder Brexit, more people became motivated by remain.

Unfortunately for Labour, two years later constituency parties reported that during two campaigns – one local, one European – there was a lot of lost motivation. At the same time, those who knocked on doors found the same offer was no longer palatable to some people who had been open to it two years earlier.

Labour policies and leadership had not changed, but public and membership opinions had.

The Change

In 2017, Brexit proved to be a weak motivator for voters. The Conservatives focused heavily on positioning themselves as the Brexit party. For some voters that was ok, but it created a ceiling to their popularity. Being best for Brexit just didn’t motivate as many voters as they thought.

Labour also made its Brexit pitch, but then moved on to other things. For many voters who preferred Brexit, that was sufficient. For remain preferrers, there was (to paraphrase a common demand from leavers) a degree of “we lost, we’re over it”. So a softer Brexit under Labour seemed fine, and other winnable preferences like investment in the NHS or support for industry better motivated them.

In effect, Labour rightly recognised that a referendum deals only in preference, not priority, whereas a general election deals in priorities that motivate people most.

Three years on from the referendum, however, something has changed. With negotiation came reality, followed by the self-defeating case from leavers that Brexit must happen because it was the will of the people. With polls showing a long term shift in public opinion against leaving the EU, remain voters started to see remain as no longer a lost battle. And so it motivated them again.

But what happens when another Party becomes the “Get The Tories Out” party?

Along with winnability, news that Brexit meant the NHS might be “on the table” for America, and that industries from car manufacturing to steel production were under threat from ever-harder Brexit, more people became motivated by remain because it looked like a way to save the things they really cared about.

This hurt Labour badly. The Conservatives and then the Brexit Party thus became important to 2017 Labour voters who preferred Brexit and now saw it under threat. At the same time, Labour’s new and largely young activist base started to be motivated by the prospect of remaining, and thus demotivated by their party not trying.

An Anti-Tory Cliff Edge

The threat to Labour if it does not address this problem goes well beyond one election. The threat is that it will also lose another voter motivation that is tied to critical mass.

In the early 1900s a change to our democracy saw the Liberal Party collapse as new voters made Labour one of the two choices for Government. In this decade, Labour aligning with the Tories at the independence referendum has seen Labour largely wiped out in Scotland when it come to Westminster seats.

Many Labour supporters on Twitter carry a hashtag – #GTTO – that means “Get The Tories Out”. In a two party dynamic this is a powerful motivation for many people. A centre left Labour can rely on many further left voters because the alternative is the much more right wing Conservatives. A further left Labour Party – even one wrongly cast as far left – can rely on many centre left voters doing the same.

But what happens when another Party becomes the “Get The Tories Out” party?

Having benefited from two-party critical mass for a century, Labour need action soon to avoid the tipping-point fate of the Liberal Party.

As some polls show the Brexit Party and/or Lib Dems ahead of Labour, many Labour voters motivated by less by the red rose and more by stopping the Tories, will switch to the party best able to stop the Tories.

We saw this in the EU elections. Labour ran a poor campaign that claimed to be the only party that could “beat” the Brexit Party. In regions where Labour couldn’t win, that actively encouraged people to vote for other parties who could. Worse still, as Labour lost remain voters in their millions, the Lib Dems overtook them nationally to become the “only party that could beat the Brexit Party” – costing Labour further.

A General Election

If there is a General Election this autumn, Labour has probably already lost it because motivation is not a switch, it takes time to build. But If it comes out for remain now, it will start that journey towards reactivating its largely remain membership, its only electoral advantage and its mechanism for connecting to millions of working people about its wider policy proposals beyond brexit.

That matters right now even if an election is unwinnable, because if that election sees Labour fall into third as some polls suggest, it loses everything.

First Past The Post is a harsh system – and not a very democratic one – but having benefited from a two-party critical mass for a century, Labour need action soon to avoid the tipping-point fate of the Liberal Party.

 

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