by Kevin Meagher
So now we know: 37 per cent of Labour supporters went to the polls to vote to leave the European Union.
Despite all but a handful of MPs, the active support of the trade unions, the pleas of every former leader of the party and Alan Johnson’s battlebus, more than a third of the party’s electoral base jumped at the chance to quit the EU.
Motives varied, but the loudest pained roar was clearly against the iniquities of mass migration, the single totemic issue that has fuelled the Leave campaign’s remarkable insurgency against the political and financial elite.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Remain was flattened by a steamroller. It chose to stand in the way of public opinion and got squashed by it. Does it still need pointing out that immigration is a somewhat vexing issue for the British public? Given the chance to do something about it, they did what they said they would do all along.
Nevertheless, the ramifications for the Labour party are now grave. The fissure between the party’s elite and its base, evident for at least a decade, will now grow wider.
The problem is more dangerous than a conventional left/right split. In fact, the assumptions of the Progress types and Corbynistas are remarkably similar: They both think uncontrolled immigration is acceptable and that it isn’t the role of government to do much to prevent it.
The problem is there aren’t enough coddled public sector workers and right-on middle class social liberals who agree with them.
Labour needs its blue collar working class base to stand any chance of ever governing again, but shows no understanding of what makes them tick. In fact, it doesn’t seem to care what does.
A paradox, then, for a party formed to represent working people.
Immigration is now an unbridgeable dividing line running through the entire party. And it’s cultural. On one side are the confident, educated urbanistas – global citizens who are comfortable on any high street with a vintage fashion shop and Guatamalan café.
They think immigration is great, especially as Pavel and his friends managed to convert their dowdy back yard into a bijou urban garden for £500 cash, while the guy from the Yellow Pages was quoting double that. Its social and identity issues that motivate them. For them, immigration is a battle between the informed and the ignorant.
On the other side are the working class masses who vote Labour because they need a government that will give them the chance of a job, so they can afford a home and bring up their families. They are bothered about economic inequality. Their experience of immigration is entirely negative. They face competition for their jobs, for housing and access to public services. Yes, austerity adds to the problem, but the bottom line is they get the worse of the deal.
And that’s the nub of the party’s problem.
To the many millions of non-professionals working in the private sector, Labour now stands for unbridled market forces. Immigration brings competition and competition is always good. ‘If Pavel will do my garden for 500 quid, you should do it for less.’
In contrast, no-one – absolutely no-one – in the public sector risks losing their job because a migrant worker is prepared to do it for less.
While the private professions, the trendy think tanks, Medialand and jobs in politics are automatically off-limits to cheaper migrants, thank you very much. When you consider that most Labour MPs come from this milieu the party’s predicament suddenly makes sense.
A case, then, of Keynesianism for the middle class public sector, but neo-liberalism for the non-graduate private sector.
And Labour people wonder why they lost this referendum?
But mass migration is not only unfair in its distributional impacts (and, yes, benefits too); there is plainly no economic need for it.
‘We need immigrants to come here and do the jobs our own people won’t’ is the most pernicious lie.
Despite repeated assertions to the contrary, there are no labour shortages in this country. Last week, the Office of National Statistics reported there are still 1.67 million people unemployed and looking for work.
In addition, there are 8.5 million in part-time work, many of them on zero-hours contracts and desperate for better-paid, more secure full-time work.
It’s not like the post-war boom years when we genuinely did have labour shortages and sucked in much needed migrant workers from Ireland and the Commonwealth.
Of course we have skills shortages, but that’s because, as the Commission for Employment and Skills consistently reports, a third of employers spend nothing whatsoever on training their workforces.
Ironically, it is George Osborne and his apprenticeship levy which is due to come into force next April that will do what the last Labour government should have done and help price migrant labour out of competition by forcing employers to train British workers instead.
So this is why so many Labour voters chose to leave the EU. Their motives were not about race hate, they just wanted to protect what they have.
This is perfectly laudable and entirely reasonable.
My dad is a bricklayer and still working at 71. Fifty-five years of working outdoors, every single day. Like many more, he has no choice. He doesn’t have a cushy public sector pension to fall back on. He’s a victim of the recessions of the 1980s when there simply was no work for people like him in the north of England, rendering the concept of saving for a pension purely academic.
Then he fell foul of New Labour’s bizarre aversion to building houses when it had the chance. The party’s biggest and most shameful failure. Then 2004 came and with it the mass migration of lower cost building workers from Eastern Europe. His wages and the incomes of many more like him have been flat ever since then. Last Thursday he voted to leave the EU, but did so out of rational economic self-interest – and he was entirely right to do so.
So this is the state the Labour party finds itself in.
The impulse – the instinctive belief that Labour has the interests of working people at heart – no longer holds for millions of British workers. A solemn contract has been broken. Not with everyone, of course, but that’s the point.
Yet if you work on a building site, or in a factory, you feel that Labour is no longer on your side.
What should concern Labour strategists is what happens next? Might these risen people follow the logic of their decision and bin-off Labour for good?
Why not? It happened after the Scottish referendum. Labour is now the party of untrammelled immigration and labour market competition. It’s not a good look for a workers’ party.
All the more dangerous as there are 44 seats where UKIP is in second place to Labour. Where will all the Leavers’ momentum go now? Might it turbo-charge UKIP’s efforts in Labour’s neglected northern heartlands, the way it did for the SNP?
One thing is clear. Shorn of millions of ordinary, working class voters, Labour’s electoral coalition is reduced to the public sector, skinny-jeaned hipsters and identity politics bores.
The problem, of course, is there just aren’t enough of them to win elections.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut