by James Valentine
Officially Labour won in Stoke on Thursday but the real result is that the Brexiteers lost. This was supposed to be UKIP’s high point – their triumph, when they would have fatally undermined the Labour party, possibly leading to an apocalyptic decline, such as that suffered in Scotland. But the idea that “Leave” voters would apply transfer their preferences to a contest where that choice was not on the agenda was a fallacy. Labour faint hearts, worried about election chances in “Leave” constituencies, should take note and start standing up for Britain’s future in Europe.
Mr Nuttall losing in Stoke will still not mean the end of UKIP. It merely confirms a pattern – the previous leader Farage was after all a multiple election-loser. UKIP is a chaotic party run by dubious individuals but it will continue to appeal to xenophobic and anti-immigrant feeling, now made more “respectable” following the Referendum vote. But the result puts paid to the idea that some Labour constituencies, primarily in the North are vulnerable to UKIP purely because of their high “Leave” component. And it can’t just be put down to Nuttall’s lamentable campaign. Copeland was clearly a disaster for Labour, but under entirely different circumstances, the UKIP vote plunged.
So why has this happened? The European Union, as such, has not been the most important issue for electors. Pollsters such as YouGov have repeatedly shown that when salience of voting issues is measured then “Europe” or “the EU” comes well down the list, after the immigration, the NHS, crime and so on. But if you offer the electors a choice about Europe, they will always give negative answers. This is what happened at the Referendum. A proportion of electors who never vote at General Elections turned out. And voting against the “EU” was widely interpreted as a vote against the political establishment and a reaction to economic austerity.
When I canvassed in Stoke I found that electors were ready to talk about the Labour party – for and against. Some clearly did not like Corbyn (which is why Labour’s success is the candidate’s own – Jeremy really can’t take much credit). There was a general “anti-politics” sentiment and a feeling that Stoke had been “left behind”. But not a single elector mentioned Europe, the EU or the Referendum. And this was in a constituency with one of the highest “Leave” votes in the UK.
In the event it did not do the candidate – who has apparently described Brexit as “a massive pile of shit” – any harm to be strongly identified as a Remainer.
And no-one mentioned Blair. Certain Labour scaredy cats, including those from the moderate wing of the party, have attacked Blair for his recent pro-Remain speech, saying he should have delayed it until after the by-elections – the theory being that Labour Leave voters would get upset and punish Labour at the ballot box. Category error! A forced question doesn’t necessarily reflect electors’ priorities.
The exaggeration of the EU’s salience comes from the tiny, vociferous minority of sceptics – the silly old fools on the Tory benches who made Major and Cameron’s life hell and continue to haunt Mrs May. These are for the most part quite well-off individuals who really don’t care if the country goes to hell in a handcart as long as their ideological opposition to Europe is satisfied. And, of course, this EU exaggeration is supported by their allies in the Tory press and even the BBC. Their propaganda continues relentlessly, but Labour should equally relentlessly stand up for working peoples’ interests.
The message for Labour is therefore that their MPs in “Leave” constituencies should stop fretting about their seats and those in “Remain” constituencies can happily voice their constituents’ views, knowing that it is unlikely to harm the party’s prospects in general. Of course, Labour must take account of the Referendum, but people did not vote for lower living standards and the consequences will last for generations. The manner and consequences of various Brexit scenarios must be spelt out. Labour MPs would have been better to vote against Article 50 or abstain. They should at least now start fighting for the best possible Brexit terms, or even a new referendum if the government is unable to negotiate a successful exit.
James Valentine is Deputy Mayor and Town Councillor for Kempston, Bedfordshire