The outcome of Chequers is that we are heading for a softer and softer Brexit, whatever the fallout over the next few weeks and months.
This is happening because there is no majority in the House of Commons for the UK to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union. All the negotiating cards are now in the EU27’s hands, and we are likely to finish up with a deal which may see us out of the EU in name, but which leaves us with all the disadvantages of membership with none of the control that people voted for.
But while many Labour supporters are celebrating Conservatives’ disarray and the watering down of their Brexit position, a bad deal may not help Labour win back votes. In fact, given that the views of Labour MPs are the main reason that there is not a majority in the House of Commons for leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, the blame for a bad Brexit deal could very much be laid at Labour’s door.
The result? We will lose more votes and not gain new ones.
Labour are trailing the Tories by 5% in the polls. With the Conservatives in disarray one would expect Labour to be well ahead, especially since many of Labour’s policies, such as taking the railways back into public ownership, are popular with the electorate. Also, Jeremy Corbyn, originally an unexpectedly effective leader, has evidently grown into the job.
So, what has gone wrong? An important clue lies in a YouGov poll which was published last month, which compared Labour and Conservative support amongst working-class voters. In January 2018, this poll showed support for Labour among this key sector of the electorate at 46% and for the Conservatives at 37%. By June these figures had almost exactly reversed. The Conservatives were on 48% and Labour a 35%. This is a huge reversal.
Why has this happened? It is hard to believe that this has had nothing to do with the stance which Labour has taken on Brexit, the major political story dominating the news and the political agenda during the last few months.
A majority of Labour MPs and party members are Remainers and no doubt all the efforts made by Labour in both the Commons and the Lords to frustrate Brexit have gone down well with these sections of the Labour Party. The problem is that not far short of 40% of long-standing Labour voters are in the Leave camp and do not agree with this approach. It seems very probable that these are mainly the people who have shifted their support from Labour to the Conservatives.
And what really counts is where these people who have shifted their allegiance live. Many are in relatively marginal seats in Wales, the Midlands and the North of England. In fact, nearly 70% of all the seats held by Labour in the general election in 2017 voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum. Outside London and university towns, the vast majority of Labour seats are in areas of the country, where people voted to Leave the EU and Labour have slim majorities.
Conservative Cabinet members may have gone along with Theresa May at Chequers on Friday, but it is far from clear that she has the support of the rest of the Conservative Party. Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Conservative’s influential European Research Group, has already said that this deal may be worse than no deal at all.
Such a public fight is not playing out in Labour’s favour. In fact, Labour seem to take every chance possible to welcome a softer and softer Brexit. But as the polling shows, the more Labour welcomes soft Brexit, the more pronounced its implications in lost votes among its working-class supporters are likely to become.
The Labour Party has always been an uneasy alliance between middle-class idealists and working-class voters. To win elections, it has to secure wide support among both groups. Opposing Brexit may consolidate the Party’s position with its middle-class adherents but, if this is at the expense of the loss of large numbers of working class supporters, then electoral success and a majority Labour government will become ever harder to secure.