The polarisation of Britain has now been set. A realignment of our politics, on the card for years, confirmed by the results of the European elections. Brexit has cut like a cleaver into our society to create a seeming binary between those who voted Remain and those who voted Leave.
The voting results have been naturally interpreted and moulded by commentators to justify their own assumptions. And across Europe, a Green surge coupled with a struggle for the far-right and difficulty for centrism, except in France, has lent confidence that European voters are rejecting divisive nationalism for progressive politics.
In Britain, the two major political parties have endured catastrophic results in all the regions bar Northern Ireland so far counted. Labour were left with ten seats, a vote share of just 14.1% which is a decline of 11.3%. They lost two of the four seats in Wales to the Brexit Party, were ravaged by the latter in the north, but also saw votes spilling towards the Liberal Democrats and Greens elsewhere. In London, a city they considered to have been theirs, they took only two seats, with a vote share of 23.9%. The Conservatives fared even worse, taking only 9.1% of the overall vote share, with a paltry four seats. It was a terrible night for the government, a damning assessment of how the public view their handling of Brexit.
The Brexit Party were the undoubted clear winners, dominating every region in England barring London. For Labour, the future looks bleak. The 40% vote share they achieved in the 2017 General Election now looks increasingly like a false dawn than a golden spring. The party’s deliberate ambiguity over Brexit finally caught up with it, a price paid for failure to construct a post-Brexit pitch that would assure voters. The attitude of some of the leadership’s more supportive elements has been bafflingly naïve on this, to assume that Brexit is secondary to all other issues and would not directly impact everything. They have grimly paid a price for this, and there is no guarantee that, even with a FPTP voting system, they would win the next General Election. Certainly a majority government feels out of the question. How the bar has fallen for the major political parties in the UK, when they now seem more destined for coalition and minority governments.
As critical as one should be of Labour, it’s not clear how they can respond to this grim result without alienating a core chunk of their voting base. Labour are burdened with having to appeal to a myriad of people. And with our society as deeply divided as it is, healing these fractures should be the moral responsibility of the party. Yet, how do you unite Hartlepool and Hampstead, areas which voted so differently? How does someone reconcile the results of a Brexit Party surge in the north with a call for a second referendum because of what happened in London?
There are some who, perhaps correctly, say that the divide is too entrenched and Labour must simply pick one side. But, assuming they pick Remain, how is that a society then, when one has clearly been ignored? Listening to a coalition of post-industrial towns and coastal communities doesn’t mean you can’t argue for Remain, and politics has to be about the art of dialogue, compromise and empathy, about bringing people together. Otherwise, what kind of socialism is it? And would we be surprised to discover in a few years that these voters, who rejected the far-right Ukip here, would find their voices in extreme nationalism?
Nothing is so obvious and even in areas where the Brexit vote trumped, the Lib Dems and Greens performed well enough to suggest that reducing the Brexit divide to just a Leave-voting north and a Remain-leaning south is too simplistic in its analysis. What is clear however, is that Labour cannot simply call for a people’s referendum, as much as it might be the right decision, without being prepared to take a further hit in the next elections. So much has been made about Labour’s voters being significantly in favour of another referendum, but this has ignored Labour voters who switched to other parties in 2015 and 2017. What does the party say to them?
There is the high possibility that this divide cannot be sown up, but there are some lessons for Labour to learn from this defeat.
The first is that the party cannot anymore rest on a neutral ground and observe from afar to see which way the wind is blowing. It is blowing in both directions. The country is torn by this question. Secondly, voters are not simply driven by material interests but care about transcendent things. Values, culture, local communities, the environment are issues that matter to them. Labour’s approach is a classic Marxian approach that reduces people simply to cogs in the economy, driven by nothing more than a search for material security. It’s this approach that also undermines their message on the benefits of the European Union, should they decide to get off the fence and swing towards Remain, as it seems likely they will. They cannot just talk about the EU in terms of single market benefits, but describe the social and cultural benefits of it.
On a more positive note, the far-right individuals such as Tommy Robinson and Carl Benjamin failed. Robinson completely imploding in the North-West, at a loss to explain what happened, was uplifting on its own. Knowing that the man who made rape jokes about Jess Phillips also lost was the best moment during a rather grim election.