Will Labour's 'Red Wall' Fall Because Of Brexit Or Corbyn? Or Both?

If the Red Wall does crack during the general election, the next war will be within Labour.

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One of the most common errors in politics is to fight the last war, not the current one. Amid serious unease over the Times/YouGov MRP poll, some in Labour have already started muttering that the party’s big mistake has been to treat this winter general election like the summer’s Euro elections.‌

Spooked by the Lib Dems’ yellow surge, the party’s members, MPs and shadow cabinet ministers certainly shifted policy even more towards a second referendum and a pro-Remain stance. But the Lib Dem threat was overstated for a general election, the argument goes, when in fact the real danger was Labour Leavers switching to the Brexit party and letting the Tories in through the back door in key marginals.

‌There is some force in the suggestion that Labour panicked about the Lib Dems, whose untested leader and new ‘Revoke’ stance have proved much more unpopular than many expected. And with the YouGov poll suggesting cracks in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ (a 2019 phrase I still find odd, as there are Red Clumps instead) of Labour seats in the north and midlands, referendum-sceptics in the party are now saying ‘we told you so’.

‌As we and others reported on Thursday, there will be a shift in Labour tactics from now to polling day. The party denies it is changing its message to send a more pro-Leave signal in key seats, but it is certainly going to shift resources to defend constituencies once thought of as safe. And as chair Ian Lavery told me, it will “redouble” its efforts in the north and midlands to sell its policies on austerity and inequality.

‌The hope is that by emphasising bread-and-butter offers such as more council homes, better bus services, higher minimum wage rates and free prescriptions, the ‘retail offer’ can help persuade working class voters Labour is on their side. One irony of all this is that in 2017 the Blair-era officials were attacked by the Left for being too defensive, but now it seems defence is very much back in vogue.

‌There are also calls within the party for more pro-Leave, northern voices on the media. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are ‘too London’, the line goes. This fails to take into account the fact that actually strong Remainers like Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry have barely got a mention in this campaign. Referendum-sceptic northerners like Richard Burgon, Laura Pidock, Angela Rayner, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Jon Trickett have been pushed hard on the airwaves instead.

‌But is it true that Labour’s woes are solely, or even mainly, down to Brexit? Well, as academics like Rob Ford and others have long argued, Labour Leave seats often have a minority of Labour Leave voters. Most Labour voters in such seats are Remainers.

‌And as the British Election Study revealed this year, Brexit party voters in Labour-held seats in the Euros were made up of 64% 2017 Tory voters and just 24% 2017 Labour voters. The threat posed by Farage is greater to the Tories than Labour.

‌One caveat here is that actually quite a few 2016 referendum Leavers simply didn’t vote in 2017, so Labour could suffer if even a fraction of them turn out and back the Tories. There’s also the prospect that even Remainer Labour voters in Leave seats think it’s time to ‘get Brexit done’.

‌Yet maybe the anger in northern seats about Jeremy Corbyn (and canvassers are reporting they say unprintable things about him) is not just because Labour is seen as blocking Brexit. It’s because they don’t like Corbyn himself, many candidates say. Lord Ashcroft’s polls suggest the ‘Corbyn’ factor, plus a belief that Labour spend too much and get the UK into too much debt, are bigger factors than Brexit.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the studio before the start of the Channel 4 News' climate debate.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the studio before the start of the Channel 4 News' climate debate.
PA Wire/PA Images

Corbyn today denied he told Leave voters one thing and Remainers another. “I say the same message everywhere,” he said. Yeah, and that’s your problem, mate, some candidates say, the message is the same everywhere: a lack of basic competence, a lack of proactive energy and a lack of trust with our money.

‌The other problem laid bare by the YouGov poll is just how weak the Lib Dems still are. And the split opposition remains a major weakness for them and Labour. Note that the ‘Red Wall’ is only broken in one place and by a yellow not a blue square. In Sheffield Hallam the Lib Dems seem on course to retake the seat from Labour. And most polls show that while Labour voters are happy to vote tactically to help the Lib Dems take Tory seats, Lib Dem voters are much less likely (again because of Corbyn) to help Labour out in Tory-Labour marginals.

‌Which brings us back to why this election is even taking place at all. The Lib Dems and SNP pushed for it, and Labour (to the amazement of those in the party who had seen their own internal polling) followed suit. Of those three, only the SNP may end up gaining seats. And although a cynic would argue that the SNP’s main aim of independence will be furthered by Brexit-voting England, its chances of holding ’IndyRef2’l are less likely under Boris Johnson.

‌There’s one last hope for the opposition parties. Just as there’s a danger of re-fighting the last election, there’s a danger of panicking over the last opinion poll. Some are still crossing their fingers that the gap with the Tories will steadily narrow.

‌But if the Red Wall does crack, the next war will be within Labour. The party’s pro-Remain, pro-Corbyn membership will then have a very tricky choice: was it Brexit-wot-won it for Johnson, or Jeremy-wot-lost-it for Labour?

Quote Of The Day

“For those who were thinking of voting Conservative, I hope this poll gives them great comfort, they sit back they say ‘I don’t need to go out and vote on polling day because it’s wet and it’s windy’.”

‌– Barry Gardiner suggests the YouGov MRP poll is actually good news for Labour.

Thursday’s Election Cheat Sheet

The Tory party lodged an official complaint to broadcast regulator Ofcom over Channel 4 News’ decision to empty-chair Boris Johnson and replace him with an ice sculpture in an election debate. Michael Gove turned up but was turned away. Tory sources muttered the channel could face a review of its public service obligations after the election.

‌Boris Johnson has agreed to an interview with Andrew Marr this Sunday. But he’s still unclear about facing Andrew Neil next week.

Boris Johnson claimed he had been quoted out of context after Labour seized on a column about single mothers in which he said “something must be found, first, to restore women’s desire to be married” “It must be generally plausible that if having a baby out of wedlock meant sure-fire destitution on a Victorian scale, young girls might indeed think twice about having a baby.”

‌The Institute for Fiscal Studies neither the Labour nor Tory manifesto “is a properly credible prospectus”.

‌Tory candidate Philip Dunne apologised after her told a Sikh election rival he told Labour opponent Kuldip Sahota he was “talking through his turban”.

‌SNP candidate Neale Hanvey was dumped by the party in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath after allegations of anti-Semitism were made against him. His name will remain on the ballot but Labour will now expect to hold the seat.

What I’m Reading

Boomers Are Not Okay - The Atlantic

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