The groundswell of support for leaving the EU has created a formidable political block that could be mobilised in future for a right-wing agenda.
The fear must be that if the expectations raised are not fulfilled then the Leave voters, many who have never been politically active before, could be activated for quite nasty politics. UKIP has clearly gone mainstream or, more accurately, UKIP sentiment has. Not all these voters identify with UKIP, but a large proportion certainly does.
As is well known, fear about mass migration was a key motivating factor for how people voted. Failure to confront the migration issue was exposed as a real weakness of both centre and left politics, a weakness shared by Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the far left (as well as Plaid Cymru – only the SNP has so far succeeded in making a positive case for migration). This provided a vacuum which UKIP and Leave have been able to exploit. They won’t stop doing that; the only question is whether UKIP or a populist Tory party will win over these voters, many of whom are in former Labour heartlands.
If the new government does not fulfil its promises, and especially if the economy takes a nose dive, we could be in for an even more right-wing backlash within the next year or so.
UKIP will not go away and is in a very strong position if it is allowed to portray itself as the voice of the 17 million. That must pose great dangers.
UKIP is already on the verge of replacing Labour in large parts of England just like the SNP has replaced Labour in Scotland; this support shows no sign of crumbling yet and there is little real sign of Scottish people drifting back to Labour in any great numbers. The Tories will fight UKIP for the English votes in the coming months, but there is also a possibility of the Leave alliance becoming a semi-permanent political force which could be done by offering Farage some role in the new government that will be formed to negotiate departure from the EU.
Whatever the case, the Leave vote is going to be hard to win back to Labour in a situation where the EU and its subtext migration are likely to dominate politics for a decade or more. As Michael Gove said “there will be bumps in the road”, and we could be in for a very bumpy ride indeed over the next few years. It is quite a frightening prospect. But if Labour starts tearing itself apart it will be all the weaker for it, and will then lose even more support as UKIP embeds itself even more firmly among former Labour voters.
They may never go back to Labour unless the party offers a credible message that addresses popular concerns. While you can’t write off 17 million people as racists – as some have done – it is possible to envisage a situation where they are mobilised for the right in future, as they were on 23rd June. It will be a new right-wing popularism that could be more dangerous than Thatcherism. “ŽBut that is not inevitable.
The reasons people voted Leave is such numbers are not exclusively about migration. In fact, migration has become a focus or scapegoat for anxieties about job insecurity, austerity, deteriorating services, housing and healthcare. These are real concerns that need solutions.
Mass migration was avoided at every turn by the Remain supporters during the campaign. Corbyn even admitted there can be “no upper limit”, which was an honest answer but not one likely to win back Leave voters. “ŽBut the 17 million are not all instinctive right-wingers, so many can be won to a new progressive politics if it was on offer and seemed credible. “Take back control” was a simple but powerful message. It resonated beyond the traditional right.
Only by developing a set of radical and progressive alternative political solutions can Labour be able to challenge effectively this upsurge on the right. A revival of Blairite spin is surely total fantasy; that looks simply like the Westminster elite trying to impose its will on the electorate again without addressing the real underlying concerns. The stark truth is that Labour needs Leave voters more than the voters need Labour. All factions in the party must understand this and take appropriate measures to start the long hard fight back. It means a more intelligent kind of politics, if the left can manage to get out of its usual comfort zones. It certainly is not about changing leaders, mouthing slogans incessantly, wearing the right t-shirt or waving placards in front of people’s noses. There is a future but does it belong to the left and is it going to be within our grasp?
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This post was written by David Morgan