Party Politics


The left leaning media months after the referendum continued to refer to Brexit as a swing to the right politically, because it served their privileged and primarily privately educated segment of British left-wing politics. The reality is that a lot of left-leaning people voted leave and almost certainly in a higher percentage in the dubious polling of Lord Ashcroft in which the media placed such unmerited trust. The biggest argument against those figures is that most constituencies that voted overwhelmingly for Labour voted leave in the referendum.

There were several issues that would inspire those on the left to vote leave with the biggest. One affecting older voters was that the right wing of the Labour Party persuaded many on the left to vote remain in 1975, but many of the fears on the left had come true. Other concerns were the increasing power of right wing governments in the EU, the treatment of the left wing Syriza government of Greece, the state aid rules that prevented government support to bail out the failing steel industry, and the deeply unpopular trade deals with Canada (CETA) and the US (TTIP) that the EU was negotiating on behalf of the UK.

Labour euroscepticism had increased rather than decreased after the 1975 referendum that Harold Wilson called in part to arrest the growth of the eurosceptic left wing of his party in general and Tony Benn in particular. Benn never led the Labour Party, but his faction became so powerful that to avoid him leading the party that not quite so hard left Michael Foot was elected as leader. Foot's 1983 manifesto promised a withdrawal from the EU and had it not been for the electoral boost of the Falklands War and the Social Democrats splitting the left wing vote it is possible that the UK might have left the EU ten years after its much-delayed entry. Tony Blair was first elected to parliament under that manifesto, but hated its promises. Another new entrant that year was the Labour leader during the 2016 referendum, Jeremy Corbyn. He remained a eurosceptic and it was widely suspected that he campaigned for remain because the Labour Party, unlike the Conservative Party, adopted an official remain policy.

Neil Kinnock had taken the Labour Party in a more europhile direction after the 1983 election defeat, but strong Parliamentary Labour Party support for the EU is primarily a legacy of Blair's years as leader. As Blair's legacy, especially over the invasion of Iraq, is toxic to many Labour voters it is likely that many would associate the EU with Blair and vote to leave it. Those Labour voters with a trades union background and memories of the 1975 referendum might remember that the special Labour Party conference had voted overwhelmingly for leave primarily due to union bloc votes. It is clear that many individual union members then voted remain in the 1975 referendum, but they may have lived to regret that decision as the days when a socialist dominated EU could counterbalance a Conservative government were long gone. There are many faults that can be laid at the feet of German chancellor Angela Merkel in relation to the leave victory in 2016 and one of them is that she allowed her fiscal conservatism to dominate the EU at a time when many left wing British voters were railing against the austerity policies of George Osborne.

Those on the right of political spectrum are seen as those who brought both the holding of the referendum and the leave victory to pass. Like everything else in the analysis of the leave vote that claim holds only a grain of truth. It is correct that the eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party is often right wing in many other policy areas and that the UKIP had quickly moved from its board based anti-EU founding basis to become a party denounced by its founder as a bunch of right wing racists. Yet a calmer consideration reveals that many on the right supported remain and that those who embraced leave did not do so with a racist intent. Many Conservative voters followed the lead of David Cameron and George Osborne in considering leaving the EU as an economic disaster in the making. There was also concern among the beneficiaries of private education, who tend to vote Conservative, that the ability to have a second home in sunnier parts of the EU was too good an advantage to vote it away. Judgements about right wing voters in working class areas should also be taken with a large dose of salt as the vote was swung in those areas by the disaffected who normally did not vote. In other words they cannot be classified as on the right of the political divide as they normally eschew any interest in politics or going to a polling station. A key feature of right wing politics in the UK is being pro-business, although Tony Blair had seized that mantle for Labour and created in imitation of Bill Clinton in the US a united centre of left and right that coalesced around being pro-business. The Britain Stronger In Europe campaign was based almost entirely on the premise that leaving the EU would be bad for British business. That was in part a recognition that most other aspects of the centre right agenda presented more fertile ground for leave than for remain. The one other area that received an airing was security, both at the level of state threats (e.g., Russia or North Korea) and terrorism (primarily of an Islamic radical nature).

Those right wing remain campaigners who were longer in the tooth would recall that neither Labour nor Conservatives had embraced the early moves towards EU, in part because the strength of feeling of being an imperial power and victor in World War Two kept the UK aloof. That changed after the Suez Crisis of 1956, which showed the limitations of the old imperial model, especially when Britain and France were condemned by their war time ally and liberator the US. The Suez fallout led to Anthony Eden resigning as prime minister in January 1957 and being replaced by the half American Harold Macmillan, who focused his early years in power on rebuilding the relationship with the US. He accepted that there would be no return to imperial glory and so it was in that context that in 1961 he made the UK's first application to join the EU. A feature of right wing politics is a pride in British power and those on the remain side could argue that for over half a century it has been accepted that this power is exercised through involvement in wider groupings, especially in the UK's permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, in the British military's key role in NATO, and in the gradual move towards EU membership, even if there was never much support in the country for the federalist ambitions that began to reawaken around the time of British entry in 1973. The days of empire were gone and these right of centre remain supporters appealed to the notion that British power could only be exercised in these wider blocs and as one of the three top economies in the EU.

Those right-wing voters who have done well in life, via their own efforts or through inherited wealth, have plenty to be grateful to the EU for such as the ability to study, work, or retire in sunnier climes that the UK can provide. With the centre of politics as dominated by wealth as the rest of British social life there will of course be many on the left who also welcome those benefits, but in general it is those right of centre who can say so without feeling a pang of guilt for not remembering the disadvantaged. It is those concerned about losing that freedom to move that complained the loudest in the immediate aftermath of the referendum result with the common mantra being that the old had stolen the future of the young. Those making those complaints soon disappeared from the news for two obvious reasons: the wealthier among the older generations were losing future retirement locations and the poorer among the young cannot afford to move out of their parents' home. Yet the fact that those were dominant concerns in the immediate aftermath of the result, and in David Cameron's appeal to think of the grandchildren two days before the vote, suggests that for many right of centre voters this was a key consideration.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved