A lot has already been said about Labour’s failure to reach out to alienated and angry working-class voters in the EU referendum. It’s clearly an important part of the explanation for Brexit. There is a real danger, however, that Labour politicians (even the more perceptive ones, who realise Corbyn has to go) might draw the wrong conclusions about the message that has been sent.
Immigration is a toxic and volatile issue at the heart of this right-wing counter-revolution. There is a very dangerous disconnect between Labour’s middle-class, intellectual activist base and the working-class communities that have traditionally voted for the party.
We’ve seen some truly ugly sentiments expressed in the campaign. By the normal standards of British politics, you’d think that things couldn’t get much worse than UKIP’s revolting anti-migrant poster. But we actually saw the murder of a British MP just over a week ago, by someone who allegedly shouted ‘Britain First’ as he attacked her and had connections with shady far-right groups in the USA.
It is striking to me how quickly Jo Cox’s legacy has effectively been forgotten. This speaks absolute volumes about the state of Britain right now.
Remember how people speculated that a decent MP’s tragic death might prompt people to think twice before voting for Brexit? No chance, it seems. I suspect the only people who made the connection between the appalling act of violence and the vitriol of the campaign were those already inclined to the Remain cause.
The Labour leadership is trapped between what it knows to be morally and economically right, on the one hand, and a new realpolitik on the other. If it refuses to acknowledge the real concerns of its voters, it’s hard to imagine it has much of a future as a major political party outside Remain enclaves such as Lambeth and Haringey.
People are worried about the total numbers of migrants coming into the UK, but Labour is scared to admit this. It runs counter to everything it wants to believe about its supporters. So it sticks its head in the sand.
The Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell response is to tell people that they are not actually concerned about migration, but are really victims of austerity. Or that they are suffering at the hands of exploitative employers who are trying to drive down wages. And that they wouldn’t have to worry if schools and doctors’ surgeries were properly funded (although the party has no clear message about how this would be achieved).
And the response from Labour voters is unequivocal.: “No. Whether you like it or not, we are actually concerned about migration. Exactly as we’ve told you time and time again. Exactly as we’ve told opinion pollsters for years. But you have ignored us.”
As someone who has very liberal views myself on immigration and sees the huge value and contribution that people from overseas make to British culture and society, the response depresses me and troubles me greatly. But I live in a comfortable suburb of Remain-voting London and I am fortunate enough not to feel the dislocation and uncertainty that many people feel elsewhere.
Labour will now be confronted with a Brexiter-led government which has a popular mandate to control immigration.
Yes, of course, many of their claims have been bluster. A large number of our current migrants come from outside the EU anyway. And we still desperately need foreign workers to sustain our economy and public services.
But what will Labour be saying to its voters who opted for Brexit? This is a huge and desperate problem for the party as it moves forward.