Is Labour’s fate still tied to Brexit?

The Conservatives are now more popular than Labour among working class voters… Because of Brexit?

Following the Batley & Spen by-election, Headland was visited by the UK’s leading psephologist and BBC’s go-to-expert Professor Curtice. Here’s what we learnt.

Brexit and by-elections

Despite Hartlepool and Batley & Spen both voting to leave the EU, and once considered ‘Red Wall’ seats, the two constituencies went different ways in the recent by-elections. While many were caught by surprise, they perhaps shouldn’t have been – support for Brexit is an important indicator, but it isn’t the only one when considering which way a constituency might vote.

Hartlepool was a heavily Leave-voting constituency, at around 70%, that historically has been a Labour stronghold (the seat of Labour grandee Lord Mandelson), but switched to the Conservatives with a 16% swing in early May. Labour just managed to hold on to Batley & Spen – which voted Leave by just shy of 60% – in early July, albeit with a drastically reduced majority.

So why didn’t we see that same swing in Batley & Spen? One reason is that the seat has a more ethnically diverse population, which is more inclined to vote Labour, despite Brexit voting patterns. While the Conservatives took a sizeable chunk out of Labour’s majority, it was not quite enough to turn the seat blue.

Also, despite the apparent tide turning towards the Conservatives in ‘Red Wall’ seats, the change is vote share is not a neat comparison. In Hartlepool, Labour has seen a loss of almost 30% of its vote share since 1997, while in Batley & Spen it has been a less dramatic, and more gradual decline of support – and similar increase for the Conservatives leading to them meeting at around 35% of vote share each in 2021.

Chesham & Amersham on the other hand voted to Remain in the referendum, and while this should have been enough to give the Conservatives pause in the run up to the by-election, there were other indicators that the Lib Dems might have a bigger chance than originally expected. Voting demographics in places like Chesham & Amersham have been changing for a while. They are becoming more ethnically and politically diverse as those who previously lived in cities move out to the suburbs. Chesham & Amersham won’t be the last – Dominic Raab in Esher and Walton might want to keep one eye on his Lib Dem opponents.

An existential crisis for Labour?

Not only have the Conservatives been able to claim they ‘got Brexit done’, securing the votes of a significant group of Leave voters who previously would have voted Labour, they’re now implementing policies more traditionally aligned with Labour values, in particular seen throughout the pandemic with huge amounts of government spending.

Labour needs to take a long hard look at its voter base and get used to the fact that it has changed. Labour might want to be the party of workers, something that is in the party’s DNA and where it still has the lion’s share of votes, but the nature of the Labour voter has changed. Changes to the labour market, including education and skills, have made the simple classifications of working class and middle class more complex, and therefore the characterisation of the traditional Labour voter outdated.

The Conservatives have arguably understood this better than Labour, and have refocused governing on ensuring these voters feel listened to and empowered – through the Levelling Up agenda – in an effort to make these recently gained seats ‘safe’.

The Lib Dems also have an opportunity to capitalise. Their policies do not need to be measured on whether they are practical for governing, as that option is still outside the realms of possibility. They can throw all their efforts into being an unashamedly pro-EU party, representing Remain-backing voters who feel alienated by the Conservative or Labour, and create a new and perhaps permanent voter base.

What will Starmer do in Scotland?

The 2021 Holyrood vote saw minimal changes in voting patterns, with no party seeing its share of votes in list or constituency seats move by more than 1.5%.

However, it was the country’s biggest voter turnout ever of 63.5%, against typical turnout of roughly 50%, and while we saw tactical voting across close seats deprive the SNP of an overall majority, we might find the SNP in the role of kingmaker at the next General Election.

How? Well, while it is highly unlikely that Boris Johnson’s government will allow an independence vote, the same can’t be said for a Labour government, and especially so if it is a prerequisite for them being able to form a government. Yes, a Labour majority might be unlikely, but a Labour-SNP coalition might not. The SNP could quite feasibly offer Labour the support it needs to form a coalition government (or confidence and supply) in return for a second independence referendum.

The question is, how much does Starmer want to be PM? Would he risk the union for it? History suggests the lure of the highest political office in the UK can be extremely difficult to resist.