This article was first published on Conservative Home.
Predictably, once again the issue which has shaken Labour’s support for its leader is his insufficient devotion to the EU. Talk of a leadership contest has restarted, but the frontrunners will not solve Labour’s rift with its Brexit-supporting base.
Clive Lewis attempted to thwart the will of the people in the House of Commons vote on the Article 50 Bill, while Rebecca Long-Bailey has no idea what the Customs Union is or does. The fact that many people in Labour think either Lewis or Long-Bailey is the answer to their problems shows they are still tone-deaf on Brexit. This offers Theresa May’s Conservatives a golden opportunity, especially as the deeply unpopular Tony Blair is back on the scene patronising Leave voters.
According to research conducted by Chris Hanretty, Reader in Politics at the University of East Anglia, almost two out of every three Labour constituencies voted for Brexit, while only ten of their MPs felt the same way. The Conservative Party itself, of course, did not accurately reflect public opinion, but nothing close to the disparity within Labour, with 138 Tory MPs campaigning for a ‘Leave’ vote.
The EU referendum gave voters a clear choice – unfettered by tactical voting, as in other elections. Were voters in favour of a status quo, where laws are created by an unaccountable and increasingly out of touch elite, or not? 17.4 million people clearly chose Leave and not Remain. This highlights in particular the disconnect between Remain-backing MPs in poorer areas and their Leave-voting constituents.
As a result, a political realignment may be underway. The Stoke and Copeland by-elections will be the first canaries down this particular mine – the scale of which will be revealed on the night. What we do know is Jeremy Corbyn is about as popular as a clown at a funeral, and possible successors are being sounded out.
It appears Corbyn’s crime, however, is not his unpopularity with all sections of the electorate but the fact he is not pro-EU enough. This led to the first ill-fated Corbyn leadership challenge, and momentum is gathering for it to lead to the second.
So, who are the Labour Party’s runners and riders? Are they politicians who can connect with their Leave-voting constituencies? Do they have an optimistic vision of a post-Brexit Britain? Are they intellectual powerhouses, or are they even capable of holding the most superficial of Brexit-related conversations? Quite simply: no.
The frontrunners heralded as Corbyn’s left-wing successors are Clive Lewis and Rebecca Long-Bailey. That’s how far the party of Clement Attlee has fallen.
Rebecca Long-Bailey couldn’t even explain what the Customs Union is when recently interviewed by Andrew Neil. And impressively for a Shadow Secretary of State for Business, she confused the deficit and the national debt while on Question Time. She claimed the deficit was £700 billion, when in fact it is £70 billion. And she also suggested the deficit was larger than under any previous Labour Government – under Labour in 2009/10 the deficit was actually £153 billion.
Clive Lewis, on the other hand, is a fairly competent media performer. However, unlike Long-Bailey, he voted against the triggering of Article 50, and resigned in protest. But be careful, Mr Lewis. Fighting against Article 50 may pave the way to become Leader of the Labour Party, but this will be a much smaller party. It will be a Labour Party confined to the metropolitan cities of England, with electoral success further away than ever before.
So, that’s the choice for the Labour Party while its membership is dominated by the hard left. Either stick with a deeply unpopular Jeremy Corbyn, or choose someone who will either destroy the party by trying to keep the UK in the EU, or someone who struggles to understand what the EU actually is.
This presents the Tories with an opportunity which was beyond comprehension only a couple of years ago. The Conservative Party now has the ability to take the fight to Labour’s heartlands – especially in Copeland. They can destroy the myth of a Labour politician who promises the world and who is more in touch with the concerns of working people than a Tory.
As we Get Britain Out of the EU, a political realignment is certainly possible. A Labour Party which tramples on the concerns of its voters at this crucial time, could be the beginning of the end. However, this would be bad for British democracy, at the very moment it is returned.