The Labour Party’s share of the vote has been in freefall ever since the landslide of 1997. Tony Blair was swept into power in glorious circumstances thanks to 13.5 million votes cast in his name, decimating the Conservative Party and kick-starting what would prove to be 13 years of New Labour rule.
However, despite winning in another landslide four years later, Labour saw their vote drop by three million, before another one million people (and 57 seats) were struck off their record in 2005. By this time, apathy had firmly set in and the failing New Labour experiment was starting to fizzle out. White working-class voters – who had traditionally made up Labour’s core electoral base – had begun to drift away from the party, and UKIP were there to reap the rewards. It is a trend that has continued to intensify ever since, and this week’s EU Referendum result indicates that it is one that will not be disappearing any time soon.
One of the main reasons for Labour’s disastrous defeat in the 2015 General Election was the defection to UKIP of large swathes of the party’s traditional voters. In the northern heartlands that had previously backed Labour for generations, the party were now seeing their majorities droop in the face of a challenge from UKIP, who finished second in 44 Labour-held seats as they gained 12.7% of the national vote.
Feelings of isolation and abandonment, coupled with worries about the impact of increasing levels of immigration, have been the main reasons behind traditional Labour voters switching their allegiance to UKIP, who, through their right-wing populist rhetoric, have offered to act as a voice against the Westminster elite. “They don’t care” and “they no longer understand working-class people” are phrases that have been heard up and down the country when talking to ex-Labour voters, and this disillusionment partly explains the vast rise in Euroscepticism since the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010.
If Thursday’s referendum proved one thing, it is that there exists a gaping chasm between the Labour Party and the white working-class members of the electorate that they desperately need to attract if they are to have any hope of returning to power in 2020. This chasm can be witnessed in the direct correlation between high numbers of Leave voters in areas of the country that have seen UKIP’s share of the vote increase dramatically. Doncaster, a traditional Labour-voting town and home to Ed Miliband’s constituency, saw almost 70% of its residents vote to leave the EU, mirroring around a 20 point increase in UKIP’s vote across Doncaster’s constituencies in 2015. The majority of both the East Riding of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire exhibited similar patterns, with only Lincoln backing Brexit by a majority of less than 20%.
Similarly damaging for Remain – and, by implication, Labour – was the number of Leave votes cast in Wales. Once fiercely loyal to Labour, Wales has recently witnessed a dramatic upturn in fortunes for UKIP, who now not only occupy seven seats in the National Assembly but will have been buoyed both by this week’s referendum results and those of the last general election. Caerphilly and Torfaen, two of the most Eurosceptic areas in Wales, both saw over 60% of their electorates vote to leave the EU, directly mirroring increases in the UKIP share of 17% and 16.7% respectively in 2015.
The problem that now faces Labour is a split between two distinct groups of voters on which they have found themselves equally reliant. On the one hand, metropolitan and socially liberal middle-class voters (primarily from London) have become an important component of the party’s core base, but they are almost entirely at odds with the poorer and socially conservative working-class members of the electorate that for so long were dedicated Labour supporters. Whilst the former have stuck diligently with the party, it is the latter that Labour are continually failing to win back, with UKIP taking advantage of this crisis by offering a home to the disillusioned.
Many would argue that Labour’s continual championing of progressive social values is the right thing not just for the party but for British politics in general. But their approach is increasingly at odds with the majority of voters in their traditional heartlands, whose largely tribal and socially conservative outlook on issues such as immigration and its impact on their local communities has led them into the arms of UKIP, who offer them what they feel Labour no longer can.
The difficulty for Labour is that they cannot appease one without alienating the other. A continuation of progressive and socially liberal policies will keep their metropolitan voters content but is only going to drive traditional working-class voters further away, increasing the likelihood that the 2020 General Election will be just as painful as 2015, albeit with a further increase in the vote for UKIP in the northern areas that they continue to target.
Of course, Labour’s future also depends on the route that UKIP itself decides to take. Set up with one goal firmly in mind, the party has now achieved the independence from Brussels that it has so desperately craved for the past two decades, but there are no signs that they will be going away any time soon. As results in both the referendum and the General Election have shown, there remains an appetite for the party’s brand of right-wing populism, a potent and appealing mix that continues to enjoy widespread success across Europe. Anti-establishment feeling undoubtedly played a significant role in the minds of many Brexit backers on Thursday, and that sense of abandonment is one that UKIP have the ability to tap into if they play their cards right and carefully construct a clear message over the coming months.
With Labour’s traditional northern heartlands providing UKIP with plenty of potential inroads, 2020 may not only see Nigel Farage’s party dramatically increase their share of the vote but could produce another disastrous result for Labour, one that may end up having dire and long-lasting consequences.
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