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Saturday, December 31, 2016

The new divide in British politics

As we leave behind what can only be described as a pretty dreadful 2016, the bad news is that 2017 may not be much better. That is because the decisions that were made this year are going to come back to haunt us over the next 12 months.

In particular, the election of Donald Trump and the rather concerning axis he is forming with Vladamir Putin against China, but also the disastrous vote to leave the EU that threatens to plunge this country into recession, put up the cost of living for millions of people and will see thousands of jobs migrate to the continent.

The fallout from Brexit in particular is already starting to change the nature of British politics. In my view the real divide in the UK has not been between left and right for some time, but between libertarianism and authoritarianism. June's referendum result may have shifted things yet further.

As Andrew Grice writes in the Independent, three recent parliamentary by-elections in Witney, Richmond Park and Sleaford and North Hykeham have shown that Brexit is the new dividing line:

The results confirm a continuing trend spotted by academics working on the British Election Study, who found before and just after the June referendum that voters’ political identity was shaped more by Brexit than their traditional party allegiance. It suggests we might be entering a new era in which voting is influenced more by cultural attitudes (such as those towards immigration) than by class – a shift which also helped Donald Trump reach the White House. Will it prove a temporary effect? I doubt it, since Brexit will dominate UK politics for years, and certainly until the next general election.

Labour looks certain to be the big loser. The party already had an electoral mountain to climb, because of its collapse in Scotland and boundary changes that will give the Tories an estimated 20-seat advantage.

Brexit makes Labour’s climb even steeper. The danger is that the party appears irrelevant on the biggest challenge facing the country. Labour will struggle to win the confidence of both Leavers, because officially it backed Remain, and strong Remainers, angry about Jeremy Corbyn’s half-hearted referendum campaign and with a new champion in the Lib Dems, who unashamedly target “the 48 per cent”.

Strong Remainers will find little comfort and joy in Corbyn’s New Year message. He promises not to “stand by” while the Tories make a mess of Brexit, but equally insists that Labour accepts and respects the referendum result and “won’t be blocking our leaving the EU”.

His words sum up Labour’s acute dilemma. Almost 70 per cent of Labour-held constituencies voted Leave, so the party would provide Ukip with booster rockets by fighting Brexit. The Tories would love it too, accusing Labour of “defying the will of the people”.

But by sitting on the fence, Labour risks being squeezed out by Ukip and the Tories on the one hand and the Lib Dems on the other. Brexit also makes it harder for Labour to forge the coalition it always needs to win power – between its middle-class supporters who largely voted Remain, and its working-class voters who are more likely to be Leavers.

Labour's failure to understand these changes and adjust to them, their determination to have their cake and eat it on the biggest issue to face the UK in decades and their own divisions on Europe could mean that they are the biggest losers from Brexit.
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