The future of the left since 1884

Hearts and minds

As we all reel from the result of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, now may be the time for some initial reflections on the result, how it happened and where we may go from here. Firstly, although...


As we all reel from the result of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, now may be the time for some initial reflections on the result, how it happened and where we may go from here.

Firstly, although it is difficult, we must accept the result. While this may prove a challenge for those of us in metropolitan London, we need to understand that the vote has been taken and the remain side lost, albeit by a small margin. What happens from now onwards in terms of negotiations with the EU is all in the future and no-one at this time can come anywhere near predicting the outcome, least of all those most involved in the referendum campaign or those of us sitting as MEPs.

However, even at this early stage it is possible to provide some analysis of the reasons the UK, with the notable exception of Scotland and London and some areas of other large cities, voted to leave the European Union.

The Leave campaign’s most powerful slogan was “take back control” and Nigel Farage claimed June 23 as his independence day. Those of us who supported and campaigned for Remain need to understand exactly how this palpable nonsense worked its way into the hearts and minds of so many British people. The EU referendum was undoubtedly a protest vote, but it was more than a protest about the EU. People are angry and alienated.

More research needs to be done as to why people are thinking this way, why they do not feel they have “control” and what they mean by the word. It is easy to blame the anti-EU British media, and clearly they played a part over many years with a cynical anti-EU message. It is, however, more than that and it is essential for us, as Fabians and for the centre-left in general, to work out what was really behind the referendum result.

This is a hugely big ask, and I am not even going to venture any in-depth answers. The only thing I would say is that post referendum it has become even clearer that the Labour party is massively alienated from what used to be called the Labour “heartlands”. That Labour’s campaign to remain in the EU was lacklustre and unenthusiastic is only a very small part of a much bigger story.

More profoundly and importantly Labour is no longer part of those communities and areas where it was once so very strong. It is fashionable to talk about a smug metropolitan elite trying to tell everyone else what to do. While this is obviously an issue, the alienation goes beyond such trite concepts. Essentially, Labour is not there. We no longer really understand those whose parents, grand-parents and beyond were tribal Labour supporters.

Not only is Labour not there in the communities hit by the decline in Britain’s traditional industries, but the party also seems to be lacking any sort of understanding let alone any real policy on the profound changes taking place in work and working patterns in 21st century Britain. Work is moving out of large factories to small units, it is no longer centred so much around large employers and it is, of course, becoming much more dependent on hi-tech in its many forms. If Labour is to maintain any majority among “working” people, the party needs to play very rapid catch up with what is actually going on across the country.

The times they are a changing, and somewhere along the line there has been a shift in perception in large parts of what were once traditional Labour areas as well as those parts of the country who voted Labour in 1997. The Labour establishment, notwithstanding many hard-working MPs, has not kept up with it. Labour quite simply cannot afford to bury its head in the sand any longer.

However, the disillusionment is not only with Labour, but more broadly with what for want of a better phrase could be termed traditional politics, the main political parties excluding the nationalists. I believe Labour is suffering more than the Liberal Democrats and Greens, possibly because Labour has a lot more to lose. The Conservatives are also in some trouble, but it is nothing like as serious as that facing the Labour party.

This alienation and disillusionment has, of course, fuelled the growth of nationalism, not only in the UK but across Europe, which has manifested itself in both “left” and “right” wing parties. The Scottish and Welsh nationalists are perhaps fairly benign. The extreme left parties such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are less so but their brand of extremism has so far only wrought chaos. The real danger comes from those places where nationalism has moved towards the right such as the French Front National, the Alternative fur Deutschland and the Sweden Democrats.

In England and Wales we have Ukip. As someone who has spent over 16 years seeing and hearing Ukip up close if not personal, there is no doubt that they are on the extreme right of politics. What is more, following the EU referendum Ukip is poised to take Labour votes in what Labour still calls its “heartlands”. Labour voters who would never dream of voting Conservative now have an alternative in Ukip and Ukip will campaign hard for their support.

I hope, post-EU referendum, the Fabian Society can be a major player in the important debates the centre and the left must have. If we ignore the huge challenges facing us, the Labour party will come out the other side of its current existential crisis as a mere shadow of its former self and Britain will be much the worse off.

Image: Rachel Andrew


Mary Honeyball MEP

Mary Honeyball is a Labour Member of the European Parliament for London.


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