From Brown’s bigot to Brexit and Boris

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Is Labour being punished for flip-flopping?

On a campaign stop during the 2010 UK election an elderly woman named Gillian Duffy, later identified as a lifelong Labour voter, complained to then-Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown about high immigration from Eastern Europe into the UK.

Following the interaction with Duffy, Gordon Brown — while still wired to a live microphone — complained to a staffer and called the woman a “bigot.”

The live microphone picked up the comment, a media maelstrom ensued, and Brown’s floundering hopes of winning the 2010 election were dashed once and for all.

Boris Johnson’s resounding win over Jeremy Corbyn last week reminded me of that incident 10 years ago. To say that Boris Johnson won seats in Labour strongholds would be an understatement.

Constituencies that had only elected Labour MPs for 70-80 years switched to the Tories, as the Conservative Party is known in the UK.

The reality is that Brown’s Labour “bigot” became a Brexiteer, and then, a Tory. This may come as a shock to the wider public but it is no surprise to most political pundits and party functionaries.

Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party campaigned against Brexit during the 2016 referendum. The Leave campaign won the referendum with strong support from Labour voters in traditionally Labour constituencies.

The Labour party seemingly got the message and voted for the parliamentary bill invoking Article 50, a procedural requirement for the UK to leave the European Union.

However, earlier this year, Corbyn did another backflip and decided to oppose Brexit, calling for a second referendum where Labour would campaign to keep the UK in the EU.

In three years, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party was against Brexit, then for it and again, against it. It is hardly a surprise that Labour voters who strongly favoured Brexit punished the Labour party for flip-flopping.

Political expediency and flip-flopping aside, the question of why working-class voters in Labour heartlands wanted Brexit requires deeper analysis.

The signs of working-class grief and disenchantment with Labour politics was evident as early as 2010 in Gillian Duffy’s sentiments and Brown’s insulting dismissal.

Western advanced countries with ageing populations have seen labour force participation and employment numbers either stagnate or, even worse, decline.

Relatively older populations understandably feel anxious about their future and care deeply about issues of economic security.

Centre-left parties have not only failed to address the concerns of older voters but have also been tone-deaf in their economic policy posturing.

They have placed too much rhetorical emphasis on economic opportunities for the future to attract younger, urban voters, while largely ignoring issues of economic security that affect suburban and regional voters.

Centre-right parties have stepped in to fill that political void. The conservative message of trying to preserve the socio-economic status quo, or at least attempting to slow down the pace of change, resonates with older voters.

Immigration and multiculturalism is another such issue where the stars have aligned for the right, both in terms of economics and politics.

Older voters see immigration as an issue of economic security. Immigrants will either take away jobs from native job-seekers and/or lead to lower wages and lower standards of living.

And while there is no denying that the topic of immigration triggers xenophobic hysteria amongst some segments of the population, the vast majority of the voting public perceive immigration as a jobs issue.

Economic rationalists — and I count myself as one — wax lyrical all day about the wider economic benefits of immigration as if it were a self-evident truth that transcends politics.

The liberal, rationalist literati have been complacent and dismissive of working-class anxieties and have failed to grasp how demographic and economic structural change is shaping the political discourse of our time.

Injecting identity politics into that conversation through condescension and ridicule, be it Gordon Brown’s “bigot” or Hilary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” only fans the flames of discontent and disenchantment.

To be fair, right-wing politicians say equally bad things too, if not worse. But trying to find equivalence, or the lack thereof, between what the right and the left says completely misses the point.

Taking a majoritarian position in favour of preserving the status quo is always going to be more of a vote-winner than trying to give voice to the upwardly-aspirational, minority class.

Boris Johnson’s honeymoon period following this thumping win will end at some point and the hard job of governing and winning the hearts and minds of the voting public will overwhelm his government too, as it does every government.

UK Labour will probably bounce back too, perhaps with a better leader, perhaps sooner rather than later.

But the underlying forces of demographic and economic structural change that ageing, western societies are experiencing will endure and continue to shape the politics of our time.

In the midst of all this disruption and evolution — politicians of both hues have the unenviable task of setting policy agendas that will inevitably lead to winners and losers.

In the democratic interplay between actual and perceived winners and losers, centre-left parties need to acknowledge that their brand of progressive politics resonates less and less with an older, majority voting bloc.

The politics of change and reform that disenfranchises the ageing, struggling majority is a recipe for political oblivion. 

Nofel Wahid is an economist.