Labour’s vagueness on Brexit appeared weak. In fact, this was its strategic masterstroke – Wired.co.uk

Labour’s vagueness on Brexit appeared weak. In fact, this was its strategic masterstroke – Wired.co.uk

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It was going to be the “Brexit election” – then no-one really talked about Brexit. The Liberal Democrats did, but as soon as the campaign began their devotion to Remain became off-putting. Theresa May slammed Jeremy Corbyn for not being strong enough to lead negotiations but failed to assure the electorate how she would be any different. Voters were tired of Brexit, polls showed. The 48 per cent did not exist.

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UpVote episode 6: Labour’s surge and the secrets behind Brexit

UpVote episode 6: Labour’s surge and the secrets behind Brexit


All this was good news for Labour because they didn’t have a view on Brexit. Well, they did – they were against it while, at the same time, for it. After campaigning limply for Remain, Jeremy Corbyn failed to amend the Article 50 bill even on such basic questions as migrant rights and parliamentary scrutiny. Despite the crossing of these supposed “red lines”, he ordered Labour MPs to join the government in voting through the bill, giving it a sweeping majority of 384.

This vagueness appeared at best weak, at worst downright foolish. In fact, it was a strategic masterstroke. Political scientists have long argued that the way to win elections is to be on the most popular side of divisive issues. Now, on this defining question, Labour represented the centre.

The decision to go along with the government on Article 50 also effectively neutralised Brexit as an issue. And so the debate shifted to public services, Labour’s strongest area, and one in which its anti-austerity policies – a reinvigorated version of Ed Miliband’s from 2015, towards which May was also drifting – were proving popular, even among the over-65s.

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“If this election shows anything, it’s that people want Brexit, but not too much of it” In this, Labour was helped enormously by May’s disastrous, over-confident campaign, highlighted by the fiasco over the “dementia tax”. But, again, underlying all this was Brexit. Brexit was a debate between immigration and the economy – so, logically speaking, if she was for a hard Brexit, she couldn’t claim to be strong on the economy. Labour’s traditional weakness mattered that much less.

Other structural factors contributed hugely to the result: the growth of higher education; the amazing surge of political interest among

young people

; the decline of tribalism, which means that, in contrast to received wisdom, campaigns have the ability to change minds. One thing that didn’t appear to make a difference was fake news, either the tabloid or the paid-for-on-social-media variety, but it’s too early to say how exactly the media war played out. It will be interesting to see if the so-called “alt-left” has grown in strength sufficiently to be able to counteract the attack dogs of the Tory press. That really would shift the tectonic plates of British politics.

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But this was an election fought in the shadow of Brexit: barely discussed, yet always there, like the buried neurosis it’s probably always been. Of course, that still leaves the dirty work of doing the deal – so what of that deal, and its sub-deals, and the sub-sub-deals below that, all of which are due to start in an entirely ludicrous 11 days? Well, if this election shows anything, it’s that people want Brexit, but not too much of it. Disruption without the disruptiveness. You’d say it couldn’t be done, but who says that any more? We are deep in the woods now. Who knows that lies on the other side.

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