The Durham miners’ role in Labour’s culture wars – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

The Durham miners’ role in Labour’s culture wars

‘It’s no good. We can’t do it. The Durham miners will never wear it’. With these words the Labour Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison refused France’s invitation for Britain to join the European Coal and Steel Community formed in 1951.

They were almost prophetic. On the 23rd of June, the children of Morrison’s Durham miners, the potters of Stoke-on-Trent, the steel workers of Port Talbot, the car workers in Dagenham, and the ‘left-behind’ voters from the former industrial and mining towns of the Northeast of England and the Midlands showed that they could not ‘wear it’ anymore. They overwhelmingly voted to leave the European Union.

… there is no easy fix to Labour’s woes. The revolt of the so-called ‘left-behind’ in the party’s heartlands showed the degree of disconnection between Labour and its traditional supporters. Whilst local Labour MPs campaigned for ‘Remain’ their constituents wanted Britain out of the EU. To compound this problem, Labour is bitterly – and has been for the past decade – divided about Europe and immigration.

By doing so they exposed the schism in the Labour Party that could lead to its destruction. If there is a snap general election, 150 Labour MPs may lose their seats. In short, two thirds of the Parliamentary Labour Party might be obliterated.

The problem is that there is no easy fix to Labour’s woes. The revolt of the so-called ‘left-behind’ in the party’s heartlands showed the degree of disconnection between Labour and its traditional supporters. Whilst local Labour MPs campaigned for ‘Remain’ their constituents wanted Britain out of the EU. To compound this problem, Labour is bitterly – and has been for the past decade – divided about Europe and immigration.

This is not a new schism. In the past, some factions of the Labour Party invoked British (English) exceptionalism as a reason to oppose Britain’s participation in the European Communities. Ernest Bevin, who was Foreign Secretary in the Attlee government, spoke of his fear of Britain ‘chaining itself to a corpse’. A decade or so later it was the turn of the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell to share his worries. In his view, joining the EEC would represent ‘the end of Britain as an independent European state’ and ‘of a thousand years of history’.

A modern version of Labour’s British exceptionalism has been articulated by the MP John Mann and by the founder of Blue Labour Maurice Glasman who both voted Leave. Whilst Mann feared the urbanisation and the loss of quality of life that more immigration would create, Glasman argued that ‘Britain was an island and was always at an angle to Europe’ that had developed ‘distinctive institutions based on the balance of powers within the Ancient Constitution’.

Apart from romantic notions about British exceptionalism, popular resistance to immigration has also informed the party’s ambivalence towards Europe. Having fiercely opposed immigration controls right after the war, Labour was forced to reconsider its position in the 1960s when pro-immigration MPs started to lose their seats. Hence, Harold Wilson’s government tightened controls over immigration in 1965 and 1968.

Under the leadership of Tony Blair, Labour was a proud defender of immigration and ethnic and cultural diversity. But as the popular backlash against the new wave of migration of the early Noughties began to be felt, this policy of openness was accompanied by a coarsening of political language. In 2002, David Blunkett talked of British schools being ‘swamped’ by non-English speaking immigrants and in 2007, Gordon Brown promised to train ‘British workers for British jobs’.

In the past decade Labour fudged the issue by offering an ‘on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other’ approach to immigration. It was an attempt to unify two strands of the party – the Cosmopolitans and the Nativists – that represent constituencies which have been treated differently by globalisation. But as the 2015 General Election showed this fudge did not work. In the north east of England and the midlands Labour lost thousands of votes to UKIP, whereas in places like Brighton, Bristol and London it further alienated an urban, educated youth.

Some Labour politicians harbour the hope that a charismatic leader will heal the social divide among supporters. They invoke Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair as prime examples of the leader Labour needs. But there are three problems with this strategy. Firstly, Labour does not have politicians of this calibre. Secondly, when Attlee, Wilson and even Blair were elected the world was a simpler place. At the time of Attlee and Wilson, party politics was more tribal and turbo-globalisation was yet to create havoc in the lives of Labour’s traditional voters. In the case of Blair, eighteen years of Conservative rule certainly helped him to win a landslide in 1997. But in 2016, party politics is far more fragmented. Discontented voters know they have other options. Thirdly, the result of the Referendum suggests that voters will not be easily persuaded with a fudged approach to immigration.

Labour faces a fork-in-the-road decision. It needs to choose which coalition of voters it wants to represent: either the winners or the losers of globalisation. But whatever road it chooses it will not be cost-free.