“It was the first time in my life that I had to queue to vote,” said Nicola Davies, remembering the Brexit referendum, “so I knew straight away we were going to lose. People were coming out asking ‘why do I have to use a pencil?’ It was obvious some had never seen a polling booth.”
That was the way in which the people of Newport, in South Wales, helped deliver Brexit in the referendum on June 23, 2016. The city and its surrounding valleys were home to some of Britain’s earliest and heaviest industries, and are still a heartland for the Labour Party. But neither loyalty to Labour, nor expert opinion that Brexit would mean industrial doom, could stop 60 percent of Newport’s voters’ choosing to quit the EU.
A walk down the city’s high street answers the question “why.” Just as in 2016, shop after shop stands closed. Those stores that are thriving are mainly payday lenders, pawnbrokers, and the many charity shops selling second-hand goods. The sodden blankets of the rough sleepers, the groups of young addicted men, the prevalence of diseases of poverty, all confront the people of Newport with a daily reminder that their community has got a very raw deal from the neoliberal era.
I went to Wales because, two years on, there is a glimmer of hope for those who want to reverse Brexit. Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed Brexit plan, agreed at Chequers on July 6 2018, has fallen apart spectacularly, triggering the resignation of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and a civil war within the Conservative Party; this has dented not only the party’s poll rating but support for Brexit itself. The resulting popular disillusion has now shown up in the opinion polls.
In August the anti-Brexit Best for Britain campaign released a deep and detailed poll, using an unorthodox technique called multilevel regression and post-stratification (MRP), showing that 112 constituencies have now switched from a majority supporting Leave to a majority for Remain. According to the poll, 2.6 million people have changed their position on Brexit—with 1.6 million mainly Labour voters switching to Remain, while around a million Conservative voters switched to Leave.
People’s Vote support
This has boosted support for the People’s Vote campaign, an alliance of liberal centrists and Labour right-wingers who want a second referendum to overturn the result of the first. When the national data from the MRP polling is projected onto Newport, it predicts a 9 percent swing toward Remain—although Leave would still have a narrow majority in the city.
But Nicola Davies, a community-center manager and Labour activist, is skeptical. Though she would personally like a second referendum, it would be “absolutely disastrous for this area. It would divide the community even more. For years we complained: You’re not interested in politics. Then for the first time in their lives they vote—do we say to them your vote does not matter?”
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I met her with a group of left-wing Labour activists from the region. They built for me, piece by piece, a much more complex story of the political dynamics on the ground than the recent polling revealed. What looks to pollsters like the rational emergence of “buyer’s remorse” among Leave voters looks to progressives on the ground like a volatile and potentially dangerous situation.
In Wales, the Labour Party is the establishment. It has been running the devolved Welsh Assembly, which controls health care, transport, and education in Wales, since its creation in the 1990s. As a result, in the most depressed areas there is a strong plebeian opposition to Labour, fueled by the everyday grievances people have with social-democratic parties that do not deliver. Before Brexit, this mainly found expression through the election of hundreds of “independent” conservative-leaning local councilors. But in May 2016, during the Brexit referendum campaign, it allowed the right-wing xenophobic party UKIP to come from nowhere and win seven seats in the Assembly, gaining 13 percent of the vote. Labour, which thought it had contained the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, positioned to its left on 20 percent, now had to deal with what was effectively a British nationalist party positioned to its right.
Stephen Williams, a musician and Labour activist from the former mining town of Merthyr Tydfil, told me that though he too supported Remain, he “just wants it over.” He said the far-right groups in the old mining valleys are small, but will win recruits if Labour is seen to renege on the Brexit vote.
‘People just want it over with’
Margaret Davies, a community activist and Labour Party member in Merthyr, believes the original Brexit vote there was driven by hostility to the Polish and Portuguese migrants employed on low wages in a large local slaughterhouse, and the feeling that—despite four layers of government including the local council, the Assembly, Westminster, and Brussels—nobody really cared about the people of the Valleys. Despite the chaos of May’s administration, she said, “I don’t think it’s changed. I have friends that voted Leave who are now Remain, but I also have friends who’ve gone the other way—who say we should abide by the vote.”
The process of trial and error by which British policymakers have groped toward a concrete Brexit proposal has passed these people by. Margaret Davies said: “It’s gone on so long and there’s so little information, that people say they just want it over with.”
Both in Newport and Merthyr, Labour activists expressed concerns about racism and xenophobia colonizing closed, local “news” Facebook groups. In small-town communities, where the physical public space is effectively deserted after six in the evening, such bulletin boards have become an important online space for transmitting prejudice and disinformation. More than 17,000 people follow the closed Facebook group “Merthyr Council Truths.” Its influencers consistently peddle the narrative that job losses in the South Welsh Valleys were caused by membership in the EU, that EU funding for infrastructure actually sucks economic activity out of Wales, and that the Labour establishment is corrupt.
In Newport, it’s a similar story. Nicola Davies told me: “I choose to engage in a group called Newport News. It has 5,000 members. The divide is extreme. I go on and challenge the racism, but I know what’s driving it. Their attitude is ‘I’ve got bugger all so I am terrified someone else will take it from me.’” Though support for UKIP has declined since the Brexit vote, UKIP itself has swung toward the far right, welcoming the blogger Milo Yiannopoulos, courting Steve Bannon’s international alt-right network, and adding anti-Semitism to its traditional mix of Islamophobia and hostility to migrants. When Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the fascist English Defence League, was jailed for contempt of court, UKIP mobilized its followers for a demonstration in London to support him; it turned into a riot. UKIP is currently considering whether to allow Robinson into its ranks. Nicola Davies said, “My biggest concern is that if Tommy Robinson gets allowed into UKIP he has a huge following: He could pull 10,000 people on the streets of Newport.”
Even if that’s an overestimation, it points to a problem that will emerge in the next phase of the Brexit process, which very few strategists of the left or right have properly considered: If Brexit fails, how will the 17 million who voted for it react?
Only two outcomes
If the last six months of the Brexit negotiations threaten chaos, it is because the leaders of the UK’s main political parties have refused to face up to the binary nature of the challenge. There are, as EU negotiators consistently warn, only two possible outcomes: a Norway-style deal leaving Britain a member of the single market and signed up to all four “freedoms,” or a Canada-style free-trade agreement, which makes the UK a “third country” and gives it freedom to do trade deals with the rest of the world.
Theresa May tried to win a mandate for a free-trade-only Brexit in the June 2017 general election, but failed. There are up to 15 Europhiles in her party who will not support it, and she does not have a parliamentary majority. As a result, May has tried—and failed—three times to outline the conditions for a bespoke Brexit deal that would leave Britain voluntarily mirroring European rules for trade in goods and certain service sectors, thus gaining access to the single market without committing to its rules. At each phase of the negotiations, she has given ground, most significantly in December 2017 when she conceded that Northern Ireland, which would share a land border with the Irish republic and therefore the EU after Brexit, should be protected by a backstop agreement guaranteeing no physical border controls. Only this July, at Chequers, did May finally risk putting on paper a complete outline of the Brexit endgame. Though the hard-Brexiteers in her cabinet offered no alternative, Boris Johnson and Brexit negotiator David Davis resigned within 48 hours. Then, at the Salzburg summit, the EU signaled that the Chequers deal was stone dead, triggering further turmoil within May’s cabinet.
These repeated splits and climbdowns have taught voters that the promises made by the Brexiteers were over-optimistic. According to the MRP polling, 74 percent of voters in Boris Johnson’s own constituency believe Brexit is proving more complicated and difficult than they had thought.
Corbyn’s negative red lines
Labour is also suffering self-inflicted Brexit wounds. Its strategic problem in 2016 and 2017 was that a third of its own voters voted to leave the EU. Worse, in the 40–60 marginal seats that it would need to win any future general election, the majority of people voted Leave. Worse still, in Scotland, where it needs to win 24 seats back from the pro-EU Scottish National Party, the Brexit issue is squeezing Labour between the Conservatives and the SNP nationalists.
For the first 18 months of the Brexit process, there was a logic to Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy of constructing a series of negative red lines by which to judge the Conservative proposals on Brexit, but refusing to outline a clear, positive Brexit endgame, or to support calls for a second referendum. Now, however, this position looks less tenable. The Remain campaign has refocused its activities around the demand for a People’s Vote: Corbyn’s failure to endorse this has allowed a group of Blairite Labour MPs, led by the Streatham MP Chuka Umunna, to create a clear pro-European political brand on Labour’s right wing. Umunna has denied plotting to form a breakaway, pro-European centrist party. But if he did, the 290,000 people signed up to the People’s Vote campaign would, data laws permitting, be a formidable starting base.
In response, the pro-Corbyn membership of the party has begun to push independently for its own version of the second referendum. Of 272 motions submitted to Labour’s September conference by its constituency branches, 150 were about Brexit, with more than 100 asking the party to offer a second referendum in its next election manifesto. Only a frantic night of horse-trading allowed the party’s apparatchiks to prevent the motion getting to the conference floor.
With both the Conservative and Labour positions in flux, the parliamentary session leading up to a mid-November hard negotiating deadline looks set to be dramatic. The potential outcomes are that May is overthrown by hardline Brexiteers; that she survives but fails to win the meaningful vote on a final deal; that Corbyn is pushed further toward a clear Norway-style proposal and the offer of a second referendum; or that the whole thing drags on beyond Christmas, triggering currency and investment instabilities as the possibility of a “no deal” Brexit looms.
‘The chain of attainability is broken’
To understand what that last option might entail, I went to Cardiff to meet the only Labour politician in Britain with a formal role in the Brexit negotiations.
The young woman who rang the doorbell at Labour’s office in Canton, Cardiff, was polite but insistent. “I know it’s after five,” she told Mark Drakeford, “but I’ve received a decision and been informed it contains a sanction.” She waved a sheaf of correspondence full of the inch-high letters that the government uses when it needs to convey bad news to people on benefits. Drakeford smiled and welcomed her inside. Within weeks this avuncular former social-policy professor is likely to become the new first minister of Wales, in charge of a devolved annual budget of £17 billion. But for now, the word “sanction” was enough to focus the attention of everybody in his office.
For people living on out-of-work benefits, getting sanctioned means losing part of an already meager payout: missing meals or loan repayments; becoming even more powerless than you were before. A party worker ushered the woman into a meeting room where she would be helped with her next move. Drakeford said: “When I tell well off people that, in my surgery last Saturday, someone came through the door and said they hadn’t eaten since Wednesday, it’s not that they disbelieve me, but they don’t quite believe it is anything more than an individual problem. For people like you and me, if a kettle breaks you buy a new one. But what do you do in a household where there are no savings, where every penny is needed, where if the kettle breaks there is nowhere to go?”
He said that in many of the places Labour represents, “the chain of attainability is broken. Inequality is sharp and matters daily in the lives of people who struggle to get by.” It is this, beyond the xenophobia of the Facebook groups, that he believes drove the Brexit vote and has sustained support for it, even as the Westminster government faltered. Drakeford is currently the cabinet secretary for finance in the Welsh government, and sits with his Scottish and Westminster counterparts on the joint ministerial committee, which is formally tasked with setting Britain’s negotiating position. Unlike many of Welsh Labour’s leading politicians, he is a supporter of Corbyn, and he hopes to be elected leader of the party next month.
If Drakeford succeeds, it could add to the flux in Labour’s Brexit stance, because Labour, through its governmental role in Wales, has long advocated support for membership in the customs union and the single market. He explained that this position is driven by the urgency of the economic threat: “Wales exports a higher proportion of its goods to the EU than any other part of the UK, so any barriers to trade with our most important market will have a disproportionate effect on the Welsh economy.”
He fears that the aerospace and automotive sectors, which are strong in Wales, will see disinvestment and offshoring over time, if what happens is the hard Brexit demanded by the Conservative right. And for parts of the agricultural sector, he believes anything short of frictionless access to the single market could be deadly. “We have a thriving mussel industry in the Menai Strait created with a great deal of public investment over the years. If those mussels leave here and sit in a shed in France while checks are done on whether they meet the rules of the EU, they will not be fresh. We have sober economic analysis that says, in the case of a hard Brexit, that industry could be gone within three weeks.”
Brexit’s three acts
The drama of Brexit looks set to run to three acts. The first was the referendum; the second act has been the long political agony of Theresa May. The climax of the second act is scheduled for November, if she survives that long, and could still lead to a no-deal scenario, in which case the third act will feature stockpiles of food and medicine, long queues of trucks at Dover, and likely political chaos.
Labour’s role in the drama is likely to evolve. Support among its members for a second vote is building, though the party line remains that forcing a general election is the best way to break the jam. But in that case, Corbyn would be forced finally to reveal his desired Brexit outcome. After a conference decision, committing the party to “participation” in the single market, Labour’s position is edging toward a Norway-style outcome.
But that raises fears about an alternate final act. Seventeen million people voted for Brexit. For some, it was their first political act; for many, it was the first time they felt their vote had changed things. The centrist commentators in the press often show working-class supporters of Brexit as depoliticized and disorganized. But Drakeford warns that is false: “I never thought these communities were depoliticized. Faced with a local issue, they are engaged. I’ve been the health minister—and try making changes to a health service where people are deeply attached to the services they know. The idea that people are not interested is wrong.”
Whatever the outcome, the continued high support for Brexit among the very communities whose lives will be blighted by it remains the central challenge that mainstream politicians have to solve. The story that had long been told by liberal centrism in Britain fell apart, because it no longer made sense to communities that had been hollowed out by decades of wage stagnation and underinvestment.
Stories of nationalism, xenophobia, and the revolt against technocratic government are compelling in a place like South Wales. To counteract them, Labour will have to start telling a story of hope.