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Why We Owe Leavers and UKIP Voters an Apology

This election reveals we have been too quick to simplify leave and UKIP voters.

Jacob F. Farr

Naked Politics Blogger

As the Brexit referendum result trickled in I was sat behind a desk working night shift at a hotel when three ‘City boys’ rolled in from their night out rather inebriated. They swaggered in with the confidence typically found in someone who’s completed their graduate programme with a FTSE 100 company. “What’s the result looking like then lads? The country seen sense or we going off of a Brexit cliff led by the racists?” Now I am paraphrasing here. However, the sentiment is largely the same as was put across my desk that fateful night last June. I have to be honest, a part of me felt the same way; how could we be brought to such a tragic position by a xenophobic UKIP and infighting Conservative party? It had to be xenophobia, a desire to break away from the more socialist approach of certain sects of Europe and to make Britannia rule the waves once more.

The council elections last month seemed to back up the thinking of my “city boy” clientele, the Tories ran riot putting in a really strong showing and taking from UKIP. The General Election was to be a massacre. Polling companies and the political commentariat had the UKIP vote collapsing and rightly so. But what they did not envisage on 8th June was that UKIP voters as well as leavers are not necessarily your protectionist xenophobic bunch. Perhaps xenophobic is too harsh, nonetheless, the political sphere had leavers tarred with the same brush. What comes with this change of opinion on leavers is a huge slice of humble pie for mainstream political commentators in the UK – including myself.

When the exit poll was released, everyone was left scratching their heads. The pro-Conservative media such as the Sun were tweeting that the exit poll numbers just did not add up. It was not until results started flowing in that we began to see a picture unfold that few predicted outside of Survation and YouGov. UKIP lost swathes of their votes to a Tory party that is seen as far more centrist when it comes to policy. If leavers were a bunch of Hijab hating voters then surely they would have went with a party far more set on tackling those issues than, say, the Conservatives. Of course, the argument can be made that the Conservatives made themselves the ‘Hard Brexit’ party but that’s put under scrutiny when the Conservatives offered little to no detail on what they were after from Brexit.

What is far more interesting is looking at the overall swing to Labour during the election. It has been stated that this is the greatest swing since Attlee from Churchill in 1945 after Churchill had just won the war. Darren Adam, who hosts his own show midweek on LBC, posted that Corbyn had fallen just below one million votes of the Conservative tally at the end of an election where he began 20 points behind in most polls. Labour’s performance meant that they earned two million votes more than Blair had in 2001, had a vote share of 40% which was very close to 2001 and stronger than 2005, 2010 and 2015. Under Corbyn, Labour was able to gain a higher vote share by a margin of 5% in England than the SNP managed north of the border. All of these statistics point to the fact that leavers did not only abandon UKIP to flock to the tories. Leavers are clearly a much more complex group.

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Theresa May’s approach to this election was to declare that the Conservatives were the Brexit party. No one else would be able to put Britain’s interests first quite like the Iron Lady MK II and that all those who voted Leave now had a powerful flag bearer to get behind. What she and her advisors did not realise was that Labour were also to stake their name as the Brexit party, something that was not all that difficult after a two year smear campaign on Corbyn as anti-EU candidate. This meant that Corbyn was able to capitalise on Brexit as well as present a different approach to negotiations. The Labour leader opened himself up to both sides. He was conciliatory to those who voted Remain by ensuring that our relationship was one of friendship with the EU, not division. On the other hand, he offered an olive branch to staunch leavers by effectively saying “Brexit means Brexit” and guaranteed that we would leave the EU. Corbyn was able to unite where May was only able to divide. Leaver reasoning for splitting 50/50 shows how multifaceted the leave campaign was.

The Labour manifesto was something that was unforeseen in this campaign. Everyone including myself, no matter how much I didn’t want to believe it, thought that progressive Keynesian thinking was dead in the UK. After Cameron’s landslide in 2015 I was assured that Britain had made its choice with what economic school of thought they wished to pursue. Labour’s manifesto of 2015 was just another strike against a Keynesian future on this historic island. However, I was wrong. Large swathes of the population that backed leaving the EU or had grown disillusioned with politics had finally found a cause with purpose to throw their weight behind in a general election. The working classes, liberal elite, young and even some old all voted for a party that wanted to leave the EU but also wanted to build a society centred on investment in the economy rather than austerity. There has been a shift in ideology that cannot be underestimated. Left wing thinking is not dead and it is not confined in the liberal elite but in all walks of life – even those once thought to be xenophobic red neck constituents. Bernie Sanders summed it up well:  the middle and working classes are tired of the establishment dictating what is the best way forward. Leavers have shown us that. They stand up to the establishment no matter what the platform and for that, I owe them an apology.

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