Labour’s loss in Copeland shows we’re still living in Tory Brexit la la land

The EU referendum result allowed the Tory party to effectively win a landslide victory against itself. Instead of being viewed as an incumbent party with 6 years in office, they are instead being treated as a newly-elected government. This honeymoon undoubtedly helped the Tories win a seat in Labour’s backyard – but it may not last long.

It’s not surprising to hear many commentators hailing Labour’s loss of Copeland as an historic defeat and a portent of doom at the next election. Conventional wisdom says that by-elections are voters’ opportunity to lash out at incumbent governments. To see a so-called Labour safe seat change hands to the Tories after 6 years of Conservative rule is understandably worrying for the Labour camp. But in this post Brexit, post Trump world, so much pre-held political wisdom must now be considered obsolete.

For Britain, everything changed on the June 23rd 2016. With the resignation of David Cameron and the subsequent removal of almost his entire cabinet, the Tories effectively re-branded themselves as a new government – with Theresa May appointing her new cabinet of Brexiteers and behaving as if she’d just won a general election.

The Brexit vote was such a watershed moment for the Tories (and for the country), that the continuity that would normally happen when a leader hands over power to their successor (i.e. Blair/Brown) was simply not present.

To the general public, Theresa May and her government represent a brand new Government – marking a clean break with the Cameron ministry that preceded it. That they are in fact one and the same (with a new leader) is a technicality lost on the public. They perceive May and Co with the same sense of novelty and vigor normally only enjoyed by a party winning power after years spent in opposition.

In effect, the Brexit result allowed the Tory party to win a landslide victory against itself – and reap all the benefits (their showing in the polls and this by-election win certainly bears that out.)

There’s no doubt that at the next general election, the winning party will be the one deemed most able to manage and deliver Brexit. The Tories already have a huge advantage here, because in the eye’s of the public they own the issue of Brexit – it is as much their pet project as the NHS is for Labour. The figureheads of the leave campaign were all Tories (with the exception of Nigel Farage) and now some of the most fervent breixiteers (David Davies, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson) occupy senior cabinet positions.

But just as this Brexit rebirth has buoyed the Tories to heights not seen in decades, their self-assuredness may yet backfire. Their popularity stems from their clear message that we will be better off out of the EU than in it.

But the public’s view on what ‘better off’ really means may not match the eventual deal that the government delivers. For many leave voters, the leave campaign’s pledge to divert £350 million a week to the NHS was a strong argument for leaving. Even stronger was the pledge to significantly reduce immigration in the short term. The government are now saying that neither of these things may be deliverable.

Eurosceptic stalwarts like Daniel Hannan argue that these were never the core arguments for Brexit – and that ‘taking back control’ from Brussels and reclaiming our democratic independence were always the priorities. But this is a fantasy. While these may have been long held ambitions for some Tory backbenchers, there’s no doubt that without UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric, the question of EU membership would have remained a minor issue in the eyes of the public.

The period between the referendum result on June 28th 2016 and the triggering of Article 50 at the end of March 2017 may come to be seen as the ‘phoney war’ period of the whole Brexit saga. Until the Government’s ‘have our cake and eat it’ plan is put to the EU 27, there can be no certainty of the government achieving any of the aims it has spent the last 8 months filling the airwaves with. If things go sour, and leave voters feel they’ve been hoodwinked on the NHS and immigration promises, then this Tory fairytale that delivered them Copeland could well come to a sudden end.

The UK needed a referendum – not on EU membership but on devolution

The EU referendum saw a forgotten, marginalised segment of British society send a vote of no confidence to the political establishment. Devolving some genuine democratic power back to these communities would be a positive show of respect from a distrusted elite.

The Brexit vote was a shock for most. But the outcome would have been the same for nearly any wing of the political establishment that dared to present itself for public judgement. That the EU happened to be the chosen bogeyman for this particular exercise in binary democracy is almost immaterial. A referendum ballot that read ‘do you have faith in the British Parliament to effectively carry out the will of the British people?’ would have probably fared no better.

For a long time, the perceived wisdom of modern politics was that the status quo had a built in protection – that when confronted with a choice between the safe, understood reality and the unknown, risky alternative – people would follow their human instincts and choose the path they already knew. For people to go against their nature, to ignore their leaders and experts, shows just how utterly broken status quo politics must have become in Britain.

Much of the support for Leave came from some of the poorest, most rural, deprived, working class communities in Britain. These communities have been in decline for decades. The disappearance of the UK’s heavy industries (mining, manufacturing, steel works, ship building, etc.) over the last 30+ years began this trend, but continued lack of investment from successive governments only worsened it.

When UKIP started banging the drum of immigration and EU membership, these became simpler targets to blame than the complex economic realities of liberalised markets and globalisation.

But rather than defang the political establishment and take back some control, this referendum outcome is empowering an even more centralised, authoritarian and right wing government.

Much of marginalised today’s Britain finds itself in a similar situation to Scotland during the 80s and early 90s, when an entire country was being unfairly penalised by a remote and unrepresentative political class – a class of people imposing their will on those they neither represented nor had any affinity to. In the case of Scotland this discontent sowed the seeds for the eventual rise of the SNP who now dominate Scottish politics.

The EU referendum was primarily about immigration, that is clear. But a great deal of the language of the debate was focused on power – where it resides, who wields it and whether those people are accountable. Imagine that the referendum in June 2016 had not been about leaving the EU but had instead been about devolving power to the UK regions. The electorate would have had a genuine opportunity to strip some of that perceived power away from the Westminster elite and back to them locally. Framed in the right way, this would have been an easy argument to win – a clear message about the nature of power and the positive values of sharing and democracy.

In France, Germany and many other European nations, a decentralised, federalised infrastructure already exists – where regions have genuine autonomy over their local economies and decisions. A devolved Britain would be a fairer, more equal society – both financially and socially. Gordon Brown is one of the few mainstream politicians to champion this view. Sadly he is not being widely listened to by others.

The so-called Northern Powerhouse project championed by the Tories was never more than a crowd pleasing slogan adorned with a few empty promises. And though there are some so called ‘devolution deals’ being offered to regions in the UK, in reality they are piecemeal financial tokens – worth only a tiny fraction of the actual tax revenue generated by each region. But these attempts show at least a vague awareness that Britain needs a better, fairer system of sharing economic and democratic power outside of London.

Westminster politics are often referred to as a bubble. Outside of this bubble, the rest of Britain (and especially those who have lost their opportunities for social mobility) live in a political void. Their only hope is for a mainstream political party to be brave enough to burst the bubble – to share power with the people they represent. This would not diminish the power and effectiveness of parliament but rather legitimise it.

Releasing control to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions would not only be a show of faith in our democracy but also one of respect to the people who live within it – because inviting people to participate is surely a better solution than ignoring them and waiting for them to revolt, which is exactly what happened when Britain voted to leave the EU on June 23rd.