Britain’s Brexit Election Is Now a Referendum on Corbyn

Kitty Donaldson and Robert Hutton
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Britain’s Brexit Election Is Now a Referendum on Corbyn

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Jeremy Corbyn’s red bus pulled into the small car park at the community center. It was greeted by cheers from a crowd of about a hundred people who had been unable to get into the building because it was full. They’d waited in the drizzle anyway.

As the Labour Party leader walked through them, they chanted his name. He turned and gave a brief speech before continuing inside. Then, jacket removed, sleeves slightly rolled up, he was in his element. “We are told it’s too expensive, it’s unaffordable, you can’t achieve this, that or the other,” Corbyn said of his plans to nationalize the railways, ramp up welfare spending and even hand out free broadband for every home.

The scene on the campaign trail in the former mining region of Nottinghamshire, central England, was far removed from the accusations of anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks, a terrible performance in a prime-time TV interview and a poll that showed the party will get trounced in next week’s U.K. election. Indeed, the “Corbynmania” that produced shock gains two years ago looked like it was still going strong.

Britain’s election was supposed to be all about Brexit, to break the impasse in the self-inflicted turmoil over leaving the European Union. Instead, it now looks more like a referendum on a 70-year-old socialist whose personality cult has cemented its grip on one of Europe’s largest political parties.

For Corbyn, it’s a last stand to try and ensure his project isn’t dead on arrival by the time votes start getting counted next Thursday after 10 p.m. That will depend on whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservatives can breach the “Red Wall,” the band of districts running across the middle of the U.K. from North Wales to almost the East coast of England.

QuicktakeWhat Corbyn Stands For

Many of them are historically considered safe for Labour and yet tribal lines are now being blurred by Brexit because just as many voted to leave the EU.

With the Conservatives’ pro-Brexit stance making life more difficult for them in the south of the country and Scotland, the party aims to find a parliamentary majority for Johnson in these places to fulfill his campaign slogan and “Get Brexit Done.” If Corbyn’s supporters stay loyal, meanwhile, then Labour might just upset the odds again—and this time take power.

Labour expects to lose some seats, though its not clear how many, according to a senior party official. Internal polling and feedback from voters suggests the Conservatives, or Tories, are on course for that majority, the person said.

That’s because Corbyn was unpopular on the doorstep, the Labour campaign was incoherent and its policy promises were not credible, the official said. Corbyn and Johnson go head-to-head in a final televised debate this evening. 

Thirty-five of the 50 Labour seats with the slimmest margin of victory last time are in places that backed Brexit and most of them are in the Midlands or north of England, according to John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow and the U.K.’s most prominent psephologist.

If Johnson does win a majority, it will be thanks to places like Ashfield, a Nottinghamshire seat that Labour held in 2017 by fewer than 500 votes. Both the Labour and Tory messages are resonating among locals.

Brian Yerbury, a 69-year-old retired architectural technician was having a drink with his wife Lorna in the Lady Chatterley pub in the town of Eastwood, which lies in the constituency. He said he’d always voted Labour in the past. “I was wobbling a bit,” he said. “I didn’t like Corbyn. He’s got no charisma and no style. I didn’t trust Corbyn or Boris.”

What seemed to be pulling him back to Labour were the party’s promises. “Corbyn’s come out with a huge amount of good things,” his wife said. She would stand to gain in particular from the promised cash for retired women. “Corbyn has said us ladies will benefit,” she said. “Boris, he doesn’t appreciate what working women do.”

About 40 miles west, Newcastle-under-Lyme is another district in the “Red Wall.” It’s been Labour for nearly 100 years, but the party held it last time by just 30 votes. It’s now on the point of voting Conservative, driven by support for Brexit and anger at the political deadlock in London that means that three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, it’s still a member.

“It’s Corbyn that gets raised on the doorstep,” said Aaron Bell, the Conservative candidate. “Both by Conservative voters and by Labour people who are thinking of switching.”

Bell spoke as he delivered leaflets in Helmer End, a village in the district. “People are frustrated, angry, mystified that it hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “There are an awful lot of people who are either upset about Brexit and their vote not being respected or can’t stand the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, or quite often both.”

One of the doors he knocked on was answered by 77-year-old Arthur Jim Nixon, in his slippers. “I’ve worked in the mines and I’ve worked with laboring men all my life,” he said. “I like Boris. I don’t like this Labour Party because they criticize Jews. Live and let live.”

It feels a long way from two years ago, when Corbyn had the people’s touch compared with his opponent, former Prime Minister Theresa May.

The jam-making, railway-loving vegetarian may have spooked businesses and the rich with this socialist message, but he won adoring fans among students and those suffering from years of government spending cuts. His obfuscation on Brexit—he was a long-standing critic of the EU after Britain joined in the 1970s and was reluctant to commit his party to position since the 2016 referendum—didn’t end up counting against him.

That gives his supporters hope. During the 2017 election, they point out, Corbyn trailed in the polls, but also held mass rallies and managed to gain seats. Indeed, like now, Labour insiders were among the pessimists. 

Johnson, though, is a different animal. He’s far happier in the spotlight than May was, and he’s kept his policy platform vague and clear of surprises.

So far, it seems to be working. A constituency-by-constituency poll by YouGov predicted Newcastle-under-Lyme would go Conservative, along with dozens of other Labour seats. It found much larger swings to the Conservatives in places that voted for Brexit. 

Britain’s Election Gamble—What You Need to Know

As people living in the “Red Wall” regions struggled with globalization, they felt neglected and their votes taken for granted. Immigration loomed large in the EU referendum as resentment grew over the influx of many east Europeans to the local workforce.

Both parties agree on the issues faced by traditional Labour voters, the difference is in their solution. For Corbyn, it’s government spending, on housing, on the National Health Service, on adult education. It sees the government increasing welfare payments, wages for public sector employees, free university tuition and compensating women who say they lost out when the age at which they were entitled to a state pension increased.

For Johnson, the approach is cultural. There is an offer of more money, but the main focus of his argument is that politicians, out of touch with ordinary people, have blocked Brexit—and thus the U.K.’s ability to choose who comes into the country.

In particular, he argues that Corbyn is unpatriotic. After a terrorist killed two people at London Bridge last week, the Conservatives swiftly moved to accuse the Labour leader of being soft on terror, too.

Back in Nottinghamshire, Stacey Cook, a 43-year-old builder, was clear. “I don’t want Jeremy Corbyn getting in,” he said. “My parents and my missus and everybody I know who’s in their right mind will vote Conservative. I don’t want a bloke in power that will open the floodgates to the country.”

To contact the authors of this story: Kitty Donaldson in London at kdonaldson1@bloomberg.netRobert Hutton in London at rhutton1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tim Ross at tross54@bloomberg.net, Rodney Jefferson

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