Euan McColm: Labour-exit proves just how tribal we’ve become

Shortly after the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, I sat in a restaurant in London with an English pal talking about – of course – the independence referendum.
Jeremy Corbyn makes a speech in Coventry. His ambivalence over Brexit has appalled many within his party. Picture: Aaron Chown/PAJeremy Corbyn makes a speech in Coventry. His ambivalence over Brexit has appalled many within his party. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA
Jeremy Corbyn makes a speech in Coventry. His ambivalence over Brexit has appalled many within his party. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA

He’d had no vote in the poll but he’d paid close attention to the campaign, often feeling anxious about the result. As someone with a strong sense of Britishness and a deep love for Scotland, he’d dreaded the possibility of a Yes victory. The break-up of the United Kingdom would have robbed him of something that mattered to him.

But this guy is no Union Flag waving Brit. His hope that the UK would endure was real but he was angry that he had to think about it at all. In his view – and, it had recently transpired, in the view of a majority of Scots – independence was not a priority.

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The real issues facing the UK could not, he said, be properly addressed by constitutional change. And he was angry that the referendum had forced him to pick a side in a simplistic, binary argument. The independence question had left him with no option but to choose a tribe and he found that difficult.

Less than two years later, that sense of tribalism had spread throughout England and Wales (Northern Ireland’s issues with tribalism were, of course, established long ago).

The referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union created two new tribes. And, just as had been the case in Scotland, those in favour of the status quo were angry that they’d had to think about the question at all.

To those who thirst for constitutional upheaval, it is a matter of the utmost importance. It is about the sort of country they imagine but it is also about who they are. It is about their identities and, thus, any attack on the proposition is an attack on them.

But we are all tribal now, whether we like it or not. Politicians from across the political spectrum may, on occasion, talk about the need to focus on the domestic political agenda, but nobody can seriously believe, surely, that it is – or will soon be – possible for them to move away from the arguments created by referendums. This is as true in Scotland, where the nationalists lost, as it is in the rest of the UK, where the nationalists won.

The Labour Party was – on paper, at least – firmly on the Remain side of the argument during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. No senior party MP or MSP with any credibility was in the tribe that wanted to break away from the EU.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn may have spent the majority of his political career opposed to the EU, but even he – unconvincingly, it must be noted – said he was a Remainer.

Since 2016’s narrow referendum victory for the Leave campaign, Labour has pandered to members of the tribe that helped the Eurosceptics win. Many traditional Labour voters, particularly in the north of England, voted Leave, and the party leadership has preferred, by and large, not to risk losing their support in future elections by arguing they were wrong on the European question. And, beyond that, is the reality that – despite his claim to be a Remainer – Corbyn remains deeply sceptical about the EU.

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A poll made public last week says that Labour is now in the wrong tribe.

The TSSA transport union leaked a report – based on a survey of 5,125 voters – which shows that the official opposition stands to lose votes in every part of the UK if it fails to take an anti-Brexit position.

The poll – which was sent to members of the Corbyn-supporting Momentum group, a number of Commons frontbenchers including shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and the party in Scotland – suggests that Labour could lose an additional 45 seats in a snap election if it continues to support any form of Brexit.

The subject of EU membership, states the report, disproportionately energises Labour Remain voters. These are people who – like my chum in London – didn’t want a constitutional battle. But now they are more tribal than those who did.

Should Labour continue in its role as a Brexit enabler, it stands to lose, in particular, the support of those under 35. This, according to the report, would make the impact of Brexit support comparable to that felt by the Liberal Democrats over its involvement with the Tories in the UK coalition government from 2010-15. Failure to oppose Brexit will, suggests the report, be more damaging to the Labour Party’s electoral prospects than the Iraq war.

And not only has Brexit created a large and angry cabal of Labour voters who believe the party’s handling of it to be a mistake, it has – in Scotland – encouraged some to consider shifting their allegiances. The poll for the TSSA shows that a Brexit-enabling Labour Party would lose five of its seven MPs in a snap election. These voters would not, I daresay, go to the Tories, Rather, they would find a new home in the SNP tribe.

Scottish Labour has been desperately weak under the leadership of Richard Leonard. After years during which it fought allegations that it was little more than a branch office of UK Labour, the party in Scotland is exposed as just that. Leonard – slavishly loyal to Corbyn – has made no attempt to give his party a uniquely Scottish identity. He prefers to adhere to the creed of the Corbyn tribe, even when it is clear that Scottish voters respond to a message – whether from the SNP or Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories – that says politicians recognise their unique priorities.

It seems a very long time since politics was dominated by big questions across a range of policy areas. Now, it’s about which tribe we belong to. We may not like this but we have no choice.

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Splits in the Tory Party over Europe, the threat of electoral losses for Labour if it doesn’t change its Brexit position, and the SNP in an electoral stand-off with the majority of Scots, surely show the tribalism that now defines our debate is a barrier to progress on the issues – poverty, unemployment, a growing housing crisis – that should be the priority of all who would lead us.

If you disagree, I reckon you’re in the wrong tribe.