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Labour losing its voter base

Abigail Frymann Rouch UK
May 13, 2017

Theresa May says Britain needs strong leadership in the Brexit negotiations - a message resonating strongly with many Labour voters. Abigail Frymann Rouch traveled to various parts of the UK to examine Labour's malaise.

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Image: DW/A. Frymann Rouch

When Theresa May, leader of the Conservatives, called a snap general election for June 8 she argued that the decision facing the UK would be crucial ahead of the Brexit negotiations.

"It will be a choice between strong and stable leadership in the national interest, with me as your Prime Minister, or weak and unstable coalition government, led by Jeremy Corbyn, propped up by the Liberal Democrats … and the SNP [Scottish National Party]," she said.

Read: Conservatives see strong support in UK ahead of snap election

The Lib Dems have consistently argued for Britain remaining in the EU, and have promised voters a second referendum on any deal that is negotiated. UKIP, which led the charge on Brexit, is campaigning to ensure Britain fully leaves the EU as well as to cut foreign aid and ban full-face veils, but their supporters are expected to return to the Conservatives given that May is pledging the "hard Brexit" the party wants.

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is struggling to win back disillusioned Labour votersImage: Getty Images/A. Devlin

However, the Conservatives' main rival, Labour, initially tried to focus on issues such as housing and the National Health Service. Launching its campaign earlier this week, leader Jeremy Corbyn said that "This election isn't about Brexit itself. That issue has been settled. The question now is what sort of Brexit do we want - and what sort of country do we want Britain to be after Brexit? Labour wants a jobs-first Brexit …" Their manifesto says a Labour government would not leave the EU without a deal, and includes plans to re-nationalize the railways and Royal Mail.

Damage control

Many see this a form of damage control because if the election is all about Brexit, then in some traditional Labour heartlands, the party stands to lose some life-long supporters who voted to leave the EU and associate a "hard Brexit" with the Tories or UKIP and could join the recent exodus over issues such as immigration.

British working class feels left behind

Last week the West Midlands, a traditional Labour stronghold and former industrial region, elected as its first "metro mayor" a Conservative, Andy Street. In these local elections, seen as a bellwether of next month's national election, voters deserted UKIP, the Tories gained more than 550 council seats, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats failed to increase their shares of the vote. 

Read: Conservatives gain in UK local elections ahead of June parliamentary poll

In the West Midlands former steel town of Bilston, there was a discernible, though not unanimous, swing from Labour to the Conservatives.

Donald*, who is retired, said: "I was brought up Labour but they've gone to the wall. Jeremy Corbyn's lost the plot." Another retired voter, Charlie*, told DW he had previously voted Labour but that May was "the best option for the Brexit talks."

That sentiment was echoed up the road in the city of Wolverhampton. "I don't think I've voted Tory before, but I don't like Jeremy Corbyn … Theresa May's honest," Sandra* told DW.

But just as some voters were turned off by Corbyn, others said May's policies were equally unappealing. Keiran*, manning a fudge stall in Wolverhampton market, said she was just as divisive as one of her predecessors. "I'll vote to keep Thatcher out." David*, a landscape gardener, said May was simply "too dogmatic. She's rubbing everyone up the wrong way."  

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Many voters are trying to figure out who is the lesser of two evilsImage: DW/A. Frymann Rouch

Why vote?

One problem common to all parties is voter apathy. About one-third of the people DW spoke to said voting was "pointless" because politicians were "all liars," while one-quarter said they never voted. Doug Loveridge, an organ-grinder collecting money for British elderly people ("not for snow leopards or wonky donkeys"), said he made an exception when he took part in last June's referendum to vote leave, concerned at immigration levels.

Another challenge of this election is the disconnect between MPs and constituents who voted in opposite directions on Brexit. Vauxhall in south London is part of the liberal and ethnically diverse borough that voted most strongly to remain - 79 percent against 21 percent - but their MP of 28 years, Kate Hoey, is chairwoman of Labour Leave. 

Pat McFadden, Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East, voted to remain in the EU and is facing the disconnect from the other way: his majority is threatened by constituents' desire for a "hard Brexit." He told DW that he would fight for "the best possible deal for the country" but conceded that the issue of Corbyn's leadership "does come up frequently on the doorstep." 

Read: Opinion: The wrong man at the wrong time

Assuming Theresa May gains the "unity here in Westminster" that she hopes for, observers say that it now falls to her rivals to re-position themselves and their supporters to ensure the vision for a post-Brexit Britain is not the work of one single party.

*declined to give their full names.

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