Everybody knew the referendum would involve some degree of trouble for the Conservative Party. Indeed, by the time scores of MPs pledged to vote against George Osborne’s ‘punishment budget’ last week, it was clear that either outcome would at minimum produce new tensions within the slim parliamentary majority.
Today’s events have of course more than borne out those Tory fears – we’re losing our leader. However, the end result for Labour could be even more severe – they could lose a large chunk of their core vote.
Going into the referendum, the Opposition was already riven with in-fighting. Momentum and the Corbynites were militantly dedicated to preserving the authority of their man. Assorted Labour moderates, Blairites and relatively sensible MPs, fearful for the future, were desperately searching for a way back from the brink. Many decent, traditional Labour voters were worried by a newly hard left leader, and finding it hard to vote for anyone who seemed reluctant to condemn terrorists.
All those issues still exist, but new problems have been added into the mix. Yesterday, millions of people whom Labour assumed were obediently, tribally loyal took the opportunity to disregard orders and instead voted Leave.
That’s a terrifying prospect for Labour MPs, raising nightmarish memories of what happened in Scotland. After years of taking such voters for granted, there is plenty of disillusionment in supposedly safe Labour seats – masked only by some residual loyalty and the reluctance of many to vote Conservative or UKIP.
Just as in Scotland, the EU referendum cranked wide open that can of worms by offering what Nigel Farage called “a free hit”: if you disagreed with Labour, the referendum gave you a chance to express that view without having to actively choose to elect a non-Labour candidate. Plenty of people grasped the opportunity.
The aftermath in Scotland shows the potential price to Labour of that EU “free hit” – once voters break with their traditional party on one thing, suddenly the remaining ties that bind feel remarkably flimsy. It’s easier to defy that party again in future – and while you may not have intended to endorse another party or politician when you voted in the referendum, you have at least persuaded yourself that it’s ok to vote alongside them.
In Scotland, the SNP was there to snap up these newly available voters – and it succeeded in doing so, even as Labour focused a great deal of resources on trying to hold onto them. Today’s Opposition is in a weaker position – with its attention already torn between satisfying Momentum and seeing off the moderates, Corbyn’s less-than-capable team will struggle to find an effective way to win back these Labour Leave voters. If UKIP or another competitor make a well-targeted pitch, suddenly Labour’s urban and post-industrial seats outside London could start looking like Glasgow.
In short, things are only going to get worse. And – oh, look: Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey have launched a motion of no confidence in their leader.