Brexit vote ‘burst the dam’ of loyalty for lifelong Labour voters, says Green

7 Jun

Last year’s Brexit vote “burst the dam” and overwhelmed traditional party loyalties in Labour’s north of England heartlands, says the work and pensions secretary, Damian Green.

In an upbeat interview as Britain prepares to go to the polls, Green said the Conservatives were on course to snatch seats from Labour across the north of England, despite their narrowing lead in some opinion polls.

Green also said Tory canvassers were deliberately raising Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as an issue on doorsteps.

“I was in four north-eastern seats yesterday, and it looks quite good for us,” Green said. “I think in the north east, with Brexit, a dam has burst, and people are questioning what they’ve done all their lives,” he said.

“[For] people who voted for Brexit and people who voted for Ukip in 2015 – that appears to have been an act that broke their lifelong Labour loyalty. There is a lot of: ‘My dad would kill me if he heard me saying this, but I’m going to vote Tory’. You hear that a lot in the north east, and indeed parts of the north west – up in Cumbria as well it’s the same sort of thing.”

The prime minister has repeatedly visited marginal Labour seats in the north of England, including Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland in County Durham, and Halifax in West Yorkshire.

Some Conservative MPs complain that the botched launch of the party’s controversial social care policy has undermined their support. But Green, who has known Theresa May since the pair were at Oxford University together, says “it doesn’t feel like that”. He also says he never believed the early polls that pointed to a Tory landslide.

The former Lib Dem minister Ed Davey, centre, joins demonstrators at a protest against the Conservatives’ social care policy.

The former Lib Dem minister Ed Davey, centre, joins demonstrators at a protest against the Conservatives’ social care policy. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

“Twenty percent poll leads, or ratings up in 50% – anyone who’s looked at elections and poll ratings going back 50 years, no one ever gets that kind of result, not in a democratic system like ours, so I didn’t believe those.”

Jeremy Corbyn has impressed even critics in his own party with a tight, optimistic campaign, which will culminate on Wednesday with a series of mass rallies, from Glasgow to his home city of London.

However, Green said that the Labour leader was still a positive campaigning tool for May’s party troops. “If a Conservative canvasser is on a doorstep, the question you ask of a Labour voter is: ‘what do you think of Jeremy Corbyn?’. It’s not the first thing, because a lot of them are quite keen on Theresa May separately; but if they’re still wavering, you ask them what they think of Jeremy Corbyn; you ask them whether they think Jeremy Corbyn should be in charge of national security or the economy, and that sets the floodgates going.”

May’s manifesto contained few consumer giveaways, aside from the promise of a cap on domestic fuel bills, and some Tory candidates believe it has given them too few positive things to say on the doorstep.

The party has also faced pressure over its failure to say where the hastilyannounced cap on social care costs will fall, or how many pensioners will lose their winter fuel allowance.

Green admits the slim document is not “stuffed full of goodies”, but said voters would form a judgment based on their “general sense” of what the parties stood for. “The general public as a whole aren’t interested in details of policy. They get the general sense and they want the general sense of who you trust, and what you know about them.”

Labour’s manifesto promises a huge rise in public spending, the abolition of student tuition fees, and the renationalisation of Royal Mail and the railways.

Green says the manifestos present voters with their clearest choice for some time. “The big new factor is that objectively, this is the most leftwing offering since 1983, and people without any of the details get that perfectly. The phrase ‘magic money tree’ has cut through – that’s a phrase you get repeated back at you from the doorstep.”

He makes it clear that in the face of growing public concern about the impact of seven years of austerity, the Conservatives are relying on the familiar argument that Labour cannot be trusted with the public’s money.

“People are reasonably sceptical about all politicians, and politicians who come bearing unicorns and fairy cakes and say it’s all going to be great, and the only people who are going to pay for this are the big corporations and the rich – by and large, from my experience on the doorstep, people don’t buy that. If it was that easy, someone would do it already.”

May and Corbyn face voters on BBC’s Question Time

But Green is keen to highlight a manifesto policy in his remit that has received little attention: a tax break for companies that take on hard-to-reach members of staff. “We will say that if you’re an employer who takes on certain groups of people who have traditionally low rates of employment, you will get a holiday from paying employer national insurance contributions for a year.

“These are disabled people, veterans, people who are long-term unemployed, care-leavers, and ex-offenders,” he says. “The next great phase of spreading wealth in this country is going to be getting them into the labour market.

“One of the big philosophical differences between the left and the right in this country now, is about the attitude to work. I really strongly believe that if you want to relieve poverty in this country, I think you have to support people into work”.

Green said that the Conservatives’ controversial work capability assessment, which tests benefit recipients’ readiness to go back to work, would be reviewed.

May was confronted about the issue by a young, partially sighted woman who had faced the assessment during the BBC’s Question Time leaders’ special. “You have to have some kind of assessment – it was a good idea to introduce it – but it can be improved, absolutely, definitely,” Green said.

Asked why the party had not felt the need to make broad tax pledges, along the lines of David Cameron’s “tax lock” in 2015 that ruled out rises to income tax, national insurance or VAT, Green said: “Bidding wars at elections are unlikely to produce good governance afterwards, and so we haven’t indulged in a bidding war. We don’t want to.”

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