For Labour supporters living in Birmingham, there was at least a bit of good news as the otherwise depressing results of the European elections unfolded on Sunday night. Although Labour’s share vote in the city was down by 5.3%, this was better than the picture elsewhere in the West Midlands and across the country. Not only that, but we topped the poll, 24,598 votes ahead of the Brexit Party.
I’d like to have an off-the-cuff answer to why we did better in Birmingham than elsewhere – but I haven’t. What I can do is offer a few reflections on why it was generally such a bad night for Labour and what I think we need to do if we are going to turn things around.
To say that the European election results underlined how dangerously the country polarised is over Brexit is to state the obvious. In the face of such division, Labour’s central campaign message that we wanted to bring the country together was an important one. With abuse increasingly featuring as a commonplace way of expressing political disagreement on social media, and when the politics of hate have already resulted in the murder of one MP and in the planned murder of another, we are right to draw some clear lines in the sand about the way politics should be conducted and about the kind of behaviour that is incompatible with democracy. This message deserves more, not less, emphasis in the coming months and years.
But an appeal to heal divisions will not resonate if it appears to be a way of avoiding difficult issues or of not being straight with people. That was all too often the charge I heard levelled against Labour in recent weeks. And it has come from all sides. Committed Brexiteers were often convinced Labour has been trying to block Brexit but is pretending otherwise. Supporters of a second referendum lost patience with Labour’s apparent inability to give a straight answer about whether we agree or disagree with them. To people in both camps and to many in neither, our message appeared confused at best. All too often, they thought it bordered on the shifty.
That is a killer for any political party but it is particularly serious for one like ours. Jeremy Corbyn will never been everyone’s cup of tea but one thing that has helped him attract such a wide following amongst young people in recent years has been that he did not seem to confirm to the stereotype of the smooth-talking professional politician. Whether you agreed with him or not, he wore his political principles on his sleeve and he stuck to them, He was different. He was genuine. For him to become the standard-bearer of ambiguity over Brexit was serious indeed.
Clarity on Brexit is the first lesson we must learn, and to me that must start by committing to the future of Brexit being decided in a public vote. This will not be pain-free. Many Labour MPs, myself included, represent seats that voted Leave back in 2016. Many of them will do so again if there is another referendum and many are also angered by the suggestion that there should be another referendum before the result of the first is implemented. Those feelings of anger are understandable, particularly when those most vocally calling for a second referendum have made no bones about the fact that they see it as a way of stopping Brexit altogether.
The key arguments for another referendum, however, are not about whether you are for or against Brexit. None of us know what the result of any such referendum would be. Rather they are about practicality and principle. At a practical level, the reality is that decision-making parliament is gridlocked and likely to remain so. Something has to be done to break the gridlock and if parliament can’t do it for itself, where else can we go to do so other than back to the people?
The argument of principle rests on the recognition that, three years on from the last referendum, we are no longer dealing with theoretical arguments about what Brexit could look like in comparison to remaining in the EU. We now know what the options are and that the country remains deeply divided on them. Recognising those divisions, isn’t the democratic answer to let the people themselves choose between them, rather than pretending parliament can reasonably do so? Labour has been wrong in appearing to suggest that a referendum should be an option to be taken off the shelf to block a bad deal. Instead we should promote it as the most legitimate mechanism for the country to make a decisive choice about its future from the options available, however good or bad any deal on offer may be.
So we should be clear that guaranteeing the people of Britain the final say is a matter of democracy, not simply a means to an end. In being clear about this, however, we should not pretend that somehow we are either undecided or coy about our own position. Labour campaigned to remain in 2016 and as far as I know, none of us who backed remain then have changed our mind on the issue. As democrats, we were right to accept the result of the referendum and to urge the government to negotiate the kind of Brexit deal that would do least damage to our country and our economy. Their refusal to do so is part of the reason parliament is now in gridlock.
If breaking the gridlock now requires the issue to go back to the people, and we believe that leaving the EU is still a profound mistake for our country, then we should be prepared to say so. The people have the right to again disagree with us if that is the way the vote goes. But our credibility demands our putting own cards on the table now. Some people will agree with us. Others will disagree. But nobody should feel we are being other than straight with them.
The imperative to be transparently straight with people goes well beyond Brexit. The rise of Faragism in the UK – like that of Trump in the USA and of right-wing populist parties such as Lega in Italy – both rides on and exploits a disaffection with mainstream politics that is felt well beyond the traditional power bases of the far right. The impact of globalisation and, in particular, the decade-long aftermath of the 2008 crash have left millions across Europe and North America feeling left behind. In my own constituency, a large part of that disaffection has been bred by government austerity measures that have hit places like Birmingham hard and left people uncertain about the kind of future that awaits themselves and their children.
Not surprisingly, people are looking for answers and far-right populists are showing themselves skilful in creating a caricature world in which everything would be fine were it not for a conspiracy of political institutions determined to thwart the “will of the people” at every turn. It’s a world in which the patchwork of differing opinions and life experiences that make up public opinion is conveniently ignored in favour of a one-dimensional view of “the will of the people”, which the populists claim to uniquely embody. In a series of highly perceptive reports recently, Sky News political correspondent Lewis Goodall has charted the way Nigel Farage has learned from Donald Trump’s methods in the USA and how to promote this brand of populism here in the UK. The totalitarian overtones are scary and they are real.
The challenges facing Labour and progressive politics as a whole are multiple and profound. We need to rediscover our insurgency – re-energising a politics that provides a convincing alternative to the simplistic blame-games of the populist right. A politics that addresses the challenges of the future – from economic justice to climate change – with both determination and optimism. It is a politics that must be firmly rooted in local communities, both geographically and in the communities of interest that the digital age has forged. And it is one in which we must show that, by saying what we mean and meaning what we say, politics does not have to revolve around abuse and mistrust of others. Instead politics can show how, in the words of Jo Cox, as a society we really do have more in common than divides us.