Labour has rediscovered its radical vision. Recently, Momentum declared it would be supporting bold policies at this year’s Labour Party conference, including a ‘green new deal’ that would see Britain go zero carbon by 2030, the abolition of all migrant detention centres and the introduction of a four-day working week. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to extend Labour’s plan for a higher living wage of £10/hr to workers under the age of 18, and committed to installing solar panels on 1.75 million homes, creating tens of thousands of jobs, cutting fuel costs in the communities that need it most, and fighting the climate emergency. Linking social and climate justice is exactly the right way to enthuse the millions of people Labour needs – young, working class, diverse – to win the next general election.
But as we found on the doorstep in the European election campaign, these policies will barely get a look-in unless our Brexit policy is made crystal clear. Labour must not be dragged kicking and screaming. It should show leadership and be clear and positive about the only credible course of action left – campaigning to oppose Brexit and remain in the European Union.
Labour was always going to be in a difficult situation, juggling Leave constituencies and its Remain voter base. The way we handle these issues is crucial – reluctant acceptance of a final say on Brexit will not be much better than the convoluted conference policy. Talking voters through the chronology of the policy took several minutes. They wanted clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to straight-forward questions such as ‘are you in favour of a referendum?’ and ‘are you for Leave or Remain?’. It is right to bring people together in the party, but members and voters alike need leadership. Those answers can only be ‘yes’ to a final say, and fighting to stay in Europe – no Brexit deal will make the working classes better off.
‘Strategic ambiguity’ worked in 2017, though mainly because the extremity of Theresa May’s Brexit led to an anti-Tory wave of voting across the country from hardcore Remainers. Of course Jeremy Corbyn ran a great campaign and Theresa May squandered her election opportunity, but the importance of tactical voting was dismissed at the time by most commentators. The strategy has long run its course.
Many on the left have been saying this for a while now, but the debate has been well and truly settled by the hugely disappointing (though expected) European election results. Many members of the shadow cabinet are now being more vocal: briefings from my organisation Best for Britain, as well as HOPE not Hate and TSSA, warned starkly that Labour’s voters are overwhelmingly Remain, and the party would suffer significant losses unless it backed a clear policy to stay in. It took a real life hammering in the European elections for many to realise the data wasn’t telling a lie.
The shift by the Labour leadership this week offers real cause for optimism. Emily Thornberry has said explicitly that Labour should campaign to remain in the EU, while John McDonnell and Diane Abbott have also made much clearer statements in recent days than they have previously.
However, this is still not enough. Labour has been misinterpreted as being a pro-Brexit Party, meaning other policies weren’t heard, and at the European election votes were leaked unnecessarily to the Greens and Lib Dems for this very reason. Polling has consistently shown that for every one Leave voter Labour loses, it loses three Remainers. Meanwhile, in the run-up to the vote, polling suggested that Labour would have topped the polls if it had a clear pro-public vote line, jumping from 14% to 36%.
Although European elections have always been seen as an opportunity to register a protest vote or opt for a smaller party, or not vote at all, there is no getting away from the fact that these results were a severe blow. This, in addition to the prospect of a new hard Brexiteer Prime Minister chosen by Tory members, all points to the need not just to be in favour of a public vote and then support remain, but to begin the campaign to remain and reform right now.
As a candidate in Yorkshire and the Humber, I saw first-hand the problems voters and Labour members had with our Brexit policy. At our Sheffield campaign launch, many party activists who spoke from the floor expressed concern with the way the party has handled Brexit. Many voters on the doorstep told me that they wanted to vote for Labour, but felt they couldn’t as long as they weren’t 100% clear we would end up on the right side on the biggest political issue of the day. Both Labour’s activists, who need to be on-side for Labour to campaign and win, and voters melted away in places like Sheffield and York.
As a party, Labour now has the opportunity to reflect on the election campaign and act quickly to solidify the apparent changes in policy of recent days. In tandem, Labour should lead a national conversation with people in its own heartlands, asking both Leave and Remain voters how they want to rebuild Britain – issues of workers’ rights, the environment and education, but also addressing how people can be brought into the decision-making process so that they have more say over their everyday lives.
It is not enough to only shift on Brexit – Labour must demonstrate leadership in tackling the root causes of Brexit too – but it is a first crucial step, after which we will have permission to talk about our broader domestic agenda. Being crystal clear on Brexit means the party can bring its radical policies to the country confidently. The clock is ticking down to the October 31st deadline: with just four months to go, it’s time to crack on and lead the anti-Brexit fight. The futures of our country and party depend on it.
Love Socialism Hate Brexit is a group of radical and socialist Labour MPs and supporters fighting to stop Brexit. We will be writing a column for LabourList every week until the Brexit crisis is over. You can find out more about us here, and follow us on Twitter here.