As Labour digests its election defeat, it is right to take time to reflect and to analyse. Sadly, some are already trying to play a blame game and point the finger at our Brexit policy, perhaps to avoid other factors being blamed. Some claim we should have supported Brexit and not even offered to allow the public a say on the outcome. They are wrong.
Public opinion in general, and Labour voters in particular, did not – as many had expected – rally behind the result of the 2016 referendum. On the contrary, and to some surprise, overall opinion actually edged the other way. Every opinion poll bar one this year showed a majority would vote to Remain in a new referendum. In the general election, some 53% voted for parties promising to hold a new referendum, while Boris Johnson got 43% for the Conservatives – only 1% more than Theresa May did in 2017. Johnson claiming a “mandate” for his (particularly bad) Brexit deal on the back of that is tenuous indeed.
It is telling that this shift of opinion against Brexit took place despite Labour not doing very much to drive it. For a long time, Labour said it would “respect” the result of the 2016 referendum, even when the industrial scale of the lies told by Johnson’s Leave campaign – and its law breaking – became apparent. Labour belatedly, after huge losses to the Greens and the Lib Dems in the European elections, said it would back a second referendum but without explicitly committing to campaigning for Remain. Imagine if, instead, all of our leading figures had been continuously making the case that Brexit was turning out to be a disaster, wrecking our economy, destroying jobs, threatening our rights and our security – opinion would have shifted still further against Brexit. And Labour would have been leading that charge, not shedding crucial votes to the other opposition parties.
Some argue that we had to take an ambiguous position in order not to lose Leave voters. Well, ambiguity doesn’t seem to have helped! And let us remember that the one-third of Labour voters supporting Brexit at the time of the referendum has, in the intervening three and a half years, shrunk, as Brexit became increasingly seen as a Tory mess. Of the perhaps 20% of Labour voters who still prefer Brexit, not all rate this issue as more important than other issues, and would not desert Labour for this reason alone. So we are talking here about some ten percent, albeit unevenly distributed, of previous Labour voters who were willing to go so far as to not vote for us.
In a forlorn attempt to placate them, we lost far more Remainers – even losing a smaller percentage of a higher number means losing more votes in absolute terms. That’s why the Lib Dems and the Greens went up (they should have gone down!) by over 5% – far more than the Tory rise of 1% – mostly at Labour’s expense, as they attacked us for being too weak in opposing Brexit. We’d have done better to keep those votes and work harder at persuading the Leavers. Had we made the case week in, week out, instead of hiding from it or mouthing that we’d take a position after the election once we’d got a new deal, the number of Labour Leavers would have shrunk still further and we would also have retained more Remainers.
Nor should we fall for the facile stereotypes that are bandied about, such as the claim that working class voters are overwhelmingly pro-Brexit or that it is a north-south division. In the 2016 referendum, most working class people in work voted Remain, while most working class voters not in work, mostly retired, voted Leave – a more subtle division than portrayed. And as for the north, it had much the same division between cities and small towns as the south (Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, York, Newcastle all voted Remain) and the most northern part of the UK – Scotland, where a Labour comeback is desperately needed – was overwhelmingly Remain.
But above all we were right to offer a second referendum, not as an electoral tactic, but because it was the right thing to do. Brexit is turning out to be so different from what was promised in 2016 by Johnson’s Leave campaign, and so damaging for Britain. Its effects would certainly make the implementation of any progressive programme such as Labour’s domestic manifesto, more difficult. It is in the national interest – and the interest of working people in particular – to oppose it. To have backed away from offering a public vote would have been plain wrong and made us look unprincipled.
Now we’re facing Brexit at the end of next month that will not turn out to be a popular success. Quite apart from the difficulties facing Johnson in attempting to negotiate new trade deals, there are now real risks of an eventual breakup of the UK as Scotland goes for independence, of conflict reappearing in Northern Ireland, of a geo-political and economic alignment with Trump’s USA, a trajectory of decline for public services, a weakening of workplace rights, and a damaged political system that rewards a populist leader telling blatant lies. Now is not the time to back Boris on Brexit.