Labour has done an admirable job of not letting Brexit force an unnecessary division between its Leave and Remain supporters. Brexit cannot be dismissed as an unimportant issue given its potential impact on the economy (and therefore on jobs and public spending) and the fact that many social justice issues are inextricably linked to legislation passed by MEPs in the European parliament. Nevertheless, it remains true that Labour voters and communities are united by a deeper bond and a solidarity that comes from recognising that our interests are best met when we work together, campaign together and get into government together. Labour voters and communities are Labour first, and Leave or Remain second.
Despite that, it is not always easy as campaigners to find the words to say to both Leave and Remain voters on the same canvassing session. Labour has by far the best Brexit policy, and the only one to offer the same respect and fairness to both sides, but for obvious reasons a second referendum is an easier sell to Remain voters than Leavers.
Labour Leavers could be key to winning this election. They are pulled in two directions – attracted by Boris Johnson’s “get Brexit Done” slogan but also aware that the Tories have never represented or worked for their interests. As we approach polling day, it’s more important than ever that we know what to say on the doorstep to help people to realise that Johnson’s Brexit would harm not help, that the Tories’ are lying about their offers of more police, nurses and hospitals. And even if they mean to keep their word, the economic impact of their Brexit deal would make it impossible for any government to invest.
According to the last YouGov MRP poll, 25% of Labour Leavers are planning to switch directly to the Tories. In some seats, that could be the difference between a Labour and a Tory win. In the last days of the campaign, it is vital that we persuade as many of these voters as possible to return to Labour. This is not an impossible task – the people we are targeting voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in 2017, after all. It is worth remembering that most of those who are very unhappy about issues such as immigration stopped voting for Labour before 2017; the voters that cast their vote for Labour the last general election tended to be more moderate. Labour Leavers are also the most likely group to have changed their minds about Brexit, with about 20% now backing Remain.
Overall, Labour Leavers are less likely than Remainers to cite Brexit as the most important issue influencing their vote. But for a significant minority – and particularly for those prepared to switch their votes – Brexit is very important. Labour must be able to deliver a convincing message to them, rather than simply avoid the subject.
On the economy, Labour Leavers look very much like Labour Remainers. They are likely to agree, for example, that “government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off” and “ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth”. On social issues, gaps start to emerge. Labour Leavers are more likely than Remainers to support longer sentences for criminals and to believe that young people do not respect British values.
But even more importantly we have to acknowledge that those Leavers who still want to leave the EU genuinely believe that things will get better after Brexit, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Nearly half believe that that the NHS, international trade and the economy will get better as a result of leaving (most of the rest think it will make no difference). 31% believe that workers rights will improve, 63% think they will stay the same and only 6% think they will get worse.
Yet nearly all independent analysis has concluded that the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Boris Johnson will have a negative impact on trade, the economy, the NHS and workers rights – in other words, on many of the areas which Labour Leavers care about. It is entirely unsurprising that a deal negotiated by a hard right government, would seek to re-cast Britain as a low-wage, low-tax economy with little investment in public services.
The Tory deal would not even fulfil their basic promise to “get Brexit done”. We would hit a new no deal cliff edge in December 2020. Negotiations with the EU would take a decade – and that’s before we start negotiations with the US, Japan, Canada and the rest of the world. Brexit would never be done.
A Labour deal, however, would preserve workers’ rights, and continue a close trading relationship with Europe, thereby protecting jobs and trade. American demands to lower food standards or pay higher prices for essential drugs would be rejected.
The beauty of Labour’s approach is that unlike the Liberal Democrats’ “revoke” policy, it does not tell Leave voters that they were “wrong” or “stupid” to vote for Brexit. A Labour government would hold a referendum in which everyone would be free to change their minds, or to stick with their original judgement. But it would ensure that if the public did decide to leave then Brexit would deliver the kind of outcomes that Labour Leavers envisaged when they cast their votes in 2016, and not the Thatcherism-on-steroids promoted by Boris, Jacob Rees-Mogg and their wealthy backers in finance and big business.
Labour’s Brexit policy has been characterised as complex and unworkable – it is neither. Part of the problem is that we have shied away from talking about the policy ourselves and let our approach be defined by our opponents. In the last days of the campaign the party needs to make it clear to Labour Leavers that our policy respects their right to support Brexit, but ensures that if the will of the people is still to leave the EU then it will be done in a way that preserves the values they care about.
From our research, the most important things to say to Labour Leavers are:
- Unlike the Lib Dems, Labour does not believe that Leave voters were “stupid” or “wrong” to want to leave the EU in 2016.
- Unlike the Tories, Labour will negotiate a deal that will protect ordinary people, rather than benefit tax-dodging global corporations and American drugs companies.
- Labour’s policy on Brexit is straightforward and will lead to a resolution within months. Tory policy will result in a new crisis over no deal in the short-term, and years of negotiation with the EU afterwards.
- This will distract from the real problems that the UK faces, which have been completely neglected by the Tories over the last nine years.
We have days left to win votes and seats. Let’s use the time to win back voters tempted by the Tories, and win the Labour government that the country so desperately needs.