Why Labour was right to offer a fresh EU referendum in the 2019 election

Richard Corbett
© European Parliament

There have been many attempts to explain why Labour did so badly in the general election in December. Some are genuine, actually looking at the data, but others seem to be mere affirmations of previous – often strongly held – views. This is more photoshop than reflection; seeing what you want to see to fit your view, rather than looking in a mirror and accepting that there are wrinkles, spots and grey hairs, even if you’d rather there were not.

Some claim that Labour should have supported the Tory Brexit presented by Boris Johnson and not have even offered to allow the public a say on the actual outcome. They are wrong. Faced not just with Brexit, but a particularly damaging Theresa May/Boris Johnson deal, we were right to insist that something so different from what was promised should go back to the people to be endorsed or rejected, even if we had formed a government and been able to attenuate it. Where we fell short was on the complexity of how we would get to the referendum, and the perceived ambiguity about how we would campaign in it.

The background was that public opinion in general, and Labour supporters in particular, had not – as many had expected – rallied behind the result of the 2016 referendum. On the contrary, and to the surprise of some, overall opinion actually edged the other way. Every opinion poll bar one in 2019 showed a majority would vote to Remain in a new referendum. In the general election, some 53% voted for parties demanding a new referendum, so it was far from being an unpopular position. Johnson, meanwhile, got 43% for the Conservatives – only one percentage point more than Theresa May did in 2017.

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. Belatedly, after huge losses to the Greens and the Lib Dems in the European elections, Labour policy shifted to backing a second referendum but without explicitly committing to campaigning for Remain.

If, instead, we had continuously and vociferously made the case that Brexit would turn out to be a disaster, wrecking our economy, destroying jobs, threatening our rights and our security, then opinion would have shifted further still against Brexit. And Labour would have been leading that charge, not shedding crucial votes to the other opposition parties.

Some in the party argued that we had to take an ambiguous position in order not to lose Leave voters. That ambiguity doesn’t seem to have helped. And let us remember, the one-third of Labour voters supporting Brexit at the time of the referendum back in 2016 shrunk as Brexit became increasingly seen as a Tory mess. Even in Leave seats, most Labour voters were Remainers in all but a few cases. Of those Labour voters who still prefer Brexit, not all rated this issue as more important than other issues, and would not desert Labour for this reason alone. So we are talking here about perhaps less than a tenth of our 2017 Labour voters, albeit unevenly distributed, who were willing to go so far as to not vote for us because they support Brexit.

In a forlorn attempt to placate this shrinking minority of Labour Leavers, we lost far more Remainers. That’s why the Lib Dem, SNP and Green votes went up by over five percentage points – far more than the Tory rise of one percentage point, and mostly at Labour’s expense. They should have gone down. The other opposition parties attacked Labour 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 for Remain – week in, week out – before and during the election campaign, instead of hiding from it, the number of Labour Leavers would have shrunk still further and we would also have retained more Remainers.

Instead, party policy – based on a convoluted national executive committee statement adopted without debate, by a written a procedure that most NEC members didn’t respond to and endorsed the next day by conference – forced Labour activists into convoluted explanations on the doorstep; describing how we would take a position after the election once we had hopefully negotiated a new deal, which we may or may not campaign to support in a new referendum. It doesn’t require a communications expert to know that this was a far less effective message than Johnson’s blunt – if disingenuous – ‘get Brexit done’, or the LibDem/Green/SNP/Plaid ‘stop Brexit’.

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 divide. In the 2016 referendum, most working-class people in work voted Remain. Conversely, most working-class voters not in work, mainly retirees, voted Leave – a much more subtle division than portrayed in the majority of London-centric media debates. And, as for the north of England, it had much the same division between cities and small towns as the south – Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, York, Newcastle all voted Remain. Several ‘red wall’ seats were lost to the Tories by margins smaller than the number of votes we lost to the LibDems and Greens. And the most northern part of the UK, Scotland – where a Labour comeback is desperately needed – was overwhelmingly Remain. Simple generalisations don’t work in analysing this.

Labour was right to offer a second referendum – not simply 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 will be damaging for Britain. Its effects would certainly make the implementation of any progressive programme, such as Labour’s domestic manifesto, more difficult. It was in the national interest – and the interest of working people in particular – to oppose Johnson’s Brexit. To have backed away from offering a public vote would have been plain wrong and made us look unprincipled.

The election was lost for many reasons, with ambiguity in our Brexit position being just one of them, and not the most important one. But in any case, the result is that with just 43% of the vote, 29% of the electorate, Johnson now has 100% of the power, having also eliminated his internal Tory critics. Yet his claims of a ‘mandate’ for his Brexit deal on the back of that is tenuous indeed. Especially as he is taking it further and claiming a mandate for a very hard Brexit.

There are now very real risks of a geo-political and economic alignment with Donald Trump’s USA, an eventual breakup of the UK if Scotland goes for independence, and of conflict reappearing in Northern Ireland. The British people are looking at a trajectory of decline in public services, a weakening of workplace rights, and a damaged political system that rewards a populist leader telling blatant lies. Millions of voters will be at the front line as jobs are lost and services suffer under this Tory Brexit. They needed a Labour Party, and government, that was prepared to vigorously make the case for remaining a member of the EU. We let them down.

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