Richard Rawles argues that the internal battles raging again in the Labour Party over electoral calculations and the way forward are in danger of hiding a possible solution by over-simplifying our disagreements.
In many circles it seems to be the prevailing wisdom that the reason for Labour’s terrible General Election performance in 2019 was our commitment to hold a second referendum on Brexit. It certainly seems to have been a factor, since Labour lost seats particularly in parts of northern England in which majorities (sometimes substantial ones) had voted to leave the EU. Associated with this is a tendency to view Brexit as a kind of non-political phenomenon, something disconnected from our values, as if electoral advantage should have been our only approach to it. This is a big mistake.
There are several places where I’d like to pause and explain parts of those three sentences. First of all, it was our decision. Labour’s conference voted for this policy in September 2019 and very, very few argued against it at the time. The then leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, also adopted the policy. Among those who have complained about the tendency to suppose instead that this was something done to Corbyn rather than by him is Owen Jones, who had himself argued for a second referendum.
We should recognise that it was far from only in leave-supporting areas that we lost votes and seats. In few places is this more obvious than here in Scotland, where we lost six of our seven 2017 MPs to a party identified as pro-Remain — only the resolutely anti-Brexit Ian Murray survived. Finally, dismay at Brexit and the enthusiasm some felt for trying to stop it was not purely a tribal phenomenon but one motivated both by values and by the appalling situation of British politics in 2019.
In any case it is hard for most people to explain what shifts their vote. Some of us are committed to one party and hard to shift. For others a huge range of factors may affect not only for whom they vote but whether they vote at all. Still, it seems very difficult to deny that in many constituencies we lost because enough people who wanted to make sure that Brexit happened switched to other parties — and, while holding on to these constituencies wouldn’t have enabled us to win (we didn’t win in 2017, remember), it might have reduced the loss to a less catastrophic one.
As we know in Scotland, however, constitutional divisions that cut across party boundaries are very, very hard to deal with. If we lost by supporting a second referendum, it’s far from clear that we would have done better by supporting Brexit. We might well prefer that people vote on other matters, but sadly that isn’t always the case. The view that we’d have done better as a pro-Brexit party rests on the assumption that leavers were sufficiently motivated by Brexit issues for it to affect their vote, but remainers were not — but does anybody really want to defend this view? Polling data do not support the view that it was a bad idea for Labour to support a second referendum.
Above is Wikipedia’s amalgam of 2019 GE polls. It is very hard to look at this and say “September 2019 is where it all went wrong”. Before Labour voted to support a second referendum we were already in really deep trouble. Leavers were moving to the Brexit Party. Remainers were moving to the Lib Dems and Greens.
Party realignments under FPTP are rare: there has been one in UK (when Labour took over from the Liberals the role of main alternative to the Conservatives) and another in Scotland (the rise of the SNP). In 2019 it looked likely that we might see one of these rare realignments, and Labour correctly (i.e., correctly with a view to the electoral performance of the Labour Party!) acted to stop it. After we made that choice, the Labour vote went consistently up — just not enough. Even in electoral terms, Corbyn probably made the right call.
Could we have won in 2019? Perhaps not, for several reasons. One is in my view a general one: usually identitarian politics doesn’t favour the left. Other people can always do flags better. Another is that, much more than in 2017, we had a manifesto people found hard to believe. This is infuriating: who can deny now, after so many months of children desperately trying to keep up with school online (if they could at all) that free broadband was a good policy? Who can deny, now that the Tories have wasted so much money on a test and trace system outsourced to private companies that didn’t work while the vaccination system kept in house by the NHS has worked superbly, that we had the right ideas on the relationship between private and public provision in the NHS (and, I suggest, elsewhere)? And yet…
In 2017 we had a much more “moderate” or “triangulated” manifesto than in 2019, though a little bolder than in 2015; one which many on the left of the Labour Party would presumably have disliked if it had been fronted by anybody other than Corbyn. We put free university tuition ahead of early years provision (Angela Rayner is said to have objected to this push for the student and middle-class vote ahead of class interest — I’m inclined to agree — again, this is an area where Scottish experience could inform the UK party). Astonishingly, there was no commitment to increase benefits for households in most need. John McDonnell in particular made big efforts to demonstrate that our proposals were costed and achievable. We also had very little in the way of a rival in England — May’s Tories barely turned up. We still lost, but deprived the Tories of a majority they presumably thought was theirs by default.
In 2019 we threw everything into the basket, and people surely stopped believing that we could achieve what we promised (I don’t think I believed it — which isn’t to say that achieving half wouldn’t have been worth doing!) — and the Tories had a campaign. Was there a better way, as far as Brexit was concerned? Maybe, maybe not. But in a previous Labour conference, we had reached a different resolution.
Among many other goals in the motion passed by conference in 2018 was this: “Conference believes we need a relationship with the EU that guarantees full participation in the Single Market.” This might have been the basis for a more productive approach. Full participation in the Single Market might have been a hard sell — it meant continued Freedom of Movement (an integral part of the Single Market) and adherence to EU policy on a wide variety of regulations. But then again it would (accompanied by continued membership of a customs union with the EU — already Labour policy, give or take comical tensions over whether we should refer to “the” customs union or “a” customs union) have avoided the terrible difficulty of the Irish border. It would have hugely reduced the economic cost of Brexit, now being felt by workers in export industries, farmers, fishermen…
I think this conference resolution should have been taken seriously. It was a commitment to the same possible outcome that Kezia Dugdale among others unsuccessfully championed in Scotland. It might have helped us to keep more remainers and leavers on board without demanding a second referendum whatever the circumstances, as we ended up doing. It might have helped to prevent Brexit from becoming such a great opportunity for the SNP (even when they had done so little to campaign against it).
As things were there was never an attempt to make this the Labour line. Jeremy Corbyn promptly turned up on TV to say that he was keen to avoid EU state aid rules (perhaps for good reason — but this was incompatible with full participation in the Single Market). The “line to take” for Shadow Cabinet members was still “Freedom of Movement will end when we leave the EU” — even though, if Labour had negotiated a deal involving full participation in the Single Market, Freedom of Movement would necessarily (and rightly) have continued. 2018 conference policy was undermined from the start. As a result, Labour’s “damage limitation” Brexit was always vulnerable, uncertain and dubious.
It isn’t hard to see why this combination of lack of commitment to damage limitation and lack of will to oppose the nastiest aspect of Brexit, i.e. hostility to FoM (“no more Poles!”), led the Labour membership and the anti-Brexit part of our support base (which was the larger part) to lose trust in the likelihood that we had any serious plan to negotiate a relatively benign Brexit. Meanwhile the clock was ticking, employers had no idea what kind of trading arrangements were coming along the road, and no-deal threatened the possibility of Kent turning into a lorry-park as deadlocked as parliament was already.
People who (as Labour members tend to) care about parliamentary democracy had for some time been looking with horror at the combination of parliamentary determination not to let government railroad parliament, and parliamentary inability actually to find a way out of the impasse. These circumstances were the ones in which we decided that the only option was opposition to Brexit itself. This was for the Labour membership and, it seems reasonable to suggest, for a large proportion of our support, a question about more than parliamentary and electoral arithmetic: it was also a question of values.
Voters of course have many motivations: what I say about the campaign should not be taken as describing the values of “all leavers,” who were no more a community united in values than “all remainers” were. There are many things wrong with the EU and a few people opposed it on left grounds. However, the victory of 2016 was not theirs. It was the victory of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings: a victory for the populist, nativist right (in Johnson’s case, for amoral populist cynicism). The present government is effectively the Brexit Party. It’s scarcely surprising that it was hard even for a Labour leader who was popular among the membership and had a long history of euroscepticism to make Brexit something Labour wanted to support after the referendum was over.
Personally I had campaigned for Remain in 2016 and had looked on in horror as the Leave campaign lied ever more boldly and with ever more incendiary and vicious rhetoric of nativism and xenophobia. I was visiting a close friend in Berlin when I heard of the murder of Jo Cox — I’m not ashamed to say that I burst into tears. The tribute held for her in Trafalgar Square was “buzzed” by a plane trailing a “Vote Leave” banner. A few days later, the result was accompanied by a spike in hate crime. Friends of mine who had lived and worked in the UK for years suddenly found themselves abused for speaking in foreign languages in public. Their status and rights in the UK were then in abeyance for years on end. All the same, the idea that Labour had to accept the result is one I initially accepted, but the idea that we had to submit to the nastiest and most nativist aspects of Brexit and make of “Freedom of Movement will end when we leave the EU” the great Brexit shibboleth, even at the expense of having a coherent policy on the most important question in foreign and economic policy for years — that was harder to take.
The relaxed attitude to this situation from many who had previously been dismayed (rightly so, in my view) by “immigration mugs” and are now dismayed by Starmer’s willingness to talk vaguely about patriotism and be photographed with flags frankly rankled, and still rankles. I wasn’t surprised that many remainers were willing to shift away from us.
Clearly there are some parts of the country where support for Brexit was strong and we lost seats which we badly needed to keep. It would be ridiculous to pretend that Brexit was no part of the 2019 story: I think it was a big part. But it was only after we resolved to support a second referendum that the 2017 coalition started to come back together, even if not sufficiently to make a noticeable difference. As other anti-Tory parties gained at Labour’s expense in the summer of 2019, it was entirely reasonable to judge that the worst danger was of a 1983-style loss, as Labour faced the possibility of a fight for second and large numbers of voters deserted us in despair at our refusal to oppose this right-wing, xenophobic movement.
Was there a better way? Counterfactuals are always impossible. Maybe there was no way to hold together the kind of alliance that Labour needed to hold together, at least in the circumstances of that year. We needed and need and will need to continue listening to people on both sides of that national divide, and to accept that xenophobia was far from the only element in the Brexit vote. We shouldn’t conflate the horrific qualities of the campaign with the motivations of individual voters: it is not hard to imagine quite a lot of people hearing George Osborne describing the economic benefits of EU membership and dangers of Brexit and refusing to accept this from the man who had been grinding their communities’ economies into the ground for years.
I think sticking to our 2018 conference policy, and taking its literal meaning seriously, might have been our best choice. We might have been able to sell a policy of Brexit shorn of its more xenophobic aspects and with economic damage minimised, avoiding the appearance of saying “you voted for it but you can’t have it”. But this policy never really made it off the starting blocks in a form anybody could believe in or advocate other than by saying “trust Corbyn” — which many did not.
So, what should we do now? Well, Labour may well be right to learn from this sad story that Brexit should not have been opposed outright, at any rate so soon after the referendum, even if this was the least worst option by Autumn 2019. We may even have been right to decide that we had finally to accept that we could not be seen to vote for “no deal” and thus had to vote for Johnson’s disastrous agreement (I think this was a bad call). But it’s madness to decide that we will not even campaign for a better relationship with our neighbours than that deal gives us. As is becoming every day more apparent, what that deal represents is economic disaster, dangerous friction in Ireland, and exponential growth in the “red tape” that was supposed to be a problem of EU membership. We can’t expect the present Conservative Party to stand up for jobs or for peace and growth in Ireland against the hollow “sovereignty” of Johnson’s deal.
It may also be worth noting this: opponents of Keir Starmer’s leadership are often very vague (or silent) when asked to support their claims that he has abandoned the pledges he made in the leadership election. But he did pledge to defend free movement: and this pledge, in committing Labour not to make substantial changes to the present Brexit deal, is one he is breaking.
Whether or not the Labour Party might one day campaign for readmission to the EU (and now is probably not the moment to decide on where we would stand in hypothetical future circumstances), we should make it clear that we want and need a much better relationship with our neighbours than this. Such a relationship should be based on close co-operation and friendship and economic benefit rather than isolationism; it should reject the abandonment of these huge advantages in the name of stopping immigration and the freedom of our young people to make their lives elsewhere in Europe. It should also reduce divergence between UK and EU in a way that would facilitate trade, protect workers’ rights from a race to the bottom, and make a return to the EU easier — if that is what people ultimately choose.
We could call it “full participation in the single market” and start by trying to achieve that.