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The inside story of Labour Leave: the left-wing Eurosceptics who toppled a Tory prime minister

For years, they were ideological misfits. Then the left-wing Leavers found themselves speaking to crowds of thousands.

On 20 June 2016, three days before the EU referendum vote, Brendan Chilton entered the Sage Theatre in Gateshead. It was a tricky time. Four days earlier, the Labour MP and Remain supporter Jo Cox had been murdered in her constituency by a white supremacist. Some had blamed the Leave campaign for the charged atmosphere in which such sentiments could flourish. The organisation Chilton helped run, Labour Leave, suspended campaigning as soon as it heard, and had only just started again.

In the theatre, every seat was full. The cross-party series of rallies featured Brexiteers like Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, and the Conservative David Davis. But it was to Chilton – as well as the Labour MP Kate Hoey, and the Labour donor John Mills – that the assembled Brexiteers turned. 

“They all said this is a Labour audience,” Chilton remembers. “You lot have got to do it.”

The night would stick in his mind for months to come. “We’d done thousands of miles up and down the country, and it was the culmination of it all,” he says. “To be in a Labour audience, in a Labour city, and to see Labour people – with Labour Leave banners and posters in the audience – and [know] they wanted out.”

Mills and Chilton set up Labour Leave as an independent entity in the run-up to the EU referendum. Within two months, they had 140,000 supporters and raised nearly half a million pounds. On 23 June 2016, 37 per cent of Labour voters disregarded their party's support for the EU and voted Leave.

In the next few weeks, as Britain’s political establishment was thrown into chaos, cameras surrounded first Nigel Farage and later the new Prime Minister, the Brexit convert Theresa May. Meanwhile, Labour MPs tried to oust their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, on the grounds that his lacklustre campaigning had let down Remain.

It was quickly forgotten that the Leave campaign had successfully harnessed left-wing Euroscepticism. But over the past year, Labour Leave has added another 100,000 supporters to its fold. Many of them are torn between voting for the party they perceive to be strongest on Brexit, and the one that represents their left-wing values.

This is the story of Labour Leave, a campaign that came from nowhere to help bring a prime minister crashing down.

Profiles based on interviews with supporters of the Labour Leave Facebook page

Labour Leave set up camp in two offices – one on Millbank, by the Thames, a short walk from parliament, and the other in Mills’s basement study at his house in Camden, north London. When I meet Mills and Chilton there, in spring 2017, the study is clean and quiet, with cream curtains and a wall of books on white shelves. But a year earlier, it was crowded with boxes and leaflets and the sound of ringing phones.

Mills and Chilton would be joined by a small band of Labour MPs. As well as Hoey, the main speakers were Kelvin Hopkins and Graham Stringer. A former MP, Nigel Griffiths, headed up the operation in Scotland. In early 2016, a freelance journalist, Oliver Huitson, took over the social media campaign.

“Because we were a small band of people there was a good camaraderie throughout it all,” says Chilton. “The regular disasters and cock-ups, it was great fun.” At one point, the team distributed 750,000 leaflets with Chilton’s personal phone number on them by mistake. “They called,” he remembers.

From the London HQ, the group sent its main speakers to rallies across the country, and marked their whereabouts on a map on the wall. At least one person was out, every night of the week. One night, the office was empty.

“It was rather like one of those nights you read about in the history books,” Chilton says. “Bomber Command looked and every plane was up and there was nothing left. We really were in huge demand.”

John Mills (left) and Brendan Chilton (right), Labour Leave campaigners. Image: Getty

Between September 2015 and January 2016, when Labour Leave was still part of the official campaign, it sent speakers to 148 meetings around the country. “It was ridiculous,” he reflects. “I don’t know how we did it, but we did.”

Eurosceptics in Labour had long been relegated to the margins. But as Mills began campaigning, he realised they were tapping in to a new political energy. At one meeting of accountants in the commuter town of Reading, just outside the Remain stronghold of London, he found 70 per cent backed Leave. When he visited coastal and northern towns, the proportion grew.

Thousands turned up to pro-Brexit meetings. “It was a tragedy, really,” he says. “You would see these ex-Labour voters in the audience.”

When the speakers arrived at the debates, they were often confronted by fellow Labour members who backed Remain. At one meeting in Greenwich, London, the Labour Leave speaker was almost ejected from the platform.

Brexiteers from Ukip and the Conservatives, on the other hand, welcomed them. Chilton and Hoey were invited to speak at the first cross-party rally, in the Northamptonshire town of Kettering. As they sat on the train, nervousness kicked in.

“This is it,” Chilton said to Hoey. “We’re going to meet the Kippers and the Tories and everyone else. What the bloody hell are we doing?”

Chilton, to his surprise, found he liked Farage, David Davis and other right-wing Brexiteers. “They were perfectly nice, charming, lovely people,” he says. “The horns on their heads were not real.”

Labour Leave had a policy of not sharing platforms with racists, and on Facebook Huitson deliberately avoided focusing on immigration. But Farage also infamously stood in front of a poster depicting a long line of refugees with the headline “Breaking Point”.

Mills insists that the number of bigots he came across was “very low”. He cites a Lord Ashcroft poll which found that while half of Leave voters cared most about sovereignty, immigration was the biggest issue for just a third.

“I’d say 90 per cent of the stuff that came out of Nigel Farage’s mouth and David Davis’s mouth could have come out of Tony Benn’s mouth,” says Chilton. Those left-wing Leave voters who brought up immigration tended to be worried about wage growth, or pressure on public services.

I put it to them that leaving the EU is unlikely to solve either of these problems, in the way that, say, another minimum wage hike or an end to austerity would.

“In terms of austerity, the key thing was that people had suffered the cuts to health and all the rest of it over a long period of time, and so there was a kind of ‘what have we got to lose?’ mentality,” Chilton says. He recalls “a feeling of hopelessness” after even the biggest rallies.

“The Remain side, one of their fundamental mistakes was to say how wonderful everything was if we stay in and how awful it would be if we leave,” he says. “People didn’t feel everything was wonderful at the moment, they felt it was pretty awful, actually.”

Chilton argues that Labour Leave was “a thin red line” keeping Eurosceptics in the party. “If you didn’t have Labour people on those cross-party platforms, after the referendum those voters were going to go one place,” he says. “And it wasn’t the Labour Party.”

Lexit: the Movie opens with footage of left-wing protesters. A Scottish narrator asks: "How should we understand the EU referendum? The natural position of the left, we are told, is Remain. The EU represents all that is good in the world.”

But this, the narrator continues, isn’t true: “Rather than understand the vote as a choice of left v right, it's better understood as a choice of the market v society. And the EU is, without question, the market."

Funded by hundreds of small donors, Labour Leave’s one-hour film featured controversial left-wing commentators such as George Galloway, but also discussed the EU’s treatment of Greece via a Star Wars spoof, Austerity Wars. (To date, the film has been shared nearly 2,000 times on Facebook.)

On the Facebook page, Huitson hammered home the message, with posts about rail nationalisation (EU rules favour competition) and the powerful vested interests funding the Remain campaign.

One story in particular grabbed readers’ attention. On 15 June, Nigel Farage led a flotilla of fishing boats down the Thames, but was intercepted by a pro-Remain boat chartered by the musician Bob Geldof. The stunt descended into a water fight.

The event was covered as a farcical moment in the campaign (soon to be overshadowed by the death of Jo Cox). But Labour Leave Facebook users were furious. “Here was a group of hard-working fishermen who had taken a day off work to protest about their communities, and here was this millionaire,” says Huitson.

On the day of the EU referendum vote, there was a downpour in London – “a sign from the gods”, Chilton would later joke. Still, the latest poll suggested Remain would win.

The official Vote Leave campaign decamped to Manchester to watch the results come in, but Chilton, Mills, Hoey and other members of Labour Leave headed down to join other unofficial campaigners at a party at Millbank. There was a mob of journalists and photographers but they were mostly interested in Farage.

“It was quite funny because we went in and we all sat downstairs and there was this really weird ‘Oh God, it’s over. Now what do we do’,” Chilton remembers. Word spread of a private poll confirming Remain had won. Just before 10pm, Farage gave what appeared to be a concession speech.

It was an hour later, when Newcastle voted Remain by the slimmest of margins, that the Leave campaigners began to sense a surprise was in the air. Half an hour later, at around 11.30pm, the result for Sunderland came in, with 61 per cent voting Leave. Chilton looked at Hoey. She said: “I think we may have done it.”

As the night went on, region after region voted Leave. Exhausted and overwhelmed, the Labour Leave campaigners, long resigned to being misfits in their political party, watched as their efforts brought a government crashing down.

More than one campaigner I spoke to described the moment as “daunting”. Huitson, the social media campaigner, had backed Leave after weighing up the “serious flaws” of the EU project against its good points. As the result became clear, he “felt quite sad”, as if he was experiencing “the end of a long-term relationship”.

Shortly after 8am on 24 June 2016, David Cameron appeared in the early-morning sunshine outside 10 Downing Street with his wife at his side and delivered his resignation speech. It was only a year since he had stormed back into power with a Tory majority.

“To see the prime minister go,” says Chilton, “that made it real.” For all the stacks of leaflets, the nightly motorway slogs, the Facebook posts, and the rallies, Labour Leave campaigners seemed, like everyone else, to have trouble digesting what had just happened. Mills, a businessman by day, had a nine o'clock meeting to attend. 

“The thing is, with Eurosceptics, they’ve not won for forty years,” says Chilton. “And all of a sudden, they won.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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