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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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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.