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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. 

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).