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13 November 2017

“Did New Labour sow some of the seeds of Brexit?” My fantasy speech for Alastair Campbell

This is what the former spin doctor should say on New Labour and its hand in the EU referendum result.

By Neal Lawson

Alastair Campbell, the spin master of New Labour and now editor-at-large of the New European, has recently written two phantom speeches on Brexit, one for Theresa May and one for Jeremy Corbyn. I’m unsure either made much impact on their respective targets but it’s a good way to get an alternative view over. So here, with no illusions about its impact, is the address Campbell should give to the Blairite pressure group Progress on New Labour and its hand in Brexit.


“Colleagues, comrades now I guess, like me I know you still feel the body blow the Brexit vote was and how much damage it will do to our country and our people. We have to fight it with every ounce of strength we have. But as the weeks and months tick by since that tragic moment, and the prospect of us actually leaving the EU becomes a looming reality, my mind can’t help thinking how such a monumental act of national self-harm could have happened.

“Of course at first I was just angry – angry with the lies from the Brexiteers and the people who voted with them. I was angry too with the lacklustre campaign we ran – if only they had done it even more like us in 1997. But just as the creation of New Labour was based on a profound reassessment of where the country was and how much it had changed, I can’t escape the feeling that we need to step back and reassess what really happened over Brexit and whether we had any part in it.

“Look, no one is prouder of New Labour’s achievement than me. The investment in the NHS and education, the national minimum wage, gay rights, peace in Northern Ireland, Sure Start and the rest. But unbeknown to us, did we sow at least some of the seeds of Brexit?

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“After all our whole re-branding strategy was based on the switch from Old to New Labour, and all that signified in terms of our seeming disdain for our traditional voters. Our assumption was that they had nowhere else to go and we had to appeal to the switchers in the swing seats. Neither Ukip nor the SNP were a threat – at least back then. Did we take those people for granted? Have they come back to bite us?

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“And then when Tony made that speech to the Labour conference in 2005 and said ‘I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.’ I thought of my mates who I watch the matches with at Burnley. They don’t want to stop globalisation but they do need it shaped so it doesn’t destroy their lives and communities. I now see the issue is not how we bend to fit modernity but how we bend modernity to fit our values of solidarity and equality. Life can’t just be an endless slog on the convenor belt of global competition. A race with no end.

“And while we have to compete – there are ways of doing it. New Labour went too far too quickly. We pushed for Europe to be enlarged too far, too soon. And then we refused to put in place any transitional agreements for workers who we wanted to come here. There is nothing wrong with immigration, it’s a good thing, but we could have phased it. We certainly should have signed up to the working time directive to limit the hours this new labour force worked. And while the minimum wage was a big step forward, we should have put in place the resources to enforce it. And of course we should have built council houses for the new workers. And instead of speaking up for the benefits of immigration and putting in place the resources to deal with the economic, social and cultural changes, we started to mimic the Tories and Ukip’s hostile language in an arms race we could never win and should never want to.

“And in truth we never showed any interest in reforming the EU, making it more democratic and accountable. We were too scared of the Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch to attempt such things. Instead, when we made speeches about Europe it was to brag about how good our economic miracle was, and how ‘sclerotic’ they were. It doesn’t feel that way now.

“And then 2008 struck – in hindsight it had to happen. The whole New Labour economic model was based on setting the city free so we could top-skim the profits for good causes. It was bound to come crashing down at some stage. And when it did, the bankers got the money and the people got austerity. No wonder people stopped listening to the technocrat politicians and turned to populism.

“By the time David Cameron had been foolish enough to call the referendum all this toxic feeling had been bubbling up for years. The Brexiteers ran an insurgent campaign of hope and vision for Britain free from the shackles of the EU. And we just said it would make you worse off – to people with nothing more to lose and only pride and a sense of belonging to win back.

“I’m still proud of all we did in government – but unless we look at ourselves and our part in making Brexit happen, then even if we manage to stop it, we will simply sow even more poisonous political seeds and create darker demons than the ones we face now.

“People like me who have done well out of the EU in the last three decades need to be a bit more humble and develop a bit more empathy. We feel lost, left behind, that this isn’t our country anymore. We fear the future. Well that’s exactly how so many people who voted for Brexit have felt all their lives.  

“Brexit shouldn’t happen but it will only be stopped because people like me and others offer a huge swathe of the country a mea culpa, mean it, and really do something about it.”