Unless Labour radically changes on Brexit, it may never win back the voters it has lost

The party must commit to a Remain and Transform project for Europe and fight the culture war that has arrived in the UK. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

When your support hits 14 per cent of the electorate, on the biggest issue Britain has faced this century, something’s wrong. What Labour needs to answer urgently is: what happened, could it have been avoided and what do we do now?

The Lord Ashcroft polling, summarised in this graphic, shows the answer to question one. At the start of the European parliament elections, Labour had already lost six percentage points from its June 2017 high, and stood at 34 per cent. Its vote then collapsed by a further 20 points. Three quarters of the votes lost went to clear Remain-supporting parties, like the Lib Dems, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Only one in four of Labour’s lost votes went to the Brexit Party.

Worse, the Ashcroft polling shows that, on current intentions, less than half the voters Labour lost intend to come back. In Ashcroft’s scenario, at the next general election, the Greens shrink back to 7 per cent but the Lib Dems are on 17 per cent, while Labour polls only 21 per cent. However, with an electorate this volatile, there is all to play for.

If we are lucky, and there is a decisive change of strategy, Labour can still win a general election because the Brexit Party splits the Tory vote. But if we are unlucky, the strategy designed by Corbyn’s office may have cost us the next general election.

Could it have been foreseen? Corbyn was warned loudly and often. In February, officials from the TSSA trade union and Hope Not Hate produced a polling analysis showing that, were Labour seen to commit to delivering Brexit, it would lose any snap general election. This was at a time when few expected to have to contest the European parliament election.

The report said: “If Labour supports the implementation of Brexit it will lose a further 45 seats. If Labour fails to campaign against Brexit it will not win any additional target seats, while if it opposes Brexit it would be in a position to win five seats.”

This warning was ignored. By 29 March, when Theresa May was forced to trigger the European elections, Labour was already engaged in the local elections, and then plunged into six weeks of inconclusive talks in which – as shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner so unfortunately put it live on TV – it looked like Labour was trying to “bail the Tories out”.

After Labour lost seats and councils in the local elections, the European Parliamentary Labour Party, headed by Richard Corbett, briefed Corbyn’s office that the party was on course to lose half its seats in the European Parliament, with voters defecting to the Greens and the Lib Dems. This advice was not simply ignored but derided: the formal line of Labour officials was that we were losing “more Leave voters than Remain voters”. Resources would, they ordered, be focused on Leave-voting areas.

Even as late as 17 May, despite a desultory campaign, a ComRes poll showed that, if it committed to a second referendum with a Remain position, Labour could actually win the EU elections, beating Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party into second place. This, too was ignored. The YouGov poll, which predicted Labour would win only 13 per cent  was derided as rigged, because the organisation is “Tory-owned”. Outriders were then encouraged to tweet a poll showing Labour was on course to win any general election, conveying the impression that the European parliament elections didn’t matter.

To summarise: Labour lost because it adopted the wrong strategy and refused to listen to polling evidence that the strategy was not working. For professional political strategists it is a mistake one order of magnitude bigger than that made by Hillary Clinton’s team in the weeks before November 2016. And the longer it went uncorrected, the more it mattered. Ashcroft’s poll shows the pro-Remain votes were still in play during the final week of the campaign.

With the livelihoods of millions of people at stake, and the future of Britain, this amounts to professional negligence and the people responsible for it need to be moved out of positions of authority. Labour’s National Executive Committee, which refused to heed demands for a firmer referendum pledge, needs to recognise it got things wrong.

But there is a deeper political problem behind Corbyn’s paralysis over the past weeks. Since December, when it became clear May’s deal could not pass, a group of Labour frontbenchers, including Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery, have made clear they would resign rather than vote for a second referendum. Both voted against a three-line whip in parliament, in a vote over the second referendum, without incurring any sanction from the leader’s office.

Though there was public pressure for a line change from Clive Lewis, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and, at a late stage, John McDonnell, Corbyn could not bring himself to make that change because he did not want to lose Lavery and Trickett. Instead, the propaganda website Skwawkbox was set to work smearing both Starmer and Lewis as the authors of a “Brexit coup”.

Labour’s organisational campaign was shambolic. Centralised control was established in order to prevent candidates presenting literature with a more pro-EU line. When candidates in the South West planned a rally, aimed at winning Green voters, Labour HQ refused to support it, forcing the candidates to organise it through a third party. The reasoning was that the speakers – Andrew Adonis, Tom Watson and myself – would “go further than the party line”.

Leaflets were in short supply. In Cardiff, where four local MPs printed their own leaflets, left activists in the north of the city initially refused to use them because they were “too Remainy”. That’s no surprise because, all across the country, activists were by now receiving two, contradictory messages.

On 12 May, under pressure from members demanding a clearer line on a second referendum, Starmer signalled Labour would not sign a deal with the Tories which excluded a second referendum. On 20 May, on the eve of the poll, Lavery hit back, saying “for too many across our movement Brexit has become yet another stick with which to beat Jeremy Corbyn. MPs suggesting his leadership is in peril if he does not back a second referendum is simply nonsense”.

These completely divergent signals left members on the ground utterly confused. Many asked: if the second referendum is all a plot against Jeremy, why are half the frontbench calling for it? The result was that, in numerous constituencies I visited, left members refused to campaign vigorously, leaving the bulk of door-knocking to stalwarts from the Blair era.

What does Labour need to do? The political answer is clear. It now has to commit to a Remain and Transform project for Europe. Between now and 31 October it needs to fight for a second referendum as the only democratic way of overturning the original vote. As the People’s Vote campaign prepares to tour Britain with a “Stop No Deal” campaign, Labour too needs to get on the streets and mobilise resistance.

To do this would mean acknowledging that the usual doorstep instinct to “move the conversation away from racism and on to the economy” – though normally right – has proved wrong on this occasion. It would mean acknowledging that the culture war has arrived in Britain, and that we have to fight it.

It is possible that, belatedly, Corbyn will this week signal Labour’s unequivocal commitment to a second referendum on any deal. But that’s not enough. Everyone expects a general election in the next 12 months: unless Labour makes clear that it would fight to remain in Europe, my fear is that the “tactical” votes for the Greens and Lib Dems will solidify into positive party activism.

So we need clear words on paper – anything less than a democratically-mandated policy change is unlikely to be believed. Corbyn needs to state: If Britain is still in the EU at the time of the next election, Labour will campaign to stay inside and transform it from within. To stop Brexit, if a general election can’t be triggered, we will fight for a second referendum. The line change should be voted on either through a national ballot of the membership, or at the National Policy Forum, and confirmed at conference.

The scale of this defeat will – once this week’s recess is over – fuel a new attack on Corbyn by the Labour right. It may not take the form of leadership bid - but of a kind of guerrilla disobedience struggle, with MPs  - freed of the discipline of election time, and soon to be set free from parliament – simply ignoring the leadership’s orders.

To defend Corbynism we need to define better what it is. For me, it has always been a fight against austerity and for progressive values – and for a Britain oriented to Europe, whether inside or outside the EU. The anti-austerity policies, and the transformative, green, industrial policy are, of course, what Labour must focus on once it gets into office. But it will not gain office unless it takes a large swathe of progressive Britain with it.

Labour, which has spent the period since June 2017 obsessing about winning back marginal seats in the English Midlands, now also has to worry about holding Battersea and Brighton. As for Scotland, it can stop worrying: Labour came fifth last Thursday, with just 9.3 per cent of the vote, and faces a wipeout unless – as leader Richard Leonard now demands – it stands clearly as a “Remain party”.

At the same time, the party needs to redouble its activism in the ex-mining seats of the English Midlands, Yorkshire and the North East, where cultural hostility to progressive politics may now cement a segment of voters more firmly to the project of the English nationalist right. What the European election result shows is that, here too, triangulation does not work.

But the main problem just changed. A progressive party cannot form a government if the majority of progressive working people do not want to vote for it. A party whose members are overwhelmingly skilled workers, young people and professionals, living in cities, cannot succeed if its strategy is to alienate those groups.

In an atmosphere where the right is targeting black and Asian minority working class communities – who steadfastly voted Labour on 23 May – Labour cannot concede an inch to racism and anti-migrant bigotry. Instead it has to lead the cultural battle against racism, misogyny, homophobia and climate denial.

So this is a moment of truth for everyone in the labour movement. If we don’t change strategy, we may never win back the voters who left us last week, and may never re-enthuse those who stayed at home.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.