Labour’s refusal to oppose Brexit is killing it on the doorstep. It should quit the talks

Activists report people registered as Labour members who say they will vote Green. One of them was a Labour councillor. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“You must be joking. How dare you,” one viscerally hostile voter in northern England told a Labour MEP candidate this weekend. It’s a common enough occurrence in these angry times, but this was a person down in the party’s database as a solid Labour voter. His issue? Labour’s refusal to fight Brexit.

And he is not alone. In the past 48 hours I’ve spoken to Labour MEP candidates in three regions, who did not want to be identified. Each told me that, after two weekends of door-knocking, their experience is that the electoral coalition that put Labour on 40 per cent in 2017 is now fragile. One told me they believed the Labour leadership was “actively trying to lose the election” on 23 May.

 “It’s not impossible to make the case for Labour and Remain,” said one candidate. “But it takes a conversation we don’t have time to have. Our narrative about uniting the country is compelling – but we need a destination”. 

With Corbyn stuck in the talks, they said, voters were confused about Labour’s position. “How can you be fighting a Tory Brexit when you are in talks with the Tories to deliver one?” is a frequent argument on the doorstep, and is driving Labour voters to the Libdems and Greens.

“It’s killing us not being able to give one word answer,” the candidate told me. “Corbyn was always about straight, honest politics – now candidates have to take a breath and launch into a long sentence. The lack of clarity is hurting us.”

And here’s how badly. On the basis of the current evidence Labour is set to slump to 22 per cent on 23 May, according to BMG. The Brexit Party, on 26 per cent, will be acclaimed as the winner – but the Greens, Change and Libdems (the unequivocally anti-Brexit parties) will be the real winners among progressive Britain, scoring 33 per cent in yesterday’s BMG poll. 

The anecdotal evidence is even worse. Candidates report that Labour’s core support seems to be reduced to students and politically engaged working class families, with the most solid vote is among black and ethnic minority workers. The skilled, white collar and public sector working class vote is moving vocally toward either the Libdems or the Green Party. Change UK pops up more rarely in doorstep conversations.  

Another candidate expressed frustration with the level of resource and energy coming from Labour’s fulltime apparatus:  “It’s been a very slow start. In my region, it appeared the party machine was just not prepared. There’s been a level of central control – from the top of the party – which is unlike previous campaigns and doesn’t work.”

Candidates complained that the official party leaflet is lacklustre and that, in any case, each CLP has received only 2,000 leaflets: they were told to buy more if they needed them. Concerns about the content of Labour’s official leaflet led the USDAW union to print its own pro-Labour flyer, reflecting a Remain/Reform and second referendum line. But this is classed as “third party” campaigning under electoral law, which means Labour can’t “co-ordinate” with such an effort. And so, party officials ordered candidates and activists not to use the leaflet. 

As a result of the poor polling, and experience on the doorstep, Labour is now getting nervous about next year’s London mayoral elections. Sadiq Khan is said to have told a meeting of Labour MPs in London this week that the party’s long-term efforts to prevent a revival of the LibDems were “at risk of being squandered”. Though there is more than a year to go, the danger now lurks that Khan, currently on 45 per cent, finds himself in a run-off not with the Tories’ Sean Bailey but a Green or a Libdem. 

Privately, in all three regions where I have spoken to activists this week, activists report people on the doorstep registered as Labour members who say they will vote Green. One of them was a Labour councillor. 

Locked in the talks for weeks without any significant outcome, it feels to me like Corbyn’s team have no idea of the angst and dismay their line is causing among otherwise loyal activists. Instead, a social media army of paranoid Lexiteers has begun to turn not just on Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, but on Corbyn’s chief negotiator, Sir Keir Starmer. 

Starmer, gave a high profile Guardian interview on Sunday night, in which he promised to link any deal done with the Tories to a second referendum. Two days later, the website Sqwawkbox, widely seen as the mouthpiece for pro-Brexit advisers and Shadow Cabinet members, published a hit-piece on Starmer in which “very senior Labour sources” said they were “appalled” at Starmer and considered his intervention as evidence of a “Brexit coup”.

The root of Labour’s problem is not hard to identify. The shadow cabinet is split between those who want to deliver Brexit and those who want to oppose it. I don’t doubt their sincerity or their feelings of moral obligation to their Leave-voting constituencies – but May’s intransigence is making it impossible to do a deal and so the party is being dragged de facto in the direction of a second referendum. 

Technically this should not be a problem, since it is the line agreed at the September 2018 conference. Psychologically, however, a core group of pro-Brexit activists and officials around Corbyn can only see the second referendum demand as the casus belli for a “coup” attempt against the leader. 

In the short but eventful history of Corbynism, we’ve been here before. At the start of the 2017 election campaign both the messaging and the resourcing were equally shambolic. The problem now is there is no time for a Corbyn-led surge, and there is no incentive for a tactical alliance of progressive parties, except in the North West, where there’s a strong desire to defeat Tommy Robinson. Plus, in 2017, the left’s activists were enthused. Today they are not.

Labour could never afford to turn the European Parliament elections into a proxy referendum on Brexit, even if other parties wanted to. Instead it should be focusing on the issues of jobs, austerity and regulation. In or out of Europe, the European parliament will retain jurisdiction in the case of any single market membership or alignment. 

But the party needs a clear answer to the Brexit question. Until it gets one, it is wholly reliant on the new electoral split on the right of politics to come to power. Corbynistas may have rejoiced when the Kantar poll came out, giving the party a majority of 28 seats in parliament on the basis of a 36 per cent score. But transforming the country on the basis of 36 per cent of the popular vote, while losing Scotland decisively to the SNP, is not what the project was about. 

There is still time to mobilise the Labour vote on 23 May. It has to be done in a way that allows progressive voters angry at Labour to come back, either before this election or in time for a snap election in the autumn. 

The first step is to leave the talks. The next step is to acknowledge that the vast majority of members want to stay in Europe, and that Remain and Reform would be the party’s position in any referendum and any snap election campaign. Those shadow cabinet ministers who cannot bring themselves to say this should get out of the limelight for the next eight days. 

Corbyn’s assertion that “Labour is the only party that can bring Leave and Remain voters together” is correct – but the basis of it has to be progressive politics. A positive, charismatic grassroots campaign in the next few days, around the values of anti-racism, open-ness and social liberalism, could mobilise Labour’s core vote on 23 May. As with all European elections, it will be a battle of turnout and a doorstep “ground game”. 

While pro-Corbyn web outlets and bloggers fulminate against Starmer and Watson, the massive changes in British politics seem to be passing Labour’s strategists by. 

The Brexit Party is on a roll because some 30 per cent of Brits want to see a hard, xenophobic No Deal Brexit. This is the new reality. It is a case study in what Hannah Arendt called the “temporary alliance of the elite and the mob”. 

In opposition to this, the strategic task of the left is clear, and should be doubly so to anyone who understands the parallels with the 1930s: to create a temporary alliance of the left and centre.  

The immediate issue is stopping Brexit; the strategic issue is climate change. The existential question is the fight for an open and democratic culture and the defence of our institutions and the rule of law. 

By embracing a radical and progressive outcome, Labour can assemble the coalition of voters who can put it into power. By triangulating with the prejudices of xenophobes, as all internal polling shows, it wins zero extra votes – above all, because Corbyn himself is so unpopular with that demographic.

I remain convinced that Corbyn can lead Labour to victory in a general election, but activists need to understand this. The second referendum drive by internationalist left MPs and members, and the criticisms of the party’s campaign outlined here, are not an attempt to fuel yet another coup: they are a way of preventing it. That’s because electoral politics – which is admittedly a new experience for many of the Lexiteers – rewards success and punishes failure.  

Labour under Corbyn failed to win in 2017, went backwards in the 2019 local elections, and is in danger of going backwards again now. To be hearing the words “Labour and Tory are just the same” on the doorstep, four years into the Corbyn revolution, is far from ideal.

One MEP candidate put it even more bluntly: “We won’t be lambs to the slaughter. If the party wants to lose this, they’ll be punished by the next generation of leaders and they’ll lose control of the project. They are losing trust and belief.

“There’s still a week to turn it round but if they don’t, I fear the party will be in meltdown.”

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.