The EU Withdrawal Bill cleared the House of Commons this week, with Labour formally ordering MPs to vote against the Bill at Third Reading. It meant that only a handful of Labour MPs supported the EU Withdrawal Bill, despite the fact that more than 70 per cent of Labour MPs represent constituencies that voted to leave the European Union, and up to five million Labour voters also supported Leave.
On 23 June 2016, voters were simply asked if they would like to remain a member of the EU or leave it. But the Labour manifesto in 2017 was a hard Brexit manifesto. It promised to leave the European Union by “accepting the result”, and that “freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union”. By definition for freedom of movement to end, we will have to leave the single market, since, as the EU’s chief negotiator has observed, the four freedoms are indivisble. In the North of England and in the Midlands, as well as other parts of the country, voters flocked to Labour and supported our Brexit manifesto. In light of the vote this week in Parliament, these voters will now be more cautious.
Brexit is of course a challenge for the Labour movement. The decision to campaign strongly to remain in the European Union was in many ways an arbitrary one. As late as July 2015, Jeremy Corbyn signalled that he could campaign to leave the EU, but in the event, there was no internal conversation within the party. Constituency Labour parties were discouraged from debating the subject. Yet at the same time, there is no doubt that the Remain campaign had popular support from within Labour. The Britain Stronger in Europe campaign was heavily influenced by Labour figures and the ground troops were predominately Labour and Liberal members. Labour has been a pro-EU party, as has the Tory Party, since the early 1990s.
The Labour vote is now essentially spread over two broad demographics. On the one hand, you have young, metropolitan, university-educated individuals who are very pro-EU, concentrated in the cities dominate the Labour movement and structures. They form a large contingent of Labour voters and an even larger proportion of the membership. On the other hand we have small-town, socially conservative, working-class Labour voters who supported leave. They are underrepresented in the structures and membership of the party and their voice is quieter, but just as important. These two groups are as different to one another as can possibly be but Labour unites them.
How then can we proceed with a policy on Brexit that maintains this coalition and sustains the movement? We must remember first that there is virtually no appetite in the country for a second referendum. Labour MPs such as Chris Leslie and David Lammy support a second referendum on the final deal in the hope the country will reject it and opt to remain in the EU. Labour should rule out this initiative, which is supported by some in the parliamentary Labour party, immediately. It would be a gross U-turn and could cost Labour enormous support in the country.
In the 2017 election, the Liberal Democrats pledged to oppose Brexit and support a second referendum, yet Remainers did not flock to the Lib Dems. Labour’s manifesto was well circulated. Young people and Remain supporters voted for Corbyn in full knowledge of his longstanding Eurosceptic convictions. At the same time, Labour held seats considered at risk, because over a million Ukip voters came back to Labour. In Hartlepool, for example, the Labour vote increased by virtually the same amount the Ukip vote decreased by. We cannot place all this progress in peril because a few individuals within the parliamentary party cannot accept the outcome of the referendum.
Labour’s manifesto was also a radical one. Support for ending tuition fees, public ownership of infrastructure and utilities and enormous state intervention was far more attractive to voters than some imaginary view that Labour would stop Brexit. The level of state activity proposed by Corbyn’s Labour would be incompatible with ongoing membership of the EU, including policies such as bringing the railways back into public ownership, nationalisation of utilities and intervention in the economy to support industry. This is probably why Jeremy Corbyn was the first political leader after the referendum to call for Article 50 to be invoked.
Labour’s strategy has today been deliberately vague on the finer details of any transition arrangement and final settlement. However, we are fast approaching the time where a definitive stance must be taken. Labour’s support is weakest among the poorer and working classes in the United Kingdom. Yet they are the precise people we need to win in order to form a government. And it just so happens they are the voters who most strongly supported Leave. This is John Mann’s Bolsover question, namely, how do we reverse the fact that in this solid Labour seat, represented by an enthusiastic Corbyn supporter, there was a swing against Labour among our own core vote? There are dozens of “Bolsover” seats where traditional Labour voters abandoned the party. Labour MPs, whatever their personal views on Corbyn, need to get behind him on the EU question to win these voters back and hold those seats. In places such as Dudley where UKIP were a close second and where the Leave vote was high, Labour only just scraped home. Walsall, another Leave constituency Labour lost in 2017 should serve as a warning as to the fragility of our Northern and Midland vote.
Labour could conceivably be in government before we end any transitional arrangement for the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. The next Labour government is going to face a host of problems left behind by this disastrous Tory government. Our priority should therefore be establishing a set of policies that will articulate our vision for a post-Brexit Britain, and not listening to these seeking to open the old wounds of a referendum. A confident Labour party can come to the aid of the country as it has done in the past, and unite it around a progressive set of ideals that will give hope to all our people outside the European Union.
Brendan Chilton is the director of Labour Future and general secretary of Labour Leave.