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15 June 2016

The EU referendum was meant to be a Tory nightmare – but it has become one for Labour

Whatever the result, the chasm between the party and its supporters has been exposed as never before. 

By George Eaton

Labour once hoped that the EU referendum would be a source of consolation. MPs spoke gleefully of the Conservative schism that would result. As a united opposition, they would keep Britain in Europe and advertise their fitness for office. But rather than remedying the party’s angst, the campaign has exacerbated it.

Remain strategists needed Labour voters to clear a path to victory. They may now perform that service for Leave instead. As many as 40 per cent of them back Brexit, compared to just 4 per cent of Labour MPs. In the view of one shadow cabinet minister: “It’s over already.” MPs speak of “horrific” postal vote returns.

The slide in Labour support is the main cause of anxiety in Downing Street. It was the Remain camp’s ominous internal polling that prompted David Cameron to clear the Tories’ media grid and make way for Gordon Brown and Jeremy Corbyn. His survival as Prime Minister now depends on those who voted against him last year.

Inside Labour, the blame is already being liberally distributed. Some identify Corbyn as the chief culprit. Recent polling showed that nearly half of the party’s voters were uncertain of its position on the EU. This, MPs suggest, owes much to the Labour leader’s limited enthusiasm for the cause. As recently as last summer, he was agnostic about EU membership, telling the New Statesman editor that he had not “closed his mind” to Leave. Yet there is no truth in the claim that the lifelong Eurosceptic is a secret Brexiter. “I’ve had private conversations with him. He is convinced that voting Remain is the right thing to do,” a shadow cabinet minister told me.

But even his allies admit that he “hasn’t got out of third gear”. MPs blame his inexperience on the national stage and his ambivalence towards the EU. “What this has shown is that Jeremy and John [McDonnell] would be quite clueless in a general election campaign,” a shadow cabinet member said. “They don’t know how to get a story going that dominates the news cycle.”

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A Leave vote would be “the trigger” for a coup attempt against Corbyn, MPs say. Although most concede that his formidable support among members and activists would ensure his re-election, they regard the first move as “a softening-up exercise”. “I don’t think he’d run twice. I don’t think he has the guts for it,” one rebel said.

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But Corbyn is not the only senior figure blamed for the drift towards Brexit. Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign, is accused of “low energy” performances. Others cite the media’s fixation with “blue-on-blue” Conservative clashes. One senior MP suggested that the BBC could be “in breach of its legal duties” by “focusing on personalities, not issues”.

The former deputy leadership candidate Ben Bradshaw lamented that the most visible Labour MPs were the anti-EU Gisela Stuart and Kate Hoey. “The Leave campaign has been very canny in putting them up.” He told me that he had “pleaded” with Cameron’s team weeks ago to make room for “more Labour voices”.

MPs do not disguise the supreme obstacle facing their party. “Immigration cutting through is a nightmare for us,” a former shadow cabinet minister bluntly stated. Most MPs, principally those in the north of England and the Midlands, tell a similar tale. Some refuse to canvass local estates for fear of the abuse that they will attract. The Leave campaign’s vow to end the free movement of people trumps any offer from Remain.

The former cabinet minister Liam Byrne, the MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, told me: “We’re the party of the working class and it’s our job to address their concerns. Right now, they’re telling us loud and clear that their number one issue is immigration. We need to focus on it, full stop.” There was fury among MPs when the party’s four-page referendum leaflet failed to mention the issue. “Middle-class people in London don’t like talking about immigration. They think it’s a dirty subject,” Byrne says.

In common with its centre-left European counterparts, Labour is fractured between an affluent metropolitan wing (“wine drinkers”) and a working-class base (“beer drinkers”). It was this divide that Ed Miliband frequently sought to straddle, at the cost of alienating both groups. Corbyn has made an unambiguous case for immigration, a subject on which he is aligned with some of his Blair-esque critics. But MPs fear that it will come at an electoral price.

Frank Field, Labour’s most senior Leave supporter, spoke sorrowfully of his party’s predicament. “At the last election, we lost 900,000 votes to Ukip because people felt we didn’t represent them,” he told me. “My fear is we’re just lining ourselves up to lose another million – and then we’re finished as a major party.”

Labour MPs in England are spooked by the fate of their Scottish counterparts, all but one of whom were ousted after the referendum. An increasing number of them, including deputy leader Tom Watson, argue that their party must seek to limit free movement. But this ambition, which Cameron’s renegotiation failed to achieve and which Corbyn opposes, risks paling in comparison to Leave’s guarantee.

In Labour ranks, optimism can still be found. “Some think that when people grumble about immigration, that means they’re all going to vote Out,” the shadow leader of the House, Chris Bryant, told me. “I don’t think that’s true. Quite a lot toy with the idea of Leave and then go, ‘Ah, but . . .’” Even if the UK votes to remain, the referendum has exposed as never before the chasm between Labour MPs and supporters. It is a divide more profound than the Tories’ elite-level split. Should Cameron be succeeded by a Brexiter, as he anticipates, most will have little trouble uniting behind the new regime. But Labour and its voters are on a path of ever closer disunion. 

This article appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink