Labour must develop a clear message on immigration

It is possible for the party to be tolerant and fair whilst addressing people’s concerns on freedom of movement.

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Labour finishing fourth in a by-election – or any election for that matter – is a disaster. For a party that is supposed to be a government-in-waiting, we should be challenging the Tories all over the country, making sure there are no Conservative "safe seats".

With that in mind, the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election on 8 December was, at the very least, not what we would have hoped. There was no shock victory and the Tories held onto their seat. But for Labour to be pushed into fourth place, despite having such an excellent candidate in local dustman Jim Clarke, was beyond disappointing. The result is consistent with national polls that demonstrate one thing: Labour’s voice is being drowned out. We must take time to reflect and draw lessons from this result.

The simplest explanation for our poor result is our position on Brexit, still the question of the moment and the defining feature of the by-election. The Tories fought hard to position themselves as the party of hard Brexit in a constituency that voted Leave 62 per cent.Their efforts were vindicated by their ample lead over Ukip in the final results. Evidently, Theresa May’s tight-lipped approach to Brexit negotiations did not appear to concern voters in Lincolnshire, who gave the Tories the benefit of the doubt. Frustrations concerning the detail of the Brexit negotiations appears to be considered a Westminster issue amongst voters and is something we must be mindful of going forward.

On the other side of the argument, the Liberal Democrats hoovered up the Remain vote, closely rivalling Ukip for second place. The Lib Dems did so well because they chose clarity over sophistication in their messaging. Their pitch was a simple one: to anyone that had been appalled by the turn of the events since 23 June. It worked: there were reports in Sleaford and North Hykeham of Labour members not only voting for the Lib Dems but campaigning for them too.

This is deeply concerning for Labour, as our more nuanced message concerning Brexit - as the party that accepts the result of the referendum but still wants a "soft Brexit" – which I believe is right, simply isn’t cutting through. We have to consider how to tackle this challenge.

Issues that normally resonate with our core voters were lost amidst the noise of Brexit. The revelation of Tory plans to close Grantham A&E, despite visits from John Prescott and Jonathan Ashworth, hardly caused a whisper. Campaigning on the streets of Lincolnshire, I discussed little other than Europe with voters. This will not be unique to Sleaford and North Hykeham. Our traditional supporters, ranging from Hampstead to Hull, straddle divergent attitudes on immigration and, by extension, Europe. We are in a strategic vice, treading the tightrope between Remainers and Leavers. With the Brexit vote cutting across traditional party and class lines, it is becoming clear that the strength of loyalty to the brand of Labour is wavering, which we must be aware of as we move forward.

It is clear that there is a need for the intellectual renewal of Labour. The political, economic and social tectonic plates are shifting; culture and identity have become ever more important against the background of globalisation in the UK. This is why the whole party – from the leadership down to the activists – need to make sure we have the answers to questions which people are asking; not hope they will ask us about what we want to talk about.

Brexit demonstrated in abundance that the pace and change of immigration is the prevailing concern of many communities across the UK. They want a clear offer on these issues. Our uncertainty on matters that will define the UK’s status post-Brexit: border control and openness to global markets is not good enough for voters. For Labour to capture the essence of these anxieties we must develop clarity of message on immigration. I think it is possible for Labour to be both tolerant and fair whilst addressing people’s concerns on freedom of movement. Conveying a united and fair message on immigration is a task for us all.

Sleaford and North Hykeham may have been a safe Tory seat since 1997, but I was proud to have campaigned there alongside Jim. The results we get in these areas profoundly affect the national body politics. The message we must take forward, despite this poor result, is that we cannot retreat into an ever smaller number of core seats concentrated in urban areas. Our presence in area such as Sleaford and North Hykeham is more important now than ever before, which is why I will be revisiting the constituency in the New Year to further listen to people in the community. Indeed, I will be touring across the country visiting marginal seats, listening to voter’s concerns across the UK and formulating them into a report. Winning starts with listening – and that’s what Labour needs to do.

Labour faces real challenges, but we can win again. I believe that there is a majority in the UK who seek a tolerant, multicultural society united by a belief in fairness, greater equality and social justice. We must be the voice of those people, but we can only do that by addressing their concerns, not what we believe are their concerns.

Vernon Coaker is the Labour MP for Gedlin and the former shadow defence secretary.