The inside story of Labour Leave: the left-wing Eurosceptics who toppled a Tory prime minister
For years, they were ideological misfits. Then the left-wing Leavers found themselves speaking to crowds of thousands.
On 20 June 2016, three days before the EU referendum vote, Brendan Chilton entered the Sage Theatre in Gateshead. It was a tricky time. Four days earlier, the Labour MP and Remain supporter Jo Cox had been murdered in her constituency by a white supremacist. Some had blamed the Leave campaign for the charged atmosphere in which such sentiments could flourish. The organisation Chilton helped run, Labour Leave, suspended campaigning as soon as it heard, and had only just started again.
In the theatre, every seat was full. The cross-party series of rallies featured Brexiteers like Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, and the Conservative David Davis. But it was to Chilton – as well as the Labour MP Kate Hoey, and the Labour donor John Mills – that the assembled Brexiteers turned.
“They all said this is a Labour audience,” Chilton remembers. “You lot have got to do it.”
The night would stick in his mind for months to come. “We’d done thousands of miles up and down the country, and it was the culmination of it all,” he says. “To be in a Labour audience, in a Labour city, and to see Labour people – with Labour Leave banners and posters in the audience – and [know] they wanted out.”
Mills and Chilton set up Labour Leave as an independent entity in the run-up to the EU referendum. Within two months, they had 140,000 supporters and raised nearly half a million pounds. On 23 June 2016, 37 per cent of Labour voters disregarded their party’s support for the EU and voted Leave.
In the next few weeks, as Britain’s political establishment was thrown into chaos, cameras surrounded first Nigel Farage and later the new Prime Minister, the Brexit convert Theresa May. Meanwhile, Labour MPs tried to oust their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, on the grounds that his lacklustre campaigning had let down Remain.
It was quickly forgotten that the Leave campaign had successfully harnessed left-wing Euroscepticism. But over the past year, Labour Leave has added another 100,000 supporters to its fold. Many of them are torn between voting for the party they perceive to be strongest on Brexit, and the one that represents their left-wing values.
This is the story of Labour Leave, a campaign that came from nowhere to help bring a prime minister crashing down.
Profiles based on interviews with supporters of the Labour Leave Facebook page
Labour Leave set up camp in two offices – one on Millbank, by the Thames, a short walk from parliament, and the other in Mills’s basement study at his house in Camden, north London. When I meet Mills and Chilton there, in spring 2017, the study is clean and quiet, with cream curtains and a wall of books on white shelves. But a year earlier, it was crowded with boxes and leaflets and the sound of ringing phones.
Mills and Chilton would be joined by a small band of Labour MPs. As well as Hoey, the main speakers were Kelvin Hopkins and Graham Stringer. A former MP, Nigel Griffiths, headed up the operation in Scotland. In early 2016, a freelance journalist, Oliver Huitson, took over the social media campaign.
“Because we were a small band of people there was a good camaraderie throughout it all,” says Chilton. “The regular disasters and cock-ups, it was great fun.” At one point, the team distributed 750,000 leaflets with Chilton’s personal phone number on them by mistake. “They called,” he remembers.
From the London HQ, the group sent its main speakers to rallies across the country, and marked their whereabouts on a map on the wall. At least one person was out, every night of the week. One night, the office was empty.
“It was rather like one of those nights you read about in the history books,” Chilton says. “Bomber Command looked and every plane was up and there was nothing left. We really were in huge demand.”
John Mills (left) and Brendan Chilton (right), Labour Leave campaigners. Image: Getty
Between September 2015 and January 2016, when Labour Leave was still part of the official campaign, it sent speakers to 148 meetings around the country. “It was ridiculous,” he reflects. “I don’t know how we did it, but we did.”
Eurosceptics in Labour had long been relegated to the margins. But as Mills began campaigning, he realised they were tapping in to a new political energy. At one meeting of accountants in the commuter town of Reading, just outside the Remain stronghold of London, he found 70 per cent backed Leave. When he visited coastal and northern towns, the proportion grew.
Thousands turned up to pro-Brexit meetings. “It was a tragedy, really,” he says. “You would see these ex-Labour voters in the audience.”
When the speakers arrived at the debates, they were often confronted by fellow Labour members who backed Remain. At one meeting in Greenwich, London, the Labour Leave speaker was almost ejected from the platform.
Brexiteers from Ukip and the Conservatives, on the other hand, welcomed them. Chilton and Hoey were invited to speak at the first cross-party rally, in the Northamptonshire town of Kettering. As they sat on the train, nervousness kicked in.
“This is it,” Chilton said to Hoey. “We’re going to meet the Kippers and the Tories and everyone else. What the bloody hell are we doing?”
Chilton, to his surprise, found he liked Farage, David Davis and other right-wing Brexiteers. “They were perfectly nice, charming, lovely people,” he says. “The horns on their heads were not real.”
Labour Leave had a policy of not sharing platforms with racists, and on Facebook Huitson deliberately avoided focusing on immigration. But Farage also infamously stood in front of a poster depicting a long line of refugees with the headline “Breaking Point”.
Mills insists that the number of bigots he came across was “very low”. He cites a Lord Ashcroft poll which found that while half of Leave voters cared most about sovereignty, immigration was the biggest issue for just a third.
“I’d say 90 per cent of the stuff that came out of Nigel Farage’s mouth and David Davis’s mouth could have come out of Tony Benn’s mouth,” says Chilton. Those left-wing Leave voters who brought up immigration tended to be worried about wage growth, or pressure on public services.
I put it to them that leaving the EU is unlikely to solve either of these problems, in the way that, say, another minimum wage hike or an end to austerity would.
“In terms of austerity, the key thing was that people had suffered the cuts to health and all the rest of it over a long period of time, and so there was a kind of ‘what have we got to lose?’ mentality,” Chilton says. He recalls “a feeling of hopelessness” after even the biggest rallies.
“The Remain side, one of their fundamental mistakes was to say how wonderful everything was if we stay in and how awful it would be if we leave,” he says. “People didn’t feel everything was wonderful at the moment, they felt it was pretty awful, actually.”
Chilton argues that Labour Leave was “a thin red line” keeping Eurosceptics in the party. “If you didn’t have Labour people on those cross-party platforms, after the referendum those voters were going to go one place,” he says. “And it wasn’t the Labour Party.”
Lexit: the Movie opens with footage of left-wing protesters. A Scottish narrator asks: “How should we understand the EU referendum? The natural position of the left, we are told, is Remain. The EU represents all that is good in the world.”
But this, the narrator continues, isn’t true: “Rather than understand the vote as a choice of left v right, it’s better understood as a choice of the market v society. And the EU is, without question, the market.”
Funded by hundreds of small donors, Labour Leave’s one-hour film featured controversial left-wing commentators such as George Galloway, but also discussed the EU’s treatment of Greece via a Star Wars spoof, Austerity Wars. (To date, the film has been shared nearly 2,000 times on Facebook.)
On the Facebook page, Huitson hammered home the message, with posts about rail nationalisation (EU rules favour competition) and the powerful vested interests funding the Remain campaign.
One story in particular grabbed readers’ attention. On 15 June, Nigel Farage led a flotilla of fishing boats down the Thames, but was intercepted by a pro-Remain boat chartered by the musician Bob Geldof. The stunt descended into a water fight.
The event was covered as a farcical moment in the campaign (soon to be overshadowed by the death of Jo Cox). But Labour Leave Facebook users were furious. “Here was a group of hard-working fishermen who had taken a day off work to protest about their communities, and here was this millionaire,” says Huitson.
On the day of the EU referendum vote, there was a downpour in London – “a sign from the gods”, Chilton would later joke. Still, the latest poll suggested Remain would win.
The official Vote Leave campaign decamped to Manchester to watch the results come in, but Chilton, Mills, Hoey and other members of Labour Leave headed down to join other unofficial campaigners at a party at Millbank. There was a mob of journalists and photographers but they were mostly interested in Farage.
“It was quite funny because we went in and we all sat downstairs and there was this really weird ‘Oh God, it’s over. Now what do we do’,” Chilton remembers. Word spread of a private poll confirming Remain had won. Just before 10pm, Farage gave what appeared to be a concession speech.
It was an hour later, when Newcastle voted Remain by the slimmest of margins, that the Leave campaigners began to sense a surprise was in the air. Half an hour later, at around 11.30pm, the result for Sunderland came in, with 61 per cent voting Leave. Chilton looked at Hoey. She said: “I think we may have done it.”
As the night went on, region after region voted Leave. Exhausted and overwhelmed, the Labour Leave campaigners, long resigned to being misfits in their political party, watched as their efforts brought a government crashing down.
More than one campaigner I spoke to described the moment as “daunting”. Huitson, the social media campaigner, had backed Leave after weighing up the “serious flaws” of the EU project against its good points. As the result became clear, he “felt quite sad”, as if he was experiencing “the end of a long-term relationship”.
Shortly after 8am on 24 June 2016, David Cameron appeared in the early-morning sunshine outside 10 Downing Street with his wife at his side and delivered his resignation speech. It was only a year since he had stormed back into power with a Tory majority.
“To see the prime minister go,” says Chilton, “that made it real.” For all the stacks of leaflets, the nightly motorway slogs, the Facebook posts, and the rallies, Labour Leave campaigners seemed, like everyone else, to have trouble digesting what had just happened. Mills, a businessman by day, had a nine o’clock meeting to attend.
“The thing is, with Eurosceptics, they’ve not won for forty years,” says Chilton. “And all of a sudden, they won.”