The message the EU election results send to the Labour party Leadership could hardly be more stark: get off the fence over Brexit or risk losing the next general election as well – particularly if it is fought with Brexit unresolved. In the EU elections the Corbyn leadership chose ambiguity when the key was clarity and leadership.
The figures are stark. The Brexit party won 28 seats, the Lib Dems came second with 15 seats, Labour third with 10 seats, the Green party won seven and the Tories were in fifth place, with just three seats. In Scotland there was a massive 38% vote for the SNP.
Overall, the vote was pro-remain. The pro-remain vote was 40.3%. The hard Brexit vote was 34.9%. The Brexit party result was no surprise.
The 28% UKIP won in the last EU election transferred to Brexit en-block with some additional votes mostly from the Tories. Labour’s result was a major failure of leadership. It is an election that labour could have won within the terms of the policy agreed by conference last year, but this was repeatedly watered down by the front bench.
Labour haemorrhaged votes to the Lib Dems and to the Greens because they were unequivocally pro-remain and for a second referendum while Labour was not – even after it had become clear that the Brexit that people were promised in 2016 was not on offer. Labour advocated its own so-called soft Brexit when no such thing existed.
The country is still deeply split, although there is a majority in the polls for Remain of around 53%. The narrowness of this lead is a product of Labour’s position and could be different if it had been arguing a clear remain position or a major re-evaluation of policy needs to be undertaken by Labour and internal democracy needs to be made a reality. Emily Thornberry was very clear immediately the first result came in that the policy has to change. David Lammy told the Today programme that Labour had “resuscitated the Lib Dems, handed votes to the Greens, and facilitated Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.” They are both right.
Meanwhile a no-deal Brexit is back on the agenda and is the legally defined option for the end October if it is not changed. With the Tory party membership screaming for a no-deal Brexit the Tory leadership election is likely to be won by the candidate most pledged to that position.
This juggernaut can be stopped – but only Labour can do it, and only by getting off the fence. Whilst Parliament has voted against a no-deal Brexit, a new Tory leader could change this at the risk of splitting the party and making the government vulnerable to a no-confidence motion.
If Labour continues to equivocate it will not only lose that election, but it will also again legitimise the Lib Dems and help Farage’s Brexit party. It is an issue that directly puts the future of the Corbyn project at risk.
If a change of direction does not come from the Labour leadership very quickly after to a momentous wake-up call it is time to go back to the membership to seek a new mandate and then implement their decision. After the results, Jeremy Corbyn still remained ambiguous on whether the policy will change even though it has collapsed. He talks about listening to the members but without any framework for their views to be heard. There needs to be a proper framework for consultation, either a membership ballot or a special conference. The annual conference in the autumn will be too late. The key advisors in Corbyn’s team who have got this so disastrously wrong need to be replaced by people who will support the decisions of the membership rather than their own political traditions.
Alan Davies, 27 May 2019