Labour should be the anti-Brexit party

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

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1 Comment on Labour should be the anti-Brexit party

  1. “The country is still deeply split, although there is a majority in the polls for Remain of around 53%.” (original article)

    The “split” referred to is quite complex but is primarily both geographical and age based, rather than class based. There is a clear and growing difference between London and Scotland and other areas, and between young people and older populations. This poses challenges for a left perspective on Brexit.

    The “country” of the article refers to the whole of Britain, but there are also clear national dynamics in Scotland – with the large vote for the SNP -and now seemingly increasingly in Wales with the previously unprecedented situation of the Plaid Cymru vote exceeding Labour.

    In Scotland, it was not just the size of the SNP vote gaining 9 percentage points, though the number of parties was less than previous elections despite the ‘new kids on the block’ in the form of the Brexit Party and Change UK, but the fact that the SNP topped the poll in EVERY single mainland local authority area.

    The scale of Scottish Labour’s collapse was devastating – the Scottish Labour Party came a humiliating fifth overall with just 9%, losing completely its MEP seats, across a country (Scotland) where in relatively recent period it once had total domination. Glasgow, the cradle of the Scottish working class movement, saw Labour fall to just 15% of the vote across the city, while the SNP surged to 44%. Scottish Labour is paying a hard price for the collapse of its support and membership following its unionist alliance with the Tories in the 2014 independence referendum. While there is sympathy with Corbyn’s left wing message in Scotland, both his and Labour’s refusal to countenance self-determination through another independence referendum is causing a massive haemorrhage of support and there is no positive change in the Party at local level by the influx of new supporters of Corbyn of the sort we have seen in England.

    Both the SNP and the smaller Scottish Green Party made it clear that a vote for them was also a vote to support independence if Brexit in any form went ahead. The SNP and SGP won 46% of the vote between them, while a totally opposite message by the LibDems saw a smaller growth in their support than in England (though they still came third). While tying independence to EU membership clearly responds to the dynamic of the strong vote for Remain in 2016 in Scotland, it is also a dangerous strategy for working class living standards, particularly over issues of currency for an independent country (Sterling, Euro or a new Scottish currency) and the neo-liberal support for austerity by EU institutions and leaderships. Scotland is likely to suffer massively from a hard Brexit, but simply joining the queue to sign up to the EU again is not the answer. However it was also clear that the SNP and the SGP also put support for ‘free movement’ and migration to the forefront and this contrasts starkly with Labour’s pathetic policy of tail-ending the racism of the likes of Farage.

    While the Scottish Tory and UKIP vote collapsed into the Brexit Party and the Labour vote collapsed into the SNP (rather than the LibDems and Greens as in England), the Scottish Greens did not do as well as their sister party in England & Wales and failed to gain a seat. Almost certainly this is because despite the mass awareness of Climate Change in Scotland, it is the SNP that have made increasingly strong noises about the climate emergency even though they remain a governing party still yet to shake their previous commitment to fossil-based industries especially oil, gas and agriculture. This lack of the Scottish Greens to win a seat was unfortunate in the circumstances and there will no doubt be a re-examination of their electoralist strategy.

    As for the victory across the whole of Britain by 40% of the remain parties over the 35% for the hard Brexit parties and the 53% in the polls for Remain currently much hyped by the LibDems and the other right wing supporters of a second referendum, I think we have to realise that a lot of this is all about differential turnout. The most pro-leave areas had the lower turnouts in this election and the overall numbers were still way below those of the 2016 referendum. This does reflect, however distorted by the likes of Farage, of a differentiation of living standards and the perception of those being ‘left behind’, particularly in larger towns outside the more cosmopolitan city locations in England, above all between London and other areas.

    The scandal of EU citizens being unable to vote needs championing and any second referendum campaign from the left must also champion the basic democratic principle of an extension of the franchise for UK-wide elections and referenda to EU citizens and 16/17 year olds (as in Scottish parliament elections) as the enfranchisement of the populations most affected by Brexit.

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