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Labour Must Engage With Its Brexit Voters or Face Extinction

11/05/2016 09:21 | Updated 11 May 2016

Last week saw the UK experience its own 'Super Thursday' with elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, English local elections, Police and Crime Commissioners, two Parliamentary by-elections and of course the London Mayoral election. Despite projections of an electoral disaster, Labour made gains across the country, and did well particularly in the south of England in seats won during the Labour landslide of 1997. But the untold story of 'Super Thursday' was that the 'Old Labour' vote is moving rapidly towards becoming Ukip's base vote.

Up and down the country, local Labour activists and campaigners have reported a ground shift in support from people who were traditional Labour voters who are now supporting Ukip. In the Welsh Assembly elections, Labour suffered as a result of the rise of Ukip, loosing its majority in Cardiff Bay. In the English local government elections, Labour's gains would have been greater but for the rise of Ukip. In the two Parliamentary by-elections, Ukip are now second to Labour.

Those of us on the Eurosceptic wing of the Labour Party have long since warned that Ukip was a bigger threat to Labour than to the Tories, and former Labour Ministers such as Frank Field and Kate Hoey have cautioned against disregarding working class concerns over the EU and immigration, and we have been proved right. The Tories, after all, won a majority at the last election, while the difference between Tory gains and Labour defeats in many constituencies was the Ukip vote.

Labour must urgently take measures to re-engage with its working class vote or face extinction. Labour must acknowledge that millions of Labour voters do not want to be members of the European Union and by appearing to disregard their views by insisting the Labour movement acts united behind 'remain' in this referendum could leave those voters seeking other parties to represent them. Labour must respect that millions of Labour voters are concerned about the high levels of immigration from within the European Union and that making complimentary statements on taking on 'gang-masters' does little to satisfy their concerns when what is actually required is a potent statement on reducing immigration into the UK.

Remain campaign leader, Alan Johnson, has just labelled Brexiteers "extreme", irrational and unbalanced. What an extraordinary state of affairs it is when backing the most basic democratic principles - principles this country is built on - is considered "extreme". Not only is this hugely insulting to millions of people, including millions of Labour voters, but it shows how desperate and how out of touch the Remain camp are. We've got ludicrous warnings of war, accusations of mental difficulties, a Treasury report that would shame a banana republic, and all because the British people want to elect the people who rule them. That's not extreme, it's called democracy.

The EU referendum will be the defining moment of this Parliament and of this decade in British politics. It has the potential to be a major catalyst for political change in this country. Up to 40% of Labour voters are set to vote to leave the European Union because of their concerns about its anti-democratic nature and our inability to control our borders as a member. Following the Scottish Independence referendum, Scottish Labour paid the price of not representing the 30% of Labour voters who favoured Scottish Independence and as a consequence those voters moved en-masse to the SNP. After June 23rd, if the Brexiteers fail and we remain a member of the European Union, where will those millions of Labour voters who feel let down by Labour turn? Ukip.

The referendum therefore has the potential to be a tremendous challenge to the Labour Party and to the Labour movement. If we vote to remain in then this referendum could very well be the straw that breaks the camel's back for Labour as voters look for a party that understands and articulates their concerns over EU membership, immigration and democratic accountability. The Labour Party therefore needs to urgently review its policy on absolute support for EU membership if it wishes to remain a truly national force in British politics.

There are dozens upon dozens of Labour constituencies, particularly in the north and the midlands, where Ukip pose a serious and existential threat to Labour dominance. There are thousands of Labour Councillors up and down the country who now have Ukip biting at their heels. No party has a right to exist and a right to rule. For years, Labour dominated Scotland unchallenged and unhindered and the idea we would ever see Labour drop to third place behind the Tories was laughable and now it is a reality. It could very well become a reality in England and Wales too.

Ukip are not only parking their tanks on Labour's lawn, they are coming up the garden path to the front door. Nigel Farage and the Ukip strategists know that they have pretty much achieved their maximum level of support from Conservative defectors. The demographic that Ukip is now targeting is that fertile 'Old Labour' vote and it is already bearing fruit up and down the land.
Ukip can afford to win or lose this referendum because either way they can ultimately win. If we leave the EU, Ukip will be able to claim a real triumph as the Party that represents the people. Nigel Farage has already hinted that Ukip will be changing post referendum so let us not imagine for one moment they will pack up shop and go home. They can also afford to loose this referendum and explain the defeat as an establishment stitch up, seeking to rally a defeated Eurosceptic movement to their cause - including Labour voters. If 20-30% of the Labour vote shifts to Ukip in England and Wales, as a similar portion of the Scottish Labour vote did to the SNP then Labour will face a crisis of existence.

If Labour does not work to reverse this trend it could cease to be a national party and face the possibility of never forming a government again. Labour must listen and act quickly to avoid this potentially irreversible catastrophe.

Brendan Chilton is the campaign director of Labour Leave

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