Brexit Is The Reason Labour Lost – This Is How It Can Win Again

When our losses are concentrated in former coalfield constituencies that voted Leave, the reason is staring us in the face, Len McCluskey writes.
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Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives at a counting centre in Islington during Britain's general election, London, Britain December 13, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Hannah Mckay / Reuters

In 2017, Labour secured over 40% of the vote on a radical manifesto with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, pledging to respect the result of the referendum to leave the European Union.

Two years on, Labour fell to 32% having stood on a radical manifesto with Corbyn as leader, committed to re-running the referendum on our European Union membership.

“Like most elections, this one was not won or lost during the campaign.”

It is pretty obvious where the essential reason for Thursday’s hugely disappointing result can be found. When our losses are concentrated in former coalfield constituencies and other post-industrial communities that voted heavily “Leave” in the 2016 referendum, and yet we happily retain our position in London more-or-less unscathed, it is staring us in the face.

Others will try to make a different case, either because they have volubly hankered after the New Labour past throughout the years of Corbyn’s leadership of the party, or because they lack the honesty to accept the consequences of their advocacy of keeping Britain in the EU at any political price. 

“To deny the centrality of Brexit to the outcome is wilful blindness.”

Yes, Labour made mistakes during the campaign. Firstly, the incontinent rush of policies which appeared to offer everything to everyone immediately, and thereby strained voter credulity as well as obscuring the party’s sense of priorities. Secondly, failure to apologise for anti-Semitism in the party when pressed to do so, capping years of mishandling of this question.

But like most elections, this one was not won or lost during the campaign. And it is Labour’s slow-motion collapse into the arms of the People’s Vote movement and others who have never accepted the democratic decision of June 2016 for a single moment which has caused this defeat.

When a party wins 44% of the vote, as the Tories have done, saying “get Brexit done” and literally nothing else for the whole campaign, to deny the centrality of this issue to the outcome is wilful blindness.

The endlessly-repeated “get Brexit done” pitch appealed to those Labour leave voters who felt that their vote had been disrespected and ignored by parliament, and to those who simply wanted the whole question done with so the country could move on.

For such voters, Labour has presented an unattractive picture all year, lacking a positive message through the weary months of parliamentary deadlock.

That said, Labour’s Brexit position in this election – negotiate a good exit deal that works for working people, and give the voters the final choice between that deal and Remain – could have worked. Certainly, Corbyn’s instinct to reach beyond the leave/remain divide was the right and honourable one.

But it was fatally undermined from the outset by leading members of the shadow cabinet rushing to the TV cameras to pledge that they would support “Remain” in that second referendum come what may, never mind the “deal”.  Given that these were the politicians supposedly responsible for negotiating that deal with the European Union, it was always going to be difficult to be taken seriously.

Brexit is the immediate cause for the alienation of so many life-long Labour voters. 

However, the roots reach well beyond Brexit and Corbyn’s leadership. The decline in Labour support in these communities has been evident all century and began in the heyday of New Labour.

“Corbyn has borne the brunt of one of the most sustained and unpleasant character assassinations in political history and done so with dignity.”

The 2017 election represented a partial arresting of this trend. But even in that campaign, which saw Labour’s vote soar remarkably, seats were lost in precisely those areas – Mansfield, Stoke, Middlesbrough, the Derbyshire coalfield – which have seen traditional industries flee and little or nothing come to replace them.

This was a fact which too many preferred to ignore, instead saddling Labour with a strategy that prioritised squeezing the very small Liberal Democrat vote over preventing defections of lifelong supporters to the Tories.

Of course, the strength of the movement to reverse the referendum result, among Labour party members and in the country at large, could not be ignored. But it was wrongly assumed that backing a second referendum was a cost-free exercise, that Labour Leave voters “didn’t really care about Brexit”, or would always vote Labour anyway.

This never made any sense electorally. Both Labour’s target seats, and the ones most at risk in the north and the Midlands, were preponderantly in Leave-voting areas with very small Liberal Democrat and Green votes. Put bluntly, there were far more coalfield seats to lose than there were Canterburys to win.

As it is, a year of worrying about and placating exclusively Remain voters has produced the backlash which some of us predicted. Better by far that we had stuck with some updated variation of the 2017 Brexit position, rather than its negation.

Now we need to rebuild, reflect on what went wrong and inevitably elect a new leader early in the near future. Corbyn has borne the brunt of one of the most sustained and unpleasant character assassinations in political history and done so with dignity. But alas some of the mud stuck and his leadership became an issue on the doorstep.

The next leader needs to understand the communities that gave birth to the Labour movement, and realise that the whole country is not very like Labour London. As important as it is, too often, Labour addresses the metropolitan wing of its electoral coalition in terms of values – openness, tolerance, human rights – and the "traditional” working-class wing simply in terms of a material offer, as if their constituencies did not have their own values of solidarity and community. That must change.

But there should be no abandonment of the core anti-austerity, transformative economic and social offer that Corbyn and John McDonnell have championed.  More focus and clearer priorities, yes, but the main policies are credible and popular. Moreover, their critics on Labour’s right-wing have absolutely no positive agenda or offer of their own. They are bereft of any credible ideology and have been since the 2008 economic crash.

And Labour must reject the siren voices urging an abandonment of class politics in favour of a “culture war”. These are often the same voices who championed the aggressive “Remain” strategy which has led to this outcome.

Boris Johnson and his hard right cabinet will put class politics back on the agenda for sure. The case for change remains as potent as ever. We just need to make sure it is heard in Stoke as well as Stoke Newington.

Len McCluskey is General Secretary of Unite the union.