Labour’s election chief warned rows over Brexit could tear the party in two today as he called for unity ahead of the next election.
Andrew Gywnne, who helped drive the campaign which saw Labour pick up 30 seats in June, urged activists and MPs to thrash out disagreements in a “comradely fashion” as the party’s annual conference in Brighton kicked off.
The Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary told HuffPost UK’s Waugh Zone live fringe event the party should be proud of its record in Government under Tony Blair, listing policies such as the introduction of the minimum wage and record levels of public investment.
But with Labour MPs Caroline Flint and Clive Lewis already clashing on the airwaves over freedom of movement, and an activist-led protest against party General Secretary Iain McNicol, there is a danger the four-day conference could descend into infighting.
In the conference hall this morning a delegate was heckled for saying London Mayor Sadiq Khan and had a mandate to speak, with one activist shouting back that Jeremy has the mandate.
When asked if he thought the split in Labour between Remain and Leave voters could “spill over into a debate which could tear the party in two”, Gwynne responded: “It could, if we’re not careful.”
Gwynne was reminded of delegates booing the mention of three-time election winner Blair’s name during the 2011 conference, and asked if he would condemn such behavior happening in Brighton.
He replied: “I’m up robust debate but it has to be done in a comradely fashion and it has to be done remembering that the eyes of the country are on us, and if we seek to win the trust of voters in those constituencies that we narrowly missed out on winning and winning back in June then we have to convince them we are a united Labour party.”
Gwynne said that while he “might not have agreed with everything the Blair and Brown Governments did”, there was much for Labour members to be proud of.
He added: “We did an awful lot of good in those 13 years of Labour government. Did we make mistakes? Yes we did. Have previous Labour Government’s made mistakes? Yes they have. Will the next Labour Government make mistakes? More than likely. But any Labour Government is better than any Tory Government and we desperately need to show our unity between now and the next General Election so we can get rid of Theresa May, Boris Johnson and the rest of this chronically bad Conservative government.”
Reflecting on the this year’s surprise election – in which Labour defied political commentators and opinion polls and denied the Tories’ a majority in the Commons – Gwynne revealed the party was itself expecting to lose 75 seats, including his own.
On the day the election was called, “number crunchers” in Labour’s HQ presented Gwynne with two reports.
“One was based on all the published opinion polls and the Labour Party’s internal opinion polling [saying that] on a uniformed national swing this is what we would stand to lose,” said Gwynne, adding: “I don’t think I’m breaking any confidentiality now because the elections long since gone and we confounded all the pundits anyway but we were looking at potentially of a PLP of 157, which wasn’t good.”
The second report was a seat-by-seat breakdown of where Labour was vulnerable, and Gwynne said: “I started at the back with safest first and was getting a bit worried as I got to the middle of the document and then I spotted it and I wondered why it was coloured in blue.
“It turned out that my constituency, with a ten and half thousand majority at that point I was defending, was predicted to be the last seat that would fall to the Conservatives with a 0.2% Conservative majority.
“The Labour staffer at Southside said they could see the blood drain from my face. It wasn’t just for the Labour party, by this stage it was personal.”
Gwynne actually increased his majority to 14,077.