OPINION
12/11/2020 00:01 GMT | Updated 12/11/2020 09:02 GMT

Labour Must Apologise For Its Brexit Position Or We'll Never Win Back Trust

Our party lost the election because we called for a second referendum, write Jon Trickett, Laura Smith and Ian Lavery.

Many traditional Labour voting communities have stopped voting Labour. This process began many years ago. But it rose to a crescendo in the December 2019 election with the collapse of the so-called “red wall” seats.

We warned the party that we were heading for electoral disaster. Indeed, we predicted the results in June 2019. It gives us no comfort whatsoever to have been shown to be correct in our analysis after the event. We only wish that our warnings had been heeded because Britain urgently needs a Labour government.

It is welcome that the party’s polling position is now recovering. But if you look at the detailed polling behind the top lines, there is much work still to do.

This is especially the case in those vast parts of the country which we have described as “held back”, where the process of deindustrialisation combined with cuts to services has damaged community resilience and led to political alienation. 

Let’s quickly review recent data. Even a brief glance at the most recent opinion polls will show that there are ongoing challenges for Labour.

First, the good news. We have seen a steady increase in our top line figures in opinion polling in recent months. Polls disagree about the extent, but it is good news that we are leading in some authoritative polls. We had a lead of up to 4% in late October amongst middle and upper class voters (ABC1). Labour leads among the degree educated by 32 points; 42% of 2019 Lib Dem voters have come to Labour.

Behind the top line figures, however, something else is happening. Labour was nine points behind the Tories with working people (C2DEs) in late October YouGov polling. We were 20 points behind among people with no qualifications and with Leave voters we were 36 points behind. 

One other key piece of data is that, in the seats the Tories gained in 2019, we are ahead – but 20% of voters are undecided. 

How are we to interpret all of this? In a curious echo of what happened with voting over the years in the United States, historic voting patterns are changing here in our country.

The way we see it is that Labour has made significant inroads into upper- and middle-class Remain voters, many of whom voted Lib Dem. This is a welcome development. We are sceptical that it will win us many seats, however.

We say this because the overwhelming majority of winnable seats have got large concentrations of working-class Leave voters who as yet remain highly sceptical of us. They have remained loyal to the Tories or have relapsed into abstentionism. 

The people who live in such communities stayed loyal to the Labour Party for a century. It is now time the party showed it is loyal to them. Without a credible effort to reconnect with these voters we cannot win an election because of their concentration in most marginal seats which we need to win back.

And in any case we ought not to want to win without reconnecting with those voters. We say this because social justice is at the very core of Labour’s historic mission. It is manifestly the case that this requires precisely to rebuild and regenerate the communities whose hearts were ripped out by the ravages of uncontrolled market forces.

With this in mind, in the spring of this year, we began a project under the title of No Holding Back to try to understand what had happened, to listen to members and to come forward with proposals as to how to proceed. This has been one of the most extensive listening exercises in the Labour Party for decades. 

We have visited (via Zoom) literally dozens of locations and listened to thousands of Labour members and trade unionists. Today we publish the results of this listening exercise.

The results are startling, and the party needs to listen if we are to have any chance of winning the next election. 

A number of exciting proposals have emerged which we will spell out in due course. And we will announce initiatives which we believe that the whole party will want to learn from.

We promised that we would reflect the views and experiences of the activists with whom we engaged since May this year. Some of it was unpalatable. But it needs to be spelt out. 

Almost universally, activists told us that they were sent out to canvass during the election and in the more deprived communities – especially outside the major cities – they were met with indifference and often by anger by voters who felt betrayed by the political system in general, and by our party. 

The central core of this experience was focused on the issue of Brexit. Canvassers were left to try and explain our policy on a second referendum on hostile doorsteps. Of course, other issues were raised also, including the leadership of the party, but Brexit appeared to be the touchstone issue more than any other, according to the activists we have met.

Even some voters who wanted to remain in the EU did not understand our policy. There were Remainers who had accepted that the country had voted to leave and just wanted to get on with the job. Equally there were adamant Remainers who felt the party was at best half-hearted in its attitude. 

And, of course, there were many tens of thousands of Labour-inclined Leave voters who were the angriest of all. They felt that their arguments had won the referendum vote and were often in a rage at the idea that our party had betrayed that vote.

We spoke to activists who themselves were divided on the question of Leave or Remain. They all agreed that the party’s approach to Brexit was a central problem in the election.

But the truth is that the Brexit vote was symbolic of a wider breakdown. We had lost the trust of very many voters. 

At a time when many people think politics is broken and trust in the establishment is at a very low ebb, it is critically important that we reset the relationship between the party and the electorate. It may be that in order to do this we will need frankly to accept that we were mistaken.

So, let’s be honest. Labour got it wrong on a second referendum. The party went against one of the only times in recent history that people felt they could finally express their justified anger at the present political system. 

To rebuild trust that has been lost and restore people’s trust in politics – Labour should say sorry. This is not only about Labour winning elections but restoring faith in democracy.

We do not believe that the party can move on until it has put this issue behind us.

For those who will say that the matter is behind us and we should move on, we say it will not do to whitewash or to ignore the recent past.

The country, our voters and our activists all deserve an explanation and perhaps an apology by the party for our actions in the years after the referendum up until the December election.

It must be a settling of accounts with Leavers, of course – but also with the Remainers, some of whom were falsely led to believe that we might be able to Remain.

And we must apologise to our activists who often had very difficult encounters on the doorsteps. We must pledge not to attempt to overturn a similar democratic vote in the way we did. 

The party also needs to show that it will not appear to turn its back on the most deprived communities ever again.

To do so will simply lead a dangerous turn to right-wing and racist populist parties who are feeding on the very communities that stayed loyal to Labour for generations. On the other hand, the government’s handling of the virus shows it has a vulnerable underbelly that is quite capable of being successfully attacked.

In order to do so successfully, we need permission from sceptical voters that we can be trusted again. The path back begins here.

It’s time to speak plainly as to why we got it wrong. Nothing less will do.

Ian Lavery is MP for Wansbeck. Laura Smith was MP for Crewe and Nantwich until 2019, and is now a Crewe councillor. Jon Trickett is MP for Hemsworth.

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