Labour’s U-turn on the 2016 referendum promise gave away the election to the Tories.
In 2017 the Labour Party fought a General Election campaign around an exciting and popular manifesto that was a strategic re-statement of left wing social democracy. It rejected the economics and politics of austerity. It championed those ‘left behind’ and advanced a programme for the downward transference of wealth and power. Labour’s strategy was encapsulated in the slogan, “For the Many not the Few”. Jeremy Corbyn was the leader. He and Labour were committed to honouring the 2016 EU referendum result.
In 2019 Jeremy Corbyn was still the leader. The manifesto was again, anti-austerity and grounded in the traditions of social radicalism. The key message, “For the Many, not the Few”, was re-stated.
The essential difference between 2017 and 2019 was the U-turn on respecting the 2016 referendum. In 2017 Labour committed to honouring the referendum and secured the greatest swing to Labour since 1945. In 2019 – same leader, essentially the same policies – it reneged on that commitment. A string of the most senior Shadow Cabinet Ministers, including Starmer, Thornberry, Watson, McDonnell and Abbott all publicly committed to campaigning for Remain in any future referendum.
With Corbyn as a disempowered ‘neutral’ lone voice, Labour effectively presented itself to the public as a Remain Party – and suffered the greatest swing against Labour since 1935.
The switch in policy towards the referendum was by no means the only reason for the dramatic change in Labour fortunes. But it is certainly the most important.
THE ‘PEOPLE’S VOTE’ CAMPAIGN WAS BASED ON CLASSISM…
In early 2019, under pressure from the ‘People’s Vote Campaign’ and a chorus of Shadow Cabinet remainists, Labour capitulated to the demand for a repeat referendum.
In that moment Labour betrayed democracy, and with it, the millions of people, most notably the working classes of the Midlands and the North, who had voted to leave the EU. It discounted their view and their vote. It swallowed the classist lies that they were ignorant; that they did not understand the complexities of the argument; that they were not ‘enlightened’ like the southern middle classes; that they were xenophobic racists.
… AND A CATALOGUE OF LIES.
This condescending narrative contradicted the detailed analyses of the referendum, which showed clearly that the principal reason for voting Leave was sovereignty (1). We were told that the result had nothing to do with class. Again this was false. Detailed studies showed that while a majority of social strata A and B voted to Remain, social strata C1, C2, D and E voted Leave. (2)
We were told that in 2016 Leave only won because of a lie on the side of a bus. Yet Cameron and Osborne had lied throughout the referendum campaign. They said there would be a market reflex action to a Leave result, with an immediate economic Armageddon, including plummeting share prices and half a million lost jobs. It didn’t happen. Osborne had threatened an emergency extreme austerity budget if we dared to vote leave. It never happened. Project Fear was a strategic lie.
Given that those crying ‘foul’ all understood perfectly well that General Elections are characteristically strewn with disinformation, it was disingenuous for them to call for the referendum result to be dismissed because we ‘weren’t told the truth’. The working classes – repeatedly dismissed as ‘uninformed’ and ‘thick’ for voting Leave, understood the ruse. And when their time came, they hadn’t forgotten and they did not forgive.
We were told that the Leave campaign had breached spending rules, yet the Remain campaign spent 45% more: Remain – £19,309,588; Leave – £13,332,569, (Electoral Commission).
Finally we were told repeatedly that people had changed their minds and that polls were indicating a big swing to Remain. It was untrue. There were relatively minor fluctuations throughout 2018-2019. In the largest poll since the referendum itself, (26,000 adults surveyed across the UK by Savanta ComRes, 16/10/19) results showed more than half (54%) of the British public supported the UK abiding by the referendum result and leaving the EU, regardless of the way they voted in the 2016 Referendum. (3)
In short, between 2016-2019 there was an orchestrated campaign of disinformation to persuade Labour Party members that there should be a repeat referendum. This naked attack on democracy was in contempt of an electorate that had voted by a majority of 1,269,501 to leave the EU.
THE TORY LEADERSHIP AND THE EU BUREAUCRACY ADOPTED A STRATEGY OF DELAY
Rather than implement the will of the people, Remainer David Cameron resigned. Theresa May, also a Remainer, frittered away over 900 days before bringing her soft Remain deal to Parliament, despite having inherited a majority over Labour of 99 MPs. During this period, the so-called People’s Vote campaign was conceived and launched with the backing of massive corporate funding (4).
People who had voted over 3 years earlier to Leave the EU were disenfranchised and disempowered by deceit, dithering and delay. The working classes who had voted to leave were abused, patronised, discounted, alienated and embittered. They were angry with the Party of Labour, the Party that was meant to fight for them. Repeated warnings from Labour MPs and other leading figures from the Midlands and the North went unheeded.
JOHNSON AND CUMMINGS EXPLOITED THE THE SITUATION CREATED BY LABOUR CENTRISTS
If the Labour Party Shadow Cabinet failed to understand this, Johnson and Cummings did not. They conceived a simple plan to bring down the ‘Red Wall’. ‘Get Brexit Done’ was less of a slogan, more of a jingle, repeated endlessly. It was combined with a relentless attack on Corbyn, assisted by defectors, saboteurs and a carefully timed personal assault by Rabbi Mirvis (5).
Those trying to suggest that it was Corbyn, not Brexit, that cost Labour the election, miss the point. ‘Get Brexit done’ and the attack on Corbyn merged: Labour’s leader had failed to keep his promise to honour the 2016 referendum, and could no longer be trusted.
Corbyn was finally undone by his closest comrades. In a desperate attempt to keep some semblance of a commitment to implementing the 2016 referendum, Corbyn took his compromise to Conference. A Labour Government would negotiate a credible deal and put it to the people, with Remain on the ballot. He already knew the likes of Watson, Starmer, Thornberry and Mason would betray him. But then McDonnell and Abbott also declared that they would campaign for Remain, and against any deal. In the televised leadership debate Johnson was able to turn to Corbyn and ask, ‘And who will negotiate this credible deal? Your entire Shadow Cabinet will be campaigning against it’. Corbyn had no answer. There was no answer. Other than, et tu Brute?
TRIVIALISING DEMOCRACY MAY SPAWN THE INFANT SPECTRE OF FASCISM
Labour lost the General Election because it trivialised the democratic rights of millions of working people. The Blairites screwed up Labour’s seeming invincibility in Scotland by taking the working class for granted. Now we have replicated the error in England and Wales. In a period of profound capitalist crisis, we have helped to create an alienated working class and facilitated a far-right government. Out of such a combination of factors, fascism may be spawned. Tommy Robinson has now joined the Conservative Party and, with him I suspect, the remnants of UKIP and the English Defence League.
This infant spectre can be avoided. But we need to move quickly and decisively. The Tories have a comfortable overall majority in Parliament and are already reneging on election promises, moving against the organised working class, democratic rights and free speech. Extra-parliamentary forms of organisation and agitation need to be developed as a matter of urgency if we are to empower working people. Industrial action by trade unions must be supported and supplemented by mass civil actions such as those organised by Extinction Rebellion. First, we must win back the support of the Labour heartlands.
JOHNSON’S DEAL MAY YET BE ‘TIDIED UP’ TO THE SATISFACTION OF THE EU
It remains to be seen exactly how Johnson’s deal will unfold. His and Cummings’ election campaign was first and foremost about defeating Corbyn’s Labour and creating a Parliamentary base for an assault on the working classes on behalf of capital. That has been achieved and in acknowledgement, share prices and other corporate indices are smiling.
We may now expect Johnson’s deal to be ‘tidied up’ to the satisfaction not only of Donald Trump but also, perhaps, to that of the EU bureaucracy. In this endeavour Johnson will have the backing of the CBI, the Chamber of Commerce, the Bank of England, the Treasury, all the high street banks, the majority of Tory MPs and the Times group. What do these bastions of UK capitalism share in common? They are all firmly committed to the UK remaining in the European Union. Johnson will now look to reunite the Tory Party and the ruling class behind his leadership. The new jingle, this time behind closed doors, may well be ‘get Brexit fudged’.
PRIORITIES FOR LABOUR AS WE ENTER A PERIOD OF INTENSE CLASS CONFLICT
The immediate priority is clear. The disinformation campaign – that this election defeat was due to Labour’s anti-austerity policies, to Corbyn being ‘too socialist’ or to the senior staff in the leadership team – must be exposed. The data is demonstrable. Labour lost the election primarily because of the decision to no longer honour the 2016 referendum, a decision imposed on Corbyn by Labour centrists and the People’s Vote campaign, a decision directly responsible for the loss of 51 Leave supporting seats in the Midlands and the North. That’s +51 for the Tories and -51 for Labour. Sections of the left were taken in by this campaign including many Labour Party members. But an alienated corps of those who elect Labour into power, were not.
Contrary to the classist abuse heaped on northern Labour Leavers, they understood, by way of brutal class realities, exactly how the EU had failed them. And how over a period of 30 years, Labour has failed them. Why would they – why should they – support a Party that had taken them for granted and then discounted them entirely? Yes, Labour had the policies to meet their needs but for reasons of Labour’s own making, its most loyal supporters had stopped listening to the Party that had stopped listening to them.
If Labour is to win back the mass support of working people, especially in those regions that were taken for granted, it must learn the lessons. Firstly, that means recognising that Leave won in 2016, it won the EU elections in 2019 and now it has won the Brexit General Election. Remain is finished. To continue pretending otherwise is fanciful and deluded. Secondly, Labour needs to elect a Leader and Deputy who are committed to the radical, anti-austerity policies that are popular with the UK public and are the basis of a fundamental transference of wealth and power from the Few to the Many. Thirdly, those leaders must also be grounded in the grassroots culture and experiences of those who have been left behind, principally in the Midland and Northern heartlands of our Party. Finally, the Labour movement must be prepared to boldly initiate and support industrial and extra-parliamentary actions through a period of the most intense class conflict.
These measures are fundamental to the regeneration of the Party, to it reclaiming the meaning and essence of its name, the Party of Labour, and above all, to advancing the interests of all working people.
Article by Gary Lefley Editor Socialist Correspondent Editorial Board. Also Chair of Chingford & Woodford Green CLP.
3. https://www.comresglobal.com/…/itn-brexit-referendum-poll-…/4. https://www.facebook.com/socialistcorrespondent/posts/1496333733850134