Independent: Brexit is not the sole reason Labour lost this election – the party must learn the right lessons from defeat


In the immediate aftermath of every general election, rival political parties scramble to establish what they like to call the “narrative” about what just happened. The winners will embellish accounts of their own brilliance. The losers like to find someone else to blame. 

What is unusual about this particular contest is that both the Conservative and the Labour leaderships are both conspiring in the creation of the same myth.

Unless you have been locked away underground for the last couple of days, you will already have heard it a hundred times: this election was apparently decided by vast legions of working class Labour supporters who all voted Conservative because they really want Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit deal.

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Boris Johnson’s team know that it allows them to pretend a Brexit designed by the right, for the rich and being forced by a reckless prime minister on the poor is the kind of project of which Clement Attlee might have been proud. It is also being propagated by those inside Jeremy Corbyn’s bunker because to “blame Remain” is a lot easier than accepting responsibility for Labour’s fourth successive defeat – and the worst the party has suffered since the Thirties. 

The trouble is not only that this is largely untrue. It is also dangerous for the future of our politics. 

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Of course, there were Leave supporters who switched from Labour to Tory in this election. Sometimes it feels that almost every one of them must have at some point featured in a vox pop from a “heartland constituency” in the north or the midlands where intrepid broadcast journalists travel to discover “what voters really think” by interviewing those that conform to the prejudices of their editors.

But, dig into the detail of the rather more scientific polls that are available, and you find there was also a similarly-sized chunk of Labour Remainers who backed the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. According to an Ashcroft analysis published on Friday, Labour’s Leave voters were no more disloyal than Conservative Remainers – 34 per cent of whom voted for other parties in this election. 

Another survey by Delta Poll which asked potential Labour defectors why they might vote for someone else or – more likely in an election where the party failed to turn out much of its base – for no one at all. Fully 46 per cent cited Jeremy Corbyn as a reason, compared to just 19 per cent who said it was about Brexit.

Boris Johnson pledges to ‘get Brexit done’ before by January 31st

There will be more data over the next few weeks but this early evidence confirms the anecdotal accounts of many Labour candidates in both Leave and Remain constituencies who say the doorstep antipathy they encountered towards Corbyn was far more intense than anything they got towards the party’s Brexit policy. Some of the attacks on him unfair and, like other Labour leaders before him, he has had to deal with an extremely hostile media environment. 

But Corbyn deserves some criticism for his reluctance to lead on Brexit, the biggest issue of all, over the past three years. He had to be dragged, truculently and belatedly, to a policy of a Final Say referendum but his failure to grasp it much earlier prised the allegiances of millions of the party’s supporters. 

Three-quarters of Labour’s 2017 support say they want a new referendum and would vote to stay if they were given the chance. Although this proportion is lower in the party’s so-called heartlands, it is a policy also backed by most Labour supporters. One of the greatest and too often repeated fallacies in this whole debate is to assume that Labour supporters back Brexit just because they happen to live in a Leave-voting constituency.

One of the best pieces of analysis was from Peter Kellner who suggested that just one in eight of the 2016 Leave vote were working class Labour supporters. In other words, despite the narrative that Brexit was all down to them, these voters do not need to own it.

The patronising stereotypes about working class voters being pushed by the Tory and Labour leaderships now risk distorting politics even further. Yes, Labour needs to find a way to reconnect with people in communities that never shared properly in the prosperity of the 1990s and early 2000s. That should start by recognising transactional spending pledges are not enough and the party now needs to develop a vision of modernity in which everyone can participate.

Labour must resist falling meekly into line behind a hard Tory Brexit that will hurt these same voters first and worst. That would be a betrayal of everything the party was created to do. It would mean Labour turning its back on its internationalist values, as well as a generation of young people ready to engage with a party – any party – that will help them build an open, outward-looking, progressive country in their own image. 

As Labour prepares to pick a new leader, the myths being spun about Labour’s Leavers are helping the current one evade responsibility for this defeat and may prevent his successor from charting a course to victory in the future. 

Some will dismiss these arguments as those of a sore loser. The truth is that I am sore and I recognise my side of the argument has lost. The People’s Vote campaign for which I worked for was already disabled by boardroom politics at the beginning of this election and has now announced it is giving up the fight altogether. 

But in the days and weeks to come, Johnson’s government will inevitably lurch into fresh crisis over Brexit as it trips over the prime minister’s tangle of contradictory or impossible-to-keep promises. 

The people of this country, especially those in working class communities, need the Labour Party to hold this government to account and resist policy that will make their lives worse. 

That must start by learning the right lessons from this devastating defeat – not the wrong ones. 

Tom Baldwin was director of communications at the The People’s Vote campaign and is a former director of strategy & communications for the Labour Party

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