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Labour Lost for Failing to back Remain, Not because it Failed to Back Brexit

The Labour Party must work out how to scrutinise the Government on Brexit and outbid the Tories on the NHS, public services and aspiration to keep its current voters and win back its heartlands.

The Labour Party must work out how to scrutinise the Government on Brexit and outbid the Tories on the NHS, public services and aspiration to keep its current voters and win back its heartlands.

Following a heavy defeat, it is tempting to look for a simple explanation that can be easily fixed. The two favourites in Labour circles are that the party had the wrong leader and that backing a second Brexit referendum was the wrong choice. The reality is far more complicated. 

There is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn was unpopular on the doorstep. He was the factor most named by former Labour voters uncertain about backing the party in polling in the run up to this General Election. A different leader would, in all likelihood, have done better. This is the fourth general election in a row which Labour has approached with an unpopular leader. If it wants to win next time, it needs to get better at picking popular leaders and at ditching leaders who are not up to the job before, rather than after, an election. 

But, this defeat was not made in 2015 when Corbyn won the leadership or in 2016 when the Brexit referendum was won by Leave.

The rise of Conservative support in former industrial and manufacturing areas has been building for 40 years, as has Labour’s growing strength in areas with more graduates and more ethnic minorities. Early warning signs were evident from decreasing majorities in its former heartlands over successive elections – in the Copeland by-election in early 2017, for instance, and the loss of Mansfield on the same day as it won Kensington and Canterbury in the 2017 General Election.

The failure to respond to these signals made the collapse of the Red Wall inevitable. Corbyn and Brexit may have exacerbated and hastened the fall but, without a course correction from Labour, it was coming regardless. 

One narrative that must be killed now is that Labour should have moved to a pro-Brexit policy. The data shows exactly the opposite was the case as Labour voters are overwhelmingly Remainers, outnumbering Labour Leavers by two to one. Even in the Red Wall seats in the north and the Midlands which overall voted for Leave, the majority of Labour supporters in those seats were Remainers. 

Labour’s failure between 2017 and the summer of 2019 to definitively back Remain had a significant impact on its support. By June 2019, it had lost half of its 2017 voters and, at its lowest, Labour was polling at 19% – behind the Liberal Democrats. Remainers made up the overwhelming majority of those who said that they would vote for another party. This catastrophic loss of support was the background to Labour’s decision to support a second referendum with an option to Remain.

In the 2019 General Election, Labour managed to recover much of its support from Remain voters, but the late conversion to a referendum, combined with an attempt to face both ways by talking up the likelihood of leaving on a Labour deal, was not enough to keep all the Remain votes that were won in 2017. Labour lost 1.3 million Remain voters to Remain parties (the Liberal Democrats, Greens and SNP) and 700,000 Leave voters to Brexit parties (the Conservatives and the Brexit Party). Staggeringly, Labour lost a further 300,000 Remain voters to the Conservatives, seemingly for the reason that they feared a hard Brexit Johnson Government less than Labour. This did not just have an impact in Remain-voting seats such as Kensington and Chipping Barnet which Labour failed to win. The defection of former Labour-voting Remainers was a decisive factor in the loss of a further 24 seats all of which had, overall, voted Leave. 

The tragedy is that polls had shown for a long time that Labour would do best if it backed Remain. An ICM poll, conducted in late 2018, looked at Labour’s then 41 most marginal held seats and showed that, if Labour backed Remain, it would keep all 41, but if Labour backed Leave, even in its most benign form, it would lose 40 of the 41. Many of these are the very seats lost last week, in the north east, the Midlands and north west. 

The pursuit of a Red Brexit policy stance would have delivered the worst of all worlds. It would have pushed large numbers of Labour Remainers towards the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP. Given that Brexit was not the biggest concern for Labour Leave voters, it is highly unlikely to have won many of them back. 

Labour’s challenge now is to work out how to represent and appeal to the voters of Copeland and Stockton South without losing the voters of Canterbury and Sheffield Hallam. Failing to oppose the Tories on Brexit would lose the votes of the latter. Failing to outbid the Tories on the NHS, public services and aspiration would continue to lose votes in former Labour heartlands. 

Crucially, the whole package must be presented by a leader and a party that looks credible and gains the trust of voters across the board. The second most stated reason for not backing Labour this time, after Corbyn, was not Brexit or anti-Semitism, but a basic lack of belief that the party could deliver

Labour now needs to do the listening and the learning that it failed to do in 2010, 2015 or 2017. After each failed general election, the party failed to lead a proper investigation into its failure, what had happened to its vote or what trends were taking place and why. In 2010, any analysis was overtaken by an argument over which Miliband to support. In 2015, the debate was lost in the Corbyn phenomenon, while 2017 was treated as a win instead of a loss. All were lost opportunities for reflection. All in their own way led to last Thursday’s catastrophe. 

It is too soon to write off Labour as a powerful electoral force. It won more than 10 million votes in this General Election and, from speaking to voters on the doorstep, it is clear that many wanted to vote for a credible Labour Party but could not do so this time for one or more of the reasons discussed. With a better leader, a better offer and a better understanding of what voters want from it, Labour can and will win again. 

Mike Buckley is the director of Labour for a Public Vote. He tweets at @mdbuckley. Christabel Cooper is a data analyst and Labour councillor. She tweets at @ChristabelCoops

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