Richard Corbett: Labour shouldn’t apologise for People’s Vote pledge

We'd have done better if we were more Remain, says ex-leader of Labour's MEPs.

Just when Brexit is proving to be even more damaging, job-destroying and costly than predicted, and polls show that more voters than ever think it was a mistake, up pops Ian Lavery to say that Keir Starmer should offer a “full throated apology” for Labour’s stance on Brexit in the last general election. Instead of offering a second referendum, Labour should, he argues, have fully backed Brexit.

The reality is that, if Labour made a mistake in its Brexit policy, it was in not backing a second referendum sooner, and not going for a full throated attack on the lies told by Boris Johnson. And central to this mistake was Ian Lavery, who repeatedly clashed with Jeremy Corbyn on this, trying to prevent him from shifting Labour’s position.

Jeremy first said Labour MPs should back a public vote on May’s Brexit deal in January 2019.  Ian Lavery promptly wrote an article in the Guardian opposing that shift. In March, Jeremy whipped Labour MPs to vote in the Commons for an amendment backing a referendum.

Ian Lavery failed to support it, breaking a three-line whip. That would normally entail resigning from the shadow cabinet but he refused, knowing that it would be difficult for Jeremy to dismiss him, given his position as “party chair”.

In April, the Observer reported that, in a Shadow Cabinet meeting, Lavery “was very angry and wagged his finger at Jeremy, telling him that if he backed a referendum he would go down in history as the Labour leader who split the party”. Time and time again, Ian sought to stop, delay, or even reverse, the shifts in position announced by Jeremy. 

This damaged the party. Backing a new referendum was right, both for reasons of principle and for electoral advantage. Principle, because it was right to call for a public vote on the actual Brexit deal, given that it was turning out to be so different from what Johnson, Gove and their fellow Leave campaigners had promised back in 2016, and given the mounting evidence that working people in particular would be badly hit.

Electoral advantage because public opinion did not – as many had expected – rally behind the result of the 2016 referendum. On the contrary, and to some surprise, overall opinion actually edged the other way. Every opinion poll bar one in 2019 showed a majority would vote to Remain in a new referendum. In the general election, some 53% voted for parties promising to hold one. It’s what the public wanted. It’s what most Labour voters wanted. And it’s what a large majority of party members wanted.

It’s telling that this shift of opinion against Brexit took place despite Labour not doing very much to drive it. For a long time, Labour said it would “respect” the result of the 2016 referendum, even when the industrial scale of the lies told by Johnson’s Leave campaign – and its law breaking – became apparent.

Imagine if, instead, all of our leading figures had been continuously making the case that Brexit was turning out to be a disaster, wrecking our economy, destroying jobs, threatening our rights and our security: opinion would have shifted still further against Brexit. And Labour would have been leading that charge, not shedding crucial votes to smaller opposition parties who were more explicit on opposing Brexit.

Because that is what happened. The figures presented by Jenny Formby’s team to the NEC in January 2020 (my last meeting as a member of it) analysing our election performance said that: “The total support lost [just] to the Liberal Democrats equalled that lost to the Conservatives and Brexit party combined.”

If you add on what we lost to the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, then we clearly lost more votes to “Remain” parties than to “Leave” parties. The Tories only went up by 1% in the election, while the smaller Remain parties went up by a total of 5%.

Of course, there was a problem in that this was not evenly distributed and many point to the seats we lost in the “Red Wall”. But even there, there were several seats that we lost by a smaller majority than the number of votes that we lost to the Liberal Democrat’s or Greens (for example, Bury North, Bury South, Bolton NE, High Peak, Stoke Central, Haywood & Middleton, Delyn).

Of those we did lose, Labour’s share of the vote had been on a downward trajectory for 20 years or more in these areas, well before Brexit became an issue. Surveys confirm that other issues drove the bulk of that shift.

And the Red Wall is anyway not the whole story. We should not forget the former “Red Block” of Scotland – crucial for Labour to regain – and where we would have done far better with a stronger Remain position. There are also many seats elsewhere in England that we could have won had we not shed “Remainer” votes.

Some argued that we had to take an ambiguous position in order not to lose Leave voters. Well, ambiguity doesn’t seem to have helped! In a forlorn attempt to placate the minority of Labour voters who voted Leave, we lost far more Remainers. We’d have done better to keep those votes and work harder at persuading the Leavers.

Had we made the case week in, week out, instead of hiding from it or mouthing that we’d take a position after the election once we’d got a new deal, the number of Labour Leavers would have shrunk still further and we would have also retained more Remainers. We might even have made inroads among traditional Tory voters who were ant-Brexit.

We must not fall for the facile stereotypes that are bandied about, such as the claim that working class voters are overwhelmingly pro-Brexit or that it is a north-south division. In the 2016 referendum, most working class people in work voted Remain, while most working class voters not in work, mostly retired, voted Leave – a more subtle division than portrayed.

And as for the north, it had much the same division between cities and small towns as the south (Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, York, Newcastle all voted Remain, most Tory shires in the south voted Leave). And the most northern part of the UK – Scotland, where a Labour comeback is desperately needed  – was overwhelmingly Remain. All these divisions seem to have shifted to a more Brexit-critical position since then.

Now we’re facing the end of the Brexit transition at the end of next month, with either no deal or a bad deal, that will not turn out to be a popular success. There are real risks of our exports and supply chains being disrupted, of an eventual breakup of the UK as Scotland considers independence, of conflict reappearing in Northern Ireland, of a geo-political and economic realignment away from our European neighbours to the USA, a trajectory of decline for public services, a weakening of workplace rights, and a damaged political system that rewards a populist leader telling blatant lies. Labour must distance itself from this.

Richard Corbett was the Leader of the Labour MEPs 2017-2020 and in that capacity sat on the NEC and attended Shadow Cabinet.

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