The most crucial issue of our generation
Voting in the European elections is over with results about to come in. The Tory leadership race, which will be won by a hardline Brexiteer, has just begun. Everyone who cares about the Labour Party and the country is bracing themselves with a sense of despair.
I want the reports of high turnout in remain areas to reflect a huge gain in votes for Labour, but I fear that won’t be the case. Pessimistic predictions put Labour in third place in this European election behind both Nigel Farage’s far right party and the born-again Liberal Democrats. Even optimists have us in second place and nowhere near the percentage of votes we would need to win a general election.
This was the first election I can remember where Labour Party members, not voters but party members, said they couldn’t support us. One member I met in Bristol broke down in tears as he told me that after 44 years of voting Labour he was going to vote Lib Dem for the first time. Our performance is a direct result of our mealy-mouthed backing for a public vote on Brexit when it is being demanded loud and clear by the overwhelming majority of our members and voters.
Polls show Labour has been losing up to four times more voters to parties giving full backing to a People’s Vote than to Farage. And those same polls show we would have beaten him by a country mile if we had unambiguously backed a public vote on any form of Brexit.
Once results are in, we must channel our frustration into preventing this mistake repeating itself and winning those voters back. Never again can Labour policy on the most crucial issue of our generation find itself on the wrong side of its members and our voters. Never again can we find ourselves hedging our bets when we needed to make an historic choice about which side we’re on. Lots of Labour people voted leave in 2016 for good reasons. But the Brexit reality we are now facing is a million miles from what was promised during that referendum and we can’t accept it.
Labour voters and members saw our position in this election for what it was: a deliberate and ultimately self-defeating attempt to triangulate between different groups. A decision based on an electoral calculation rather than our core values.
The Labour Party is the greatest engine of progress this country has ever known, but I fear that unless our policy on Brexit changes we will not have the opportunity to be the radical reforming government that so many millions of people in our country need.
The campaign to change that begins now. A small number of people on Labour’s National Executive determined our position going into the European election. From now on it must be our members who decide it. Thousands of party activists are already supporting motions to go to our annual conference demanding that the party campaigns for a public vote. But some members are telling me that’s too late. The conference is just a month before the next EU deadline which won’t allow time to campaign on any new position. I agree, and I will support methods to give members their say earlier.
Right wingers are trying to spin this election as a mandate for Farage’s no-deal Brexit. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If the polls are right, just a third of people will have given their support to Farage. Although he may have topped the poll, that does not mean a majority of those voting, let alone a majority of the country, want his backward-looking, catastrophic vision of Brexit.
I fear the Conservative Party will learn precisely the wrong lesson from these results as it embarks on a leadership election where candidates compete for who can be the most Faragiste.
There is now a real risk that a new Conservative Prime Minister will seek to take the UK crashing out of Europe with no deal by simply running the clock down to the October 31 deadline.
To force this form of Brexit on the British people when it is clearly opposed by a majority in both Parliament and the country would be a democratic outrage with consequences that will poison our politics for a generation or more.
That’s why Labour urgently needs to re-think its position and realign with our members and voters and establish a bulwark against Farage’s dark vision becoming reality. We must recognise that the only way to solve this crisis, defeat the far right and to build a lasting settlement on Brexit is to allow the public back into this decision.
For our party's sake but, most of all for Britain’s sake, Labour needs to find some backbone on Brexit, find our voice - and do it fast.