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Labour needs to wake up to the fact that U-turning on Brexit cost it the election

Too many members are engaged in a collective effort to deny the devastating effect of framing ourselves as a Remain party, says CHELLEY RYAN

IN 2015, I was devasted over Labour’s general election defeat, but that quickly turned to hope when I realised my analysis of the causes behind this loss were shared by the majority of party members. 

While the Parliamentary Labour Party was desperately framing it as a defeat of the left (it’s almost laughable looking back now to think they considered Ed Miliband to be too left wing), the members had correctly pinned the blame on a wishy-washy, uninspiring and incongruent manifesto. 

Miliband, who inspired a lot of affection among the members, was less red and more a jarring shade of fuschia. 

It was at this time when myself and another Labour member, Beck Barnes, who I “met” on a Facebook page devoted to Labour members grappling with our second defeat in five years, started a petition calling for an anti-austerity candidate to stand for Labour leader. 

Jeremy Corbyn heeded our call, much to the anguish of the implacably hostile PLP which spent the next year expending all its energy and focus on breaking him as a man and leader. 

Our polling plummeted after the coup attempt in June 2016, and stayed in the low 20s until Theresa May decided to capitalise on our weak polling by calling a snap general election. 

Everyone, bar a prescient few, predicted a huge majority for the Tories and the demise of Corbyn. But then something amazing happened.

Our policies got a hearing, Corbyn got a hearing and the polling, both of the party and Corbyn’s personal ratings, narrowed rapidly. 

May wanted it to be a Brexit election, but her claims that Labour was blocking Brexit fell flat because it simply wasn’t true. 

We had voted to trigger Article 50 and we were pledging to implement Brexit ourselves, just a slightly softer version which would protect jobs, while still giving us the freedom to control immigration, a strong driver for the Brexit vote. 

It was an incredibly pragmatic position that managed to unite Leave and Remain voters in an unexpected way. 

No, we didn't win the general election, but it certainly wasn’t the wipeout many Labour MPs were praying for. 

The humiliation was all May’s, not Corbyn’s. He had surprised everyone by helping Labour deliver the biggest swing in vote share since 1945 — 3.5 million more votes than only two years before under “(too) Red Ed.” 

This election proved it was possible to win seats under a left leader and a clearly socialist manifesto. Then the Labour Party decided to throw it all away over Brexit. 

I’m sorry for the lack of sugar-coating, but sometimes it’s as important to face hard truths as it is to talk of hope. 

For me there is no hope until the members can face the painful truth that we got it wrong on Brexit. 

I always thought it was politically and morally indefensible to support another referendum with Remain on the ballot. 

We were never going to be rewarded for trying to overturn democracy. Two-thirds of our seats voted Leave in the EU referendum, and these seats were more marginal than our Remain seats. 

We committed electoral suicide the moment we decided to have a referendum against a Labour deal because that gave Boris Johnson a big open goal to fire into every day of the general election campaign with his “Get Brexit done” slogan. 

Had the general election result acted as a huge wake-up call to members, I’d have more hope, but currently they are engaged in a collective effort to deny the devastating effect of framing ourselves as a Remain party. 

Keir Starmer is the leadership candidate capitalising on this denial. Not from him will the members hear any awkward home truths. 

Yes, he acknowledged Brexit is happening but there is no reflection over why it’s happening under the Tories and not under a Corbyn-led Labour government. 

Had Starmer hired a van with a tannoy during the election, to drive round our Leave seats, shouting: “Don’t vote Labour,” it wouldn’t have done as much harm as our Brexit policy, designed by him. I know I’m not completely alone in the way I feel. 

Other members are feeling the same sense of despair and frustration I’m feeling. This feeling doesn’t dissipate when members tell us to move on, either. 

If anything it makes it worse, especially when the people telling you to move on pushed for the referendum policy and are completely in denial over the damage it did to our election results. 

Their hope that Leave voters will develop collective amnesia or buyer’s regret is not reassuring either. We should be facing where we went wrong and move forward from there. 

Of course other factors were at play in contributing to our defeat, such as a hostile media and Corbyn’s personal ratings, but they were still interconnected to our flawed Brexit policy.

How much easier was it to frame our manifesto as an undeliverable wish list when we had U-turned on our pledge to honour the referendum result? 

And how much easier was it to frame Corbyn as detached and London-centric when he no longer championed northern Leave voters’ right to see Brexit delivered? 

As eminent pollster John Curtice replied when asked what did Labour more damage, Corbyn or Brexit: “You can’t separate them.”

It’s bad enough to lose a general election, but it’s salt in the wound when members don’t share your analysis of the defeat, in part because they subconsciously feel complicit in it and want to contort reality until it’s more comfortable for them to live with. 

MPs Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery called on northern Leave voters to join the Labour Party last week, which would be a step in the right direction. 

They claimed our party is becoming the party of the metropolitan middle class, which is making it impossible for us to connect to too many voters in once-safe heartland seats. They were right. 

When I was at conference and witnessed a unanimous vote to extend freedom of movement with a general election looming, I felt utter despair. Gone was the pragmatism of 2017. 

In its place was the left indulging itself in virtue-signalling that would cost us a general election. 

Before people accuse me of being a Blairite, I ask you this — would you put abolishing the monarchy in a manifesto knowing it was hugely unpopular and would undoubtedly cost us a general election? 

How have we helped immigrants by helping the Tories win a general election? How have Remainers gained from all our efforts to block Brexit? 

This isn’t about pragmatism, Blairite-style. They don’t have the drive to want to change society. We do. But we need to bring the public with us. Prove not preach. 

How much would public attitudes towards immigration have shifted after five years of an anti-austerity, pro-investment Labour government? 

We chose to preach rather than prove. Unless the membership starts to reflect the population as a whole in age, class and an understanding of what battles to take on and when, I don’t feel a lot of hope for the left.


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