Brexit Divides Almost Killed the Labour Party — But the Left Can Rebuild

A new report on Labour's defeat highlights the damage caused by its Brexit stance, exposing the decades-long weakening of its roots in the working class. There’s no quick fix to Labour’s problems — we need to do the long work of rebuilding the structures that tie our MPs to working-class life.

Jeremy Corbyn at a Labour Party rally on December 9, 2019 in Bristol, England. (Flickr)

As the exit poll foretold the unfolding disaster, it seemed that Big Ben’s bells had barely finished chiming before some elements of the Labour Party were on the airwaves explaining why it had happened. Few acknowledged their own part in the historic defeat. This was a catastrophic defeat for the Labour Party — but after coming so close in 2017, what had gone wrong?

The Labour Together report as published on Friday sets out its assessment on this question. Unsurprisingly, it highlights three main issues: the party leadership, chaotic election messaging, and Brexit. It makes clear that Brexit was central in 2019, but as a catalyst for long-term trends.

If much of this seems familiar, that’s because it is. In the summer of 2019 with the election not even a twinkle in the eye, along with the then-MP for Crewe and Nantwich, Laura Smith, we produced “Northern Discomfort.” Our analysis highlighted the bleeding away of Labour’s working-class support and the ever-increasing feeling in our heartlands that we were distant and metropolitan, a party of authoritarian liberalism.

Many felt that powerful sections in our party were not interested in, and indeed scornful of, the views of those communities which we had represented for a century. We predicted a huge loss of seats in the North and Midlands unless we shifted position. We did not publish it then in the spirit of unity, though we did share its findings with leading members of the Shadow Cabinet.

Not only did we highlight these issues in document form, but week after week we pointed out that there was no route to a Labour victory that did not run through the Leave-voting marginals of England and Wales. We argued that those colleagues who used their senior position in the Shadow Cabinet then to publicly advocate a second referendum with Remain as Labour’s favored option in order to appease their own heavily Remain urban electorates were damaging our national standing.

Today’s report shows that we lost votes in all directions but that 1.7 million Leave voters, largely in the so-called red wall marginals, were key to our trashing. This is because — as we said at the time — our Leave-voting electorate were highly concentrated in Labour seats in the North and Midlands.

While the report highlights the leadership of the party and disunity, let us be honest about these issues. Let us not talk about unity without addressing the elephant in the room.

From the day Jeremy Corbyn was elected a sizable and vociferous minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), party staff, and membership fought to destroy him. They had convinced themselves that the party could not win with a socialist agenda. Ironically, the report confirms that many of our most radical policies were indeed extremely popular.

In 2017 Labour almost pulled off what was unthinkable only weeks before, seeing the party achieve its best result in England since 1966, gains in Wales and the beginning of a fightback in Scotland. It did so with an unashamed message of hope, a radical and popular policy platform, and a settled position to respect the result of the referendum.

There are MPs and activists who will tell you that Jeremy Corbyn came up on the door as much as Brexit in 2019, and it’s a fair point. But to try to separate them is nonsense. In 2017 even those unsure about Jeremy thought he was a fundamentally decent man. By 2019, years of attacks from within, and a fudge on the Brexit issue in an attempt to bridge the divides in the party, profoundly changed the country’s opinion.

The report rightly points out the disconnect between the party and its diverse coalition of working- and middle-class people from cities, towns, and villages. We must urgently address this issue. The report’s praise of community organizing is to be welcomed — alongside our ambitious and transformational policy platform, the Community Organising Unit is a legacy of the past five years that we must stick to.

To win again Labour must ensure it roots itself back in the communities it seeks to represent. The transformative Labour government of 1945 was only able to complete its overhaul of the postwar nation and reset the consensus for a generation because it elected working men and women who had experience at all levels and in all fields.

Today, our parliament is sorely lacking in the working-class voices it once had — voices from those professions we now laud as key to our country.

We must be representative of the diversity of our nation. We must end the practice of parachuting in candidates who couldn’t point to constituencies on a map and root ourselves again in the day-to-day lives of the community.

We must listen to, not just talk to, our constituents. And we must stand shoulder to shoulder with them against the injustices they face in their lives.

Brexit and division almost killed the Labour Party. Those who played a part in both now have the opportunity to reflect. If they do, there may be a future for a Labour Party worthy of the name.