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Labour has to be a home for Leave voters as well

It’s easy to forget or ignore the fact that Labour wasn’t always pro-EU. From Gaitskell’s 1000 years of history and Benn’s five questions of democracy to Castle’s Oxford Union speech: left and right have had their sceptics. Had Benn lived...


It’s easy to forget or ignore the fact that Labour wasn’t always pro-EU. From Gaitskell’s 1000 years of history and Benn’s five questions of democracy to Castle’s Oxford Union speech: left and right have had their sceptics. Had Benn lived longer, or indeed Healey, we can imagine the contributions they may have made to the referendum.

Labour is now committed to the EU and has made solidly leftwing arguments for Remain, that won’t (and shouldn’t) change, but it must tread carefully. When the Party relies on support in some of the most Europhile and most Eurosceptic seats it has to avoid speaking to only one group and using language its activists lap up but many in the public are sceptical of.

When polls show a majority, of working class voters disagree with Labour, the party established to represent their views, alarm bells should be ringing. When between one quarter to one third of current Labour voters support Brexit, there are risks we have to be aware of and plan for.

Too many Labour voters are being tempted by UKIP or deciding to stay at home. Across Northern Europe rightwing populists are moving in where the centre left is vulnerable. To ignore such a threat could be disastrous. We cannot play into this becoming a proxy culture war between Britain’s social tribes or handwring and pretend the UK is uniquely sceptical of the EU.

I have seen Labour supporters of our traditional stance on Europe being labelled fifth columnists, xenophobes, and racists; supporters of Leave ridiculed as idiots. If this approach escapes Twitter and CLP meetings we risk reinforcing a division between us and many of our voters. With activists largely diehard pro-EU, we need to consider what they will say on the doorstep to Leave voters post-referendum, how they will challenge their own comfort zones.

In Labour activist circles it is more acceptable to support federalism than Brexit, to back open borders than a tighter immigration model – at odds with the general public, and often diametrically opposed to working class concerns. The ‘centre ground’ is where the public are, not the politicos.  ‘Working class engagement’ means also taking on board concerns that don’t fit a liberal middle class narrative. The need to persuade voters to back Remain is obvious, but to stigmatise voting Leave won’t help Labour in the longrun.

Labourites can pretend every Leave voter is a miniature Farage, or they can engage with reality and realise there must be space on the pews in our Broad Church for the Dennis Skinners, Gisela Stuarts, John Manns and Kate Hoeys of the electorate. There’s a leftwing case for and against the EU.

Tory infighting might be brutal, but to a swing voter who backs Leave there are prominent Tories they can identify with but very few in Labour. Conservative disunity reflects that of the country, while Labour’s united front risks only speaking to one tranche of voters in the referendum and excluding the rest.

Labour Leave has an important role to play in reflecting our voters who do want Brexit and keeping them after the referendum. If some are unsure of our stance, I understand the desire to be even more loudly pro-EU, but there are strengths to showing there is a diversity of opinion and the risk some overcompensate by championing it so zealously as to be counterproductive for the party and the referendum.

The growing rift between Labour members, voters, and the wider electorate isn’t a new phenomenon, and it risks being exacerbated if Labour handles the referendum and its fallout badly. Labour faces an existential crisis if the gulf between the Party and the class it was established to represent doesn’t narrow.

Many firm Labour remainers get this, but I worry too often the Party, politicians and activists haven’t considered the tone of their messaging during, and after the referendum.

If Remain wins Labour must not be triumphalist or spin it as a mandate for more than what it is, while during the campaign it must avoid burning bridges it desperately needs to cross to win in 2020. If it loses Labour must face a public it fundamentally disagrees with and try and move on in such difficult circumstances.

This piece is not about who is right or wrong, whether we should be In or Out, but simply that Labour must be a home to Leave as well as Remain voters. We need every vote we can get, we cannot afford to push friends away over one disagreement. Labour has to be a home for Leave voters as well. If we fail to get this, we risk waking up on June 24th having won the battle for Europe, but losing the war for Labour’s future.


James Hallwood

James Hallwood was chair of the Young Fabians (2013-14)

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