Labour beware false optimism

Labour squeezed through the middle of two Brexit parties to win the Peterborough by-election, but the European elections tell a different story, says Mike Davis.

Labour defied the pundits to win the Peterborough by-election with a poor 31% of the vote. But it was a win nonetheless for Lisa Forbes (an ex-European Labour candidate) with a majority of 683. Without diminishing the symbolic value of puncturing the Farage party balloon we have to be realistic about the result. It was the lowest share of the vote by a winning party in a by-election since 1918. This was a Leave voting area in the 2016 Referendum and that vote split between the Brexit Party and the Tories with over 50% between them. The disgraced Fiona Onesanya took the seat from the Tories in 2017 with 48.1%. Labour haemorrhaged 17.2% of its vote.

A huge Labour party effort with hundreds of supporters working in the constituency plus good contact data helped secure the win. But there is no room for complacency and let’s not kid ourselves that a policy of conspicuous ambiguity, committing to neither Leave or Remain, will secure victory in the next general election.

The message from the European elections is that Labour has to come off the fence and campaign for remaining in the European Union and for putting a deal, no deal or remain back to the people. Labour’s shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald put it strongly on the BBC Today programme the morning after the by-election. “We are a remain and reform party,” he stressed, echoing John McDonnell the previous week. He pointed out Labour had sought a compromise with a customs union and close alignment with the Single Market, but Theresa May had rejected this approach. There is no way back on this now.

Labour’s European parliamentary election was an embarrassing apology for a campaign—lousy leaflets, lousy organisation and inadequate leadership, with most policies couched in a national not a European framework. An internationalist party should not be losing 10 MEPs. It’s no excuse to say UKIP won in 2014. We have had five years since then to put the internationalist European case, to challenge the ethno-nationalist populists with a future vision of collaboration through Europe to the world. Under Corbyn’s leadership since 2015 steps have been made to strengthen European solidarity. The European manifesto Labour signed for transforming Europe was progressive but received virtually no promotion.

Others have said the European elections don’t really count and that they were not really a proxy for other elections. However, they were national elections. Certainly they were fought primarily on one issue, namely Brexit. But Labour’s response was almost to pretend the election was not about European matters but domestic policies. It didn’t work. Securing just 14% of the vote demonstrates that.

We are also told we will win back those who deserted Labour for the Lib Dems or Greens. Beware. When people switch it is not easy to win them back. If people see risks of leaving for the economy and jobs, for peace and security, for culture and science, for free movement and citizen rights, then they will not easily drop those views for a party that doesn’t put them centre stage with a clear alternative.

Labour is an internationalist party. The Tories are revealing themselves as a narrow, inward looking English national party, with virtually all leadership candidates vying to outdo each other to recoup the ground lost to Farage’s Brexit party with its no deal stance. Dominic Raab has even talked of suspending parliament, an unprecedented step and one that undermines the professed aim of Brexiteers to take back control to parliament.

An ostrich position on Brexit won’t work. Labour was hammered in the European election when we should have been streets ahead. We allowed the Lib Dems and Greens to win in cosmopolitan areas like London that Labour should have walked. Neither did the fence sitting approach help us win in Leave voting areas. People want to know where we stand on Europe. We have to spell out the message. Our core supporters want to stay in the EU. Unless we reach out and reassure them we will haemorrhage votes to the Lib Dems in seats we currently hold.

Labour now has to start campaigning in earnest for reform and remain. We can win over many doubters with a European recovery plan that ditches austerity and promotes sustainable green investment and properly funded public services. If we frame our policies on stopping tax dodging, action on the climate emergency and many others in a European context, we can win people.

We also now know the nature of any trade deal with Trump: the NHS would be up for grabs with rapacious US corporations bidding to take over. The NHS will be under mortal threat with Boris Johnson and his mate Donald Trump.

As the Brexit Party and the Tories fight over ‘no deal’ supporters, Labour must reach Remainers in every constituency. Even in Leave seats with Labour MPs there will be 30%+ Remain voters. Building on that vote we can win over many Leave voters who we can persuade will be better off working with our European partners to transform Europe for the many.

Prospects for working people with a no-deal or Tory deal will be grim. Thousands of job losses are already occurring with Toyota, Honda and Ford declaring plant closures while British Steel looks set to close, hitting 3,500 jobs in Scunthorpe. Thousands more workers are threatened in supply chains and support services. Labour warned leaving would be dire for jobs; now the writing is on the wall.

Time is running out. While the Tories are tearing strips off each other Labour can steal a march. There is one way now Labour could begin to build a winning majority. It means quitting talk of respecting the 2016 referendum result, ending talk of options on the table and actually campaigning for a confirmatory vote with remain and transform at the heart of our policy.

We should certainly call for a general election. But with the Tories facing meltdown and a huge threat from the Brexit Party they will want time to regroup under Johnson. Far more likely that Tory Remainers can be won to a further people’s vote position.

If Labour comes out consistently we will not only consolidate pro-EU Labour voters but many Leavers not happy with a crash-out alternative. It’s a myth that working class voters are anti-EU. For many, it was two fingers to the establishment. Like millions of young people and those from black and minority ethnic communities they see the threat to jobs and living standards and community life from a no-deal. They won’t buy it. But Labour needs to lead the way.

Misinterpreting the Peterborough by-election result as meaning nothing needs to change will be fatal to Labour’s general election prospects.

Mike Davis

Mike Davis is editor of Chartist.