Leading not leaving

Why did it all go wrong? Julie Ward MEP on how Labour sent the wrong message to the voters in the European Elections

There is the old adage that what worked at the last election will most certainly not work at the next. This sadly came true for Labour in the recent and rather strange European elections. Two years after a positive and progressive 2017 general election campaign, focussing on a myriad of national issues from housing to proper funding for the NHS and social care, the electorate and the mood had changed. Brexit became a defining issue and specifically where the parties stood on the question of another plebiscite.

There is no doubt Labour was squeezed by the simplistic message of “democratic betrayal” peddled by the Brexit Party (or rather Company) and by the Liberal Democrats’ and Green’s promise of a Public Vote on the Brexit deal, particularly in metropolitan areas and in Scotland. The Labour narrative was unclear, burdened by a worthy but uninspiring message about unity and focusing on ‘domestic issues’ rather than the clarity of another democratic vote or the fighting spirit of remain, reform and rebel (which some of us have taken up with unbridled enthusiasm).

Trying to be all things to all people caused confusion, not only to our base but also amongst the floating voters who had supported us less than two years ago, almost helping us to beat the Tories then but abandoning us now for unequivocal pro-Remain parties. Whilst I was pleased to see Labour listed on the People’s Vote website, I felt we were bottom of the class in terms of marks for enthusiasm.

The statistics clearly show that those who had supported Jeremy Corbyn’s vision and message in 2016 have now moved on, with Brexit becoming quite clearly the defining political issue of our time. A staggering 22 per cent of Labour voters switched to the Liberal Democrats as well as a further 17 per cent opting for the Greens on May 23rd.

Eighty per cent of Labour members back a People’s Vote, while 60 per cent of Labour voters said they’d be more likely to vote Labour if the party was committed to opposing Brexit. In 2015, when running for the leadership, Jeremy promised a grassroots bottom-up approach to deciding the party’s direction when it came to policy. He said,

I don’t think we can go on having policy made by the leader, shadow cabinet, or parliamentary Labour Party. It’s got to go much wider. Party members need to be more enfranchised. Whoever is elected will have a mandate from a large membership.

We must now hold our nerve and honour that commitment, or Labour will face an even more catastrophic fate at the ballot box when it comes to a general election with a new Tory leader. Unless we make it clear that our Party is fundamentally internationalist in its values, how can we expect others of the same mindset to vote for us by denying that our future should be at the heart of Europe? We must be leading and not leaving Europe.

Initially it looked like Labour would return the highest number of Socialist and Democrat MEPs, which would have given us huge credibility and influence at a time when Britain needs it most, as well as bolstering our political allies and helping to install Frans Timmermans as President of the Commission. At the beginning of May, when the Government finally conceded that the UK would participate alongside the other 27 EU Member States in electing MEPs, Labour were as high as 35% in the opinion polls. By the final week we were at 13%.

The saddest thing is that it was all so clear and could have been avoided. We could and should have won the European elections. It would have been our first national election victory since 2005. The writing was on the wall as we had a “proxy” election across 248 English local councils and after nearly a decade of Tory-led austerity we sustained a net loss of 82 seats.

If Labour fails to learn from these two historically bad nights at the polls the party will begin to lose even its tribal voters. Breaking the voting habit of a lifetime is not an easy step, but many did and will do so again. We need to win them back, especially the young for whom the Greens represent something vital and urgent: a connection between the local and the global via our European identity.

Both the major two parties are at a critical moment in their histories, and the first to adapt to where their traditional support base has drifted in the divisive political waters we now swim will survive. Labour must set a course for remain or face turbulent times ahead.

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