How the Labour Party Sleepwalked Into a Post-Brexit Meltdown
Labour has started to unravel as a result of its failure to inspire Remain votes in the EU referendum, but the rot had set in much earlier than Jeremy Corbyn's rule.
When towns with Labour councils and MPs fell to Brexit on Thursday night, it was, according to some, Jeremy Corbyn's fault. The Labour leader has been accused of lacklustre campaign presence from the off, and by Friday lunchtime faced a barrage of criticism and a motion of no confidence from Labour MP Margaret Hodge – whose own Barking and Dagenham was the only Labour borough in London to vote Leave. At 1AM on Sunday, Corbyn sacked shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn after reports he was coordinating a mass resignation of the shadow cabinet. Heidi Alexander, Gloria De Piero and Ian Murray – Scotland's only Labour MP – had resigned by midday.
If Labour MPs want to depose their leader, there's a clear mechanism in the rulebook – find a challenger, and get signatures from 46 MPs for a leadership election. But polls show Corbyn could win a second election, so Hodge and other parliamentary critics of the leadership instead pushed for a secret ballot of MPs. It's a mechanism that flies in the face of Labour's rules, under which MPs have exactly the same vote as any member or registered supporter.
But crucially, it wouldn't require putting up an alternative. Corbyn's campaign first took off thanks to a lack of a credible "moderate" – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall were talented and experienced, but failed to appreciate their party was demanding something different. And while after last year's election it was fashionable to say just how difficult it would be for Labour to win another, these days that isn't necessarily so. In this campaign, any hostility towards Labour from so-called "core" voters could only be because its leader is an out-of-touch croissant-eating Islingtonian who signs apples and makes his own jam.
But perhaps we should ask when Labour's difficulties really began. And it wasn't nine months ago when Corbyn was elected leader. Though BBC reporters and pundits were in shock that towns like Watford and Sheffield had gone for Brexit, it was nothing less than inevitable. Voters had made up their minds, and there was nothing any Labour leader could have done to persuade them otherwise. And the kind of hard-sell, uncritical Remain package advocated by MPs now opportunistically attacking their boss would only have risked losing these voters forever.
On Friday an anonymous "senior Labour MP" told The New Statesman's George Eaton that Labour needed a "Michael Howard" figure to take it forward. Howard's dog-whistle racist campaign in the 2005 election led with the slogan: "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" It implied there was a ban against talking about immigration – as audience members on Question Time often allege, during hour-long discussions on the subject.
Not that New Labour handled the conversation well. When oil workers in Lincolnshire staged wild-cat strikes in protest at bosses shipping in migrant labour to undercut the local workforce in 2009, Peter Mandelson said they should "stop feeding this xenophobia". In reality, British unions were reaching out to workers from other countries – housed on barges and paid less than agreed rates – and joined them up in the fight for equal pay. No doubt Mandelson, a former EU trade commissioner, was keen to defend the EU rules that allowed these employment practices to go unchallenged.
Later on, Gordon Brown's fawning attempt to win back support from Gillian Duffy, who he'd called a bigot, was prime evidence Labour would prefer a cheap photo op to addressing the causes of prejudice. Like so many rants about immigration, Duffy's came back to a perceived increased pressure on public services.
Sometimes this is indeed, merely perceived. All too often, however, it's real enough – even if the wrong people are being blamed. Housing is one example. In spite of millions on waiting lists, New Labour built barely any council homes between 1997 and 2010. Nowhere was this more apparent than Margaret Hodge's Barking constituency. Hodge was widely criticised for pandering to racists and using "BNP language" when the party became the official opposition of the local council in 2006. "It's a shame she wasn't so vocal in the campaign for the building of more council housing," neighbouring MP Jon Cruddas said.
Two MPs with key roles in Labour's remain campaign, who seem to have dodged blame this weekend, weren't so vocal then either: ex-shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, and Labour In for Britain chief Alan Johnson, whose Hull constituency voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. Among the minority who did campaign for council house-building at the time was backbencher Jeremy Corbyn.
Though another anonymous MP allegedly slammed Corbyn for focusing on "freedom of movement", his EU campaign mainly dealt with the threat to workers' rights. His apparent ambivalence towards the EU is normally credited to an instinctive Bennite scepticism. But perhaps it should also be seen as tactical. He was squaring Labour's euro-enthusiasm not only with his own suspicions, but those of so many of the party's voters. And the fortunes of Scottish Labour since it teamed up with Tories on the Better Together campaign haunted the Labour leadership throughout.
Some of Corbyn's supporters, and those arguing for Brexit because it would lead to an early election, act like we're guaranteed a landslide Labour victory and the immediate implementation of full socialism. The reality is far harder – Corbyn was elected, after all, by a party in existential crisis, which would have required a huge swing under any leader to win a majority. The old "modernisers" talk of rekindling Labour's support in "middle England", but it's support among working class communities that's plummeted. Large swings to Labour in the recent by-elections in Oldham and Sheffield show that Corbyn's not a write-off in the north. And the majority of Labour voters, unlike Tories, did vote Remain. But to expect a new leader facing constant sniping to instantaneously reverse long-term disillusionment is laughable.
And while the nasty narrative on immigration was enough to make any socialist vote to stay in, too many on the left were in denial about the EU's own problems. If MPs like Hodge, who has never actually lived in Barking, want to do their bit to turn Labour's fortunes around, perhaps she should start closer to home.
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