Matt Smith on Brexit Central: Labour has forgotten its eurosceptic heritage and left the working classes behind

Labour’s political broadcast  Our Town  tells viewers “We lost control” and “we’ve been sold short by a political and economic system that has been unchallenged for far too long.” Labour’s bait-and-switch broadcast was a clear attempt to reconnect with blue-collar Leavers in marginal English seats.

Yet these voters are amongst those most alienated by Labour as it cartwheels over the horizon to the left, turns its back on 70% of all Labour constituencies and elopes with the elitist ‘People’s Vote’ campaign.

Indeed the neglect of Labour’s Eurosceptic tradition shows the party has left its erstwhile working class supporters behind.

Activists at Labour’s Annual Conference in Liverpool who agitated for a ‘People’s Vote’ seem oblivious to their party’s history of opposition to the European Project.

The first post-war Labour government opposed participation in the European Coal and Steel Community. Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin quipped “If you open that Pandora’s Box you never know what Trojan Horses will jump out.” Labour Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison said of the Community “It is no good, the Durham miners will not wear it.”

Former Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee summed up Labour’s antipathy to ‘ever closer union’ when he observed “The idea of a politically integrated Europe is historically looking backward… We have always looked outward, out to the new world, and to Asia and Africa.”

Attlee’s successor Hugh Gaitskell told the 1962 Labour Party Conference the aim of the “Founding fathers was federation” and “if we go into this, we are no more than a state, as it were, in the United States of Europe, such as Texas or California.” This meant “the end of Britain as an independent nation state” and the “end of a thousand years of history”.

Tony Benn called for a referendum on entry in 1970 and wrote to his constituents: “It would be a very curious thing to try to take Britain into a new political entity… by a process that implied that the British public were unfit to see its historic importance for themselves.”

Harold Wilson was forced to seek a renegotiation of Britain’s Community membership and called the European Communities Referendum of 1975. The Parliamentary Labour Party had previously voted against joining. Labour’s Conference had split two-to-one against the Common Market. Seven Cabinet members campaigned as ‘Antis’ and Wilson’s wife Mary voted out.

And under Michael Foot and Tony Benn Labour advocated leaving the Common Market without a referendum, a policy that subsequently featured in an election manifesto.

Fast-forward to the present Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Member of Parliament for the 58% Leave-supporting Hayes and Harlington constituency, has held talks with the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign and has hosted Alistair Campbell and ‘People’s Vote’ Communications Director Tom Baldwin in his House of Commons office.

Laura Parker the national director of Jeremy Corbyn’s Praetorian Guard Momentum attended a rally in November in support of a second referendum.

Traction is gathering and a motion is being circulated among constituency Labour Parties calling for a Special Conference with one motion on the agenda for a second referendum with Remain as an option. 

It is ironic that Corbyn’s Labour Party is slowly moving toward their third way Blairite doppelgängers on a second referendum.

Then again why wouldn’t they? They are equally worlds apart from these totemic figures of post-war Labour history in having no attachment to Parliamentary sovereignty and little real connection to Britain’s working class communities.

Labour is now a very different party from what it once was. The very notion of Labour as a party for blue-collar voters is a social, cultural and electoral anachronism.

Firstly, when Labour talks about Our Town it doesn’t really have in mind the sociology of the 71% Leave-voting Mansfield or the 55% Leave-voting Hastings and Rye constituencies (which featured in the broadcast). Instead Labour’s imaginary ‘town’ is the parallel universe of ‘high status city dwellers’ and faux left opinion formers living in metropolitan London.

Labour is politically dependent on the metropolis. In the six months following Corbyn’s election as Labour leader 81,000 Londoners joined his party, double Labour’s total membership in Wales.Corbyn, Starmer, Thornberry and McDonnell all sit for London constituencies (two in the London Borough of Islington alone).

They share the same geographically narrow worldview as that of Stronger In whose four principle staffers grew up in London within two square miles of each other. Two went to the same school. One was the son of a Labour Home Secretary and another was Lord Mandelson’s Godchild.

And whereas in the 1970s less than a third of Labour MPs were graduates now 90% are. When the mask slips it reveals a prejudice about working class Leave voters such as when Huddersfield’s Labour MP Barry Sheerman claimed “better educated people” voted Remain and whenever Owen Jones talks about ‘gammons’.

Secondly, Corbyn’s bien pensant ‘Global Villager’ values don’t resonate in the Brexitlands of Wales, the Midlands and the north. Harold Wilson told Bernard Donoghue: “I don’t want too many of these Guardianisms. I want my speeches always to include what working people are concerned with.”

Yet the modern left’s disillusionment with the workers has become a post-Brexit antipathy. The social democracy of earlier generations has given way to identity politics, a political style that increasingly inflects the voice of Continuity Remain.

Consequently the pro-EU left can’t understand blue-collar political interest in sovereignty and democratic oversight of our laws, borders, trade and money.

Thirdly, the ‘peak Corbyn’ electoral coalition was beaten by the Conservatives in C2DE vote share, prompting the New Statesman to write of Labour’s middle class populism “the property tycoons of Chelsea must be congratulating themselves for having seen off a threat to their children’s inheritances.”

Former Vote Leave Co-Chair and former Labour MP Gisela Stuart did her party a service when she said Brexit was a “wake-up call” to Labour. Yet Labour’s Remainist ‘People’s Vote’ tendency would re-empower the ‘lobbyists, multinationals and Brussels elites’ Labour Leavers voted to dispossess.

Indeed according to a British Social Attitudes survey taken before the Brexit victory nearly one in two workers felt ‘people like them’ no longer had a voice in the national conversation and Brexit won in 140 heavily working class and historically Labour districts.

So flirting with the elitist ‘People’s Vote’ risks a potentially disastrous backlash against Labour MPs in marginal Brexitland seats who would rightly face accusations of betrayal. A recent IQR survey for Global Britain of the 25 most marginal Labour seats found 19 Labour candidates would face defeat if Labour attempted to frustrate Brexit and 63% of voters said MP’s decisions in Parliament should respect the result.

Labour should heed the advice UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis who recently told Labour’s leadership to “Never, ever forget your base.” Supporting a coup against five million or so of the party’s Leave voters would reinforce the perception that those who voted to take back control in the Referendum would stand to lose the most control, in the political and cultural sense, from a Labour government that will only speak for Remoania.

Ironically Labour’s Eurosceptic tradition was channeled by Vote Leave in its referendum broadcast featuring images of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan in which voters were asked to “imagine our money being spent on out priorities” which we could do if we voted to taken back control. 

By contrast Labour’s Our Town is part of the “give back control agenda” of a party that has long forgotten the people it was founded to represent.