Since Labour lost that election, it clearly must retain all its voters and find some more to have any hope in the next one. It would be perverse to throw its Leave voters away, but the party now seems determined to do this. According to its Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer: “Whatever Brexit outcome Boris Johnson puts forward should be put to a referendum – and in that referendum Labour will campaign to remain.”
Most of the Shadow Cabinet have taken that line, ignoring their leader Jeremy Corbyn. He has tried to keep a little creative ambiguity by imagining some new post-Brexit deal which Labour could support.
But this is fantasy. Given a second referendum under a Labour government (almost certainly a minority, dependent on support from Remain parties), the EU would have no motive to offer any such deal. They would force that government to offer a binary referendum choice between no-deal and Remain.
Labour’s commitment to Remain will give its Leave voters a serious dilemma.
To achieve Brexit, they will have to vote for Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage, or possibly both together if they form an electoral pact.
The Labour leadership has never made any effort to understand these voters, and has certainly given them no reason to feel better about the EU than in 2016. Its campaigns against Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit rely entirely on narratives from Project Fear.
Furthermore, the leadership is London-dominated, and steeped in London’s overwhelming preference for Remain. It rarely hears a local party voice in favour of Leave. It sees the political world outside London as the strange, savage places on mediaeval maps.
Jeremy Corbyn should have done better. After all, he is a Bennite who has not had a new idea since the 1980s. He shares his mentor’s basic view of the EU as a sinister conspiracy against socialism. But Corbyn has shown no more understanding than his immediate predecessors of the current case of Labour Leavers against the EU.
They see an organisation dominated by special interests – including its own bureaucracy – which are almost impervious to democracy, generate unnecessary policy and regulation, and spend huge sums of money wastefully or corruptly.
They see its flagship policy – the euro – as an engine of misery and unemployment for the weaker economies under its thrall.
They see its agricultural policy, although improved, as wasteful, harmful to consumers and the environment, and biased towards giant agri-businesses rather than small family farms.
They see the EU’s protectionism as a major contributor to poverty in Third World countries.
Above all, they see the EU’s governance as neither efficient nor democratic. Its whole trajectory is the extinction of national democracy, which the British people rightly continue to regard as their best chance to achieve a better life.
These views are arguable, but not irrational, and they are deeply held. Now Labour tells its Leavers to abandon them. They must give up Brexit forever and to Remain in the EU where our country will become a penitent child sitting on the naughty step, without power or influence.
The leadership assumes that Labour Leavers will accept this in their desperation to eject Boris Johnson’s government. It might be right. This collection of scoundrels and timeservers is the most noxious Tory government which any Labour voter has ever faced – far worse than any of Margaret Thatcher’s administrations. The leadership might care to reinforce this thought with a slogan: “I didn’t vote Leave to hand the country to Dominic Cummings.”
Labour Leavers cannot be taken for granted. Many feel as abandoned by Corbyn’s party as they did by Tony Blair and it might be the last straw for them to have their clear referendum instructions ignored. They will be wooed by Nigel Farage. Others could stay at home.
All this represents a major hazard for the Labour party and there are no signs of any preparation against it. It has not even polled its Leave voters. It could very easily lose three million votes through sheer bad manners.
Richard Heller was chief of staff to Denis Healey for three years – including Labour’s 1983 election calamity.