A senior Labour figure has urged the party to have a clear policy on Brexit and to back remaining in the European Union to stop the haemorrhaging of northern support, as she revealed the party had lost 40% of its Yorkshire votes since 2017.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post at Labour’s annual party conference in Brighton today (Sunday), Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said as internal polling showed Labour was losing more voters to remain supporting parties than Brexit supporting ones, it was clear the direction the party needed to go.
This was despite a fringe event aimed at regaining Labour’s heartlands earlier in the day, where Yorkshire MP Jon Trickett was on the panel, expressing concern that a Labour position backing remain could push away voters in northern leave-voting constituencies.
Ms Thornberry said: “We’re keeping 61.1% of the Labour vote but where [are the rest] going? 16.6% is going to the liberals, 9% is going to the Brexit Party and I appreciate that’s an issue and 6.8% goes to the Greens, that’s our current position. So we’re losing more to Remain parties than we are to Brexit parties.”
Some 5% of the vote had gone to the Conservatives.
She said: “That takes me back to my position which is that even in leave seats those who voted remain tend to be Labour voters, topped up by other people whose priority is school uniforms, food banks, the state of the NHS and who identify with Labour because of that. And we need to have the space in an election to be able to talk about all of those things, that’s my problem.”
Ms Thornberry said internal union polling showed “as things currently stand with our current Brexit policy, we are not gaining the support of the public”.
She said across the country that Labour was losing around 30% of voters to the Greens and Liberal Democrats, compared to the 2017 general election.
She said: “For remainers our relationship with the European Union is kind of the number one issue. But for leavers, there are many other issues that are more important. And so for leavers who have voted Labour in the past, they have a loyalty to the Labour Party because they know that our values are ones that are about them and looking after them. But with remainers, we have more of an issue.”
Ms Thornberry said the “centre ground has been burnt away” and she backed a second referendum - and added she would respect the result if the country voted to leave again. But she felt Labour’s position should be to campaign for remain.
Leader Jeremy Corbyn has signalled he would remain neutral in any second referendum.
Ms Thornberry said: “We need to be able to unleash our membership and get them on to the doorstep, campaigning in a confident way. And I don’t think we really had that in the European elections.”
She added: “My concern is that, whilst for most people, Brexit is the annoyance that’s kind of made the news boring on a day to day basis, there are much more pressing issues for people like whether their mum is being looked after properly, or whether they can afford the school uniforms this year, the begging letters that are coming back from schools, lack of investment in our regions.”
But she said until Labour’s Brexit policy was clear, they would “not be able to get off first base” in a general election.
“My view is we have not been sufficiently clear,” she said.
Earlier in the day Jon Trickett, Labour MP for Hemsworth, was asked whether any new Labour policy on Brexit agreed at conference would “brace for the loss of these traditional heartland seats”?
Mr Trickett said in his constituency, where 61% voted to leave, and across the country, the economy had changed so dramatically people felt they had lost control.
He said: “What suddenly happened with the way in which the economy changed, that sense of agency in those communities has gone. The sense of purpose, and a reason for existence, our capacity to make a difference to the way the world operated, it’s all gone.”
But he also said it was key for Labour not to patronise leave voters by suggesting they did not know what they voted for. He said: “Those people who suggested that the people who voted for Brexit didn’t know what they were voting for, it sort of infantalises 17 million people right across the country.”
But he said any new policy would have to take various views into account.
Ms Thornberry previously warned that if the party did not make up its mind it risks being crushed as if it was inside the Star Wars trash compactor, or the closing walls in Indiana Jones.
She said: "I've been thinking about this quite a lot and I keep running through lots of films. You get the hero who is standing in the middle and the walls are coming in.
"It is used lots of times, it's used by Indiana Jones where there are walls coming in, or Zorro, and I think there's also a bit in Star Wars where they're in the crusher.
"And the answer is not to just stand there and go 'oh well, I know I'm right' - the idea is to get out of there and that's kind of where we are with these two sides pushing us."
She also said she did not support Labour holding a "special conference" to decide the party's Brexit position.
"I don't see why we can't make a decision now," she said.