This morning, Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, did everything in his power to alienate to 4,000,000 Labour voters who also voted for Britain to Leave the European Union. Europe has been covered as a major issue to causing civil war in the Conservative Party, but all is not well in the Labour ranks. Watson’s comments that Labour’s ‘hearts are Remain’ ignore the concerns of constituents in the two-thirds of their seats that voted for Brexit. The disconnect between the Labour Heartlands and the so-called ‘People’s Vote’ wing of the Labour Party will have serious ramifications for the potential success of the party in what seems like an imminent General Election.
But who was this speech given to? This is a part of the Remainers in Labour plea to get Jeremy Corbyn to back a Second Referendum. Up until now Corbyn has been ambiguous over Brexit. Once regarded as a principled politician, the way Corbyn distanced himself to his Eurosceptic tendencies has not boded well with his ratings in the Heartlands. But nor has his sit-on-the-fence stance.
The EU Elections proved disastrous for Labour losing their historically held seats to the Brexit Party in the north of England, south Wales and the Midlands, but also losing leafy London to the Liberal Democrats. But does it seem fair that the constituents who were most loyal to Labour are being sidelined? Those in Merthyr Tydfil who voted to Leave have elected a Labour candidate ever since Keir Hardie in 1900, for them to be ignored seems either extremely arrogant to believe they will continue to vote Labour.
Fortunately, there is a small band of 25 democratic Labour Party MPs who, since April, have been clear that they do not support a Second Referendum. Last week they were tested when a bill was rejected that would have otherwise enabled Labour to remove the threat of no-deal.
The eight MPs who voted with the government against it were championed by many pro-Brexit supporters as were the dozen or so who abstained. But scratch beneath the surface of it, and it is clear, they are worried. In the aftermath of the EU Elections, Lisa Nandy appeared on Radio4 and declared that her constituents in Wigan regard a Second Referendum as ‘absurd’ and are swinging behind a WTO Brexit. This is because Wigan, for the first time since 1918, failed to elect a Labour candidate in a national election and alike to the rest of the North West backed Farage’s Brexit Party.
As a direct result of the comments made by Tom Watson yesterday morning two prominent Labour MPs rebuked his claims and devotion to a Second Referendum. The first was Labour Chairmen, Ian Lavery. Lavery has opposed a so-called confirmatory vote since 2017 and promised Richard Tice they would not back such a policy in 2017. His tweet yesterday that ‘ignoring the 17.4m leave voters isn’t politically smart nor indeed particularly democratic. Is it?’ highlighted his anger with Watson’s position. He is as aware as a MP for a Leave-backing seat in County Durham that his constituents will not lie down and let their elected officials ignore them.
However, it was John Mann who was more scathing in his attack on Watson’s comments. The MP for Bassetlaw was one of the ten Labour MPs who support Britain’s departure from the fastest declining trading bloc, and he saw Watson’s statement as ‘catastrophic’ to Labour’s chances in an upcoming election. He went on to say that Labour voters in the north and the Midlands are Brexiteers and that by backing a confirmatory vote Labour will lose the next general election by a significant amount’. It is difficult to disagree with Mann when analysing the results of the 2019 EU Parliamentary Elections where the Brexit Party managed to win seats that had been electing Labour candidates from as early as 1900. Even in the, now contentious, Peterborough by-election Labour should be worried as a party with little ground infrastructure and no manifesto ran them very close. Most people also agree that had Labour unequivocally backed a Second Vote they would have been crushed even in Peterborough.
Sadly, the likes of John Mann do not represent the Labour Party. Outside of the M25 the Labour Party could be regarded as the Islington Coffee Club. They are a metropolitan party who have failed to acknowledge the genuine concerns of many of their voters in their heartlands. They have ignored the issue of immigration and membership of the European Union for too long, and instead have taken these seats for granted by parachuting MPs who do not understand the area, nor their constituents concerns to roam freely around Westminster.
To make matters worse inside the Westminster bubble Labour representatives remain dismissive of these concerns. Take Lord Adonis, who failed to be elected MEP in May, he has confirmed on LBC that he has worked to ‘sabotage’ Brexit and claimed that Brexiteers do not belong in the Labour Party. Then of course we have David Lammy who believes the 17.4 million were sold a lie! Or the Gower MP, Tonia Antoniazzi, who claimed ‘we [Britain] did not know what we were voting for.’ These views are totally at odds with the growing desire for a WTO Brexit that Lisa Nandy’s constituents are pleading for, and notably the results of the EU Elections.
The greatest threat to the Labour Party is the resurgence of Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party. Unlike UKIP the Brexit Party appears direct, professional and ready to win. However, when analysing the record of UKIP and the recent success of the Brexit Party in the EU Elections, it is no wonder that Labour MPs in the north of England, south Wales and the Midlands are quaking in their boots.
In 2015 UKIP finished second in over 120 constituencies, just over a third of these were in Labour seats held in the Heartlands. Pollsters understated the effect that Farage’s army would have on taking away voters from Labour in 2015 and given the way Leavers have been cast aside by the establishment over the last three years this may even happen again. Not only are the Labour Party losing votes to the Brexit Party but the atmosphere in these seats are of anger and resentment. Whether that be conveyed through the chorus of booes on the Brexit Party’s tour stop in a working-men’s club Yorkshire for Yvette Cooper, or in the Rhondda where Chris Bryant’s constituency office had ‘traitor’ painted on the walls. Ignoring Brexiteers isn’t the answer.
The Labour Party of the 1970s and 1980s is not the Labour Party of today. Gone of the days of the Labour Party defending the concerns of their constituents and delivering barnstorming speeches against membership of an undemocratic, fat cat club. The likes of Barbara Castle, Tony Benn and Peter Shore have been replaced by Keir Starmer, Tom Watson and Sadiq Khan. This is not the same party and the people of the heartlands will not settle with being betrayed. You promised in your 2017 manifesto to deliver Brexit, if you fail to do so stand aside and let the Brexit Party take your place. Labour you have been warned.
By J Walters