Written by Fawzi Ibrahim
This article was first published in BrexitCentral, and we republish with their and the author’s kind permission.
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In 2016, workers voted to leave the EU. Three and a half years later, they confirmed that decision by voting Tory. And they were right to do so. Labour lost heavily; it was foiled by both its strategy and its tactics.
A general election called before Brexit was delivered was bound to be a Brexit election. The 2017 General Election was as much a Brexit election as was the 2019 General Election. In the former, both Labour and the Tories stood on a manifesto that respected the outcome of the previous year’s referendum. In 2019, only the Tories did so with a ready-to-be-implemented deal that Labour had foolishly obstructed.
The mistake Theresa May made was to call a general election before she secured a deal that Parliament could reject, a mistake Johnson was not to make. He made sure that his deal was rejected. When its Second Reading went through, without any valid reason, he insisted on a very short time for the Committee Stage and when that timetable was voted down, he pulled the whole bill, forcing a general election. And Labour fell for it, just as it has fallen for every government manoeuvre throughout the premiership of Boris Johnson.
Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership unwittingly positioned Labour on the wrong side of Brexit. Unlike the ERG who learned from their mistake demanding nothing less than a no-deal Brexit, voting against Theresa May’s deal and almost jeopardising Brexit altogether, Brexit-supporting Labour MPs did not; they refused to join the Tories in the voting lobbies and get May’s deal over the line until it was too late. Most of the Brexit-supporting left went along with infantile notions of ‘people’s Brexit’, ‘clean Brexit’ and ‘full Brexit’. They regarded a Brexit deal negotiated by the Tories with suspicion, forever demanding a general election ‘to get the Tories out’ – and a general election became an end rather than a means to an end.
It’s true that several factors determine the outcome of any election, but for the 2019 General Election, one stands out as central: Brexit. It circumscribed all of the other issues, conditioned the debate and created and sustained suspicions of Labour as a whole and of Corbyn in particular. It gave substance to workers’ initial dislike of Corbyn who for them didn’t cut it as a potential Prime Minister.
The London-centric media has never been able to articulate the views of ordinary working-class voters. The media descended on Midlands towns and Yorkshire cities, paying fleeting visits but never they understood their logic. They called Leave-voting communities ‘the left behind’, a condescending term rich with implications of inadequacy, of an inability to keep up, of people to be pitied rather than respected, deserving of charity rather than dignified communities who wish to be part in rebuilding the country.
Labour bought into that narrative and its handouts-packed manifesto reinforced it. Labour’s leadership blames Brexit for the party’s dismal performance in the same way as one would an unpredictable natural disaster. The problem wasn’t Brexit; it was Labour’s policy towards Brexit. Neither was it a question of Labour being seen as a Remain party; it is a Remain party, it campaigned for Remain in the 2016 referendum. The problem was Labour’s refusal to respect the result of the referendum confounded by the publicly-expressed determination by almost all frontbench MPs to campaign to reverse it.
Labour had several chances to put Brexit to bed. It failed to do so and paid the price. The fury by Labour MPs, Tony Blair and others against Corbyn is disingenuous. It was they who pushed Corbyn and the Labour Party away from the 2017 manifesto commitment to respect the result of the referendum towards the blind alley of a “People’s Vote” which Labour’s natural supporters viewed as a betrayal.
Throughout the past three and a half years, since the 2016 referendum, one thing remained solid: workers’ steadfast determination to leave the EU. They did not waver in spite of unceasing warnings of Armageddon by the metropolitan elite. Only one party offered to leave the EU without further delay, and workers voted for it in droves. The establishment refused to obey the will of the people; the people refused to budge. The establishment lost.