It all feels a little too like Scotland for comfort. In Scotland, during the 2014 pro-union campaign for the independence referendum, Labour won the referendum battle but lost the wider war. Loyal Labour voters later turned on the party they had once regarded as their own. Just like the Scottish vote, next week’s vote on Europe could end up having huge implications for the future of the Labour party.
I joined Ed Miliband’s office 10 days before the Scottish people took their decision. I am not quite sure whose idea it was for us to ship 100 English and Welsh MPs in a “sealed train” to Glasgow Central, but it was me, as a very new spin-doctor, who had to lead them up Sauchiehall Street pursued by nationalist campaigners with industrial strength speakers blaring the theme from the Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back. I know how deep those scars run. But I fear that Labour’s Scottish trauma has led the party to adopt tactics that are proving perilous in the Europe campaign.
The instant “post-match” pundits were clear. Better Together, the official unionist campaign bringing together Britain’s three major parties, had been a disaster for Labour. Being seen, if not to sleep with, then at least to share endless platforms and photo-ops with the enemy had tarnished Labour in the eyes of many of its traditional supporters as “in bed with the Conservatives.”
While the other lessons of Scotland may have been swept under the carpet one remained: never again must Labour’s leadership be seen fraternising with the other side, no matter how important the cause. Only by remaining politically pure could Labour hope to maintain respect from its voter base. What started as a journalistic commonplace, quickly transmogrified into an unbreakable iron rule—you might call it “Darling’s Law”—in any future referendum Labour should not take part in any umbrella organisation, it must stand alone.
Add in the trauma for the party establishment of a victory for the left-winger Jeremy Corbyn in last summer’s Labour leadership election and by the time it became clear the EU Referendum would actually happen Labour’s stance was set. The party would launch its own campaign. All serving frontbenchers and the party’s campaign teams would be forced to channel their efforts into “Labour In,” as it was called. But under no circumstances would the top current Labour team be seen propping up the Prime Minister.
Even this campaigning equivalent of an infectious diseases isolation ward wouldn’t be led by a senior member of the serving shadow cabinet. The leader wouldn’t take personal charge, perhaps wise with his history of hostility to a “banker’s Europe.” And nobody had heard of most of the rest of the rookie frontbench.
But, to paraphrase the title of a U.S. sitcom, “Everyone loves Alan.” If, the thinking went, we can get hugely popular former Cabinet Minister Alan Johnson to potter round the country making the Labour case for the EU, that would be enough, surely? If a few grandees wanted to pose with Cameron, fine. But there would be no need for the leadership to compromise their virtue.
This was the fatal mistake. Yes, there was a case for Labour maintaining a separate and distinct role in the campaign. After Labour’s crushing 2015 General Election defeat, it was clear that Cameron, and more specifically Osborne, were going to set the tone and direction of the “Remain” campaign, with scant regard to social democratic sensibilities.
But by compltely opting out of the collective effort Labour wrote itself out of the argument. And in doing so removed itself from the main arena where that argument would be held—the TV news bulletins. As the person brought in to sort out Labour’s approach to TV before the last election, it has broken my heart to see our view so roundly frozen out. With no Labour figure centre-stage the battle of the airwaves became, as the cliché now goes, an exclusively “blue on blue” war as clips of Conservative in-fighting dominated the broadcasts.
This doesn’t seem to bother the newly installed Labour hierarchy. In fact they seemed to delight in it, trying to have the best of both worlds. As the Remain vote looked solid they could stand back and enjoy the collateral damage being done to the Conservative brand while thinking that they would get the result they wanted on June 23. The only snag: it wasn’t solid. Just as all too often over the past decade Labour has had a deaf ear to what its natural supporters think and feel, so too has it taken them for granted on Europe. It tried to pretend they didn’t have legitimate worries and failed to be confident in making the progressive case to answer their concerns.
On the ground the Labour efforts have been admirable. With the Conservatives split and weak on the streets, it is Labour activists up and down the country who have been delivering leaflets and knocking on doors. And if June 23 does see Britain remain in Europe then it will have been in no small part thanks to that below the radar effort. But just as in May 2015 showed, when Labour’s famed “ground-war” proved far from enough, what goes on above the radar, in the media and most specifically on broadcast, is what has the biggest say on swaying voters.
At least the party can still rely on Gordon Brown. Search “Gordon Brown and Coventry Cathedral” on YouTube and take a few moments to gladden your heart at the passionate case he makes for Britain’s engagement with our allies, filmed at that most poignant place of post-war reconciliation. Just as he did north of the border in the Scottish referendum campaign all his rhetorical skills and broad historical sweep have now been unleashed. Deputy leader Tom Watson has clearly been co-ordinating a hand to the wheel exercise that has seen the chains taken off and Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn allowed to deliver an honest, passionate Remain case.
Let’s hope it is enough. But that fatal flaw remains. Labour should instead have made a top role for Alan Johnson in the umbrella camaign, with his unique ability to appeal to voters other Labour voices can’t reach. Having a Labour voice at the heart of the official Remain campaign, rather than leading a separate one, would have freed the rest of the party to retain distinctiveness but ensured that at least half the time our voters were seeing Labour’s Johnson take on that other Conservative (Boris) Johnson, not just watching a Conservative civil war.
This isn’t the same as Scotland. By abdicating from the main Remain team Labour has abdicated the responsibility that voters expect, to be seen to offer leadership on such a vital issue to the nation’s future. Handing out leaflets, as I have been proud to do, about workers’ rights that are guaranteed by the EU and doing public meetings with trade unions leaders like Len McCluskey are good things to do. But they are not enough. And going on holiday during a campaign that will set Britain’s course for the next century, as Corbyn did in late May, isn’t on.
Jeremy Corbyn may yet come to regret his lack of enthusiasm. Talk to the once-enthused new Labour members who joined to vote for him and you find that they don’t buy into the old left’s skepticism about the EU. Instead, they are passionately against turning our backs to the rest of Europe. On referendum night, just look at the results in those liberal bastions where so many Corbynistas have been recruited; the hip inner cities and university towns. They will deliver the highest remain votes in the country.
If it all goes wrong on June 23 on the 24 Corbyn may find himself waking to one almighty backlash, as those who were most enthusiastic about him wake to feel betrayed at the lack of Labour effort to prevent the reactionary disaster of Brexit. It would be a tragedy for the party, as well as the country, if Labour tactical caution was seen to have been a decisive contributor to Britain’s European exit.
I hope that doesn’t happen. Like other Labour members I will do my bit to try and help ensure that the last-minute redoubling of efforts is enough to address the concerns of Labour voters. But the lessons for Labour from the Europe vote will resonate long after the referendum ballots are counted. The party can’t retreat into its comfort zone, it can’t just delight in Tory uselessness. It has a duty to be front and centre even if that compromises political expediency. Oh and everyone does love Alan.
Matthew Laza is Director of Policy Network, a leading international progressive think tank. After a long career as a BBC programme maker he was Ed Miliband’s Head of Broadcasting, after the bacon sandwich.