As the implications of the EU referendum result begin to sink in, one of these must surely be the urgency of addressing the current leadership and direction of the Labour Party. I started this blog a while ago because of the growing evidence that Labour was ceasing to be an effective party of national government, increasingly appealing mainly to metropolitan voters and losing touch with its traditional working-class base. That last night’s result confirmed all of these things should not be a surprise. It merely told us what was already clear from the 2015 General Election.
I have said before that Labour’s challenges are wider and deeper than purely a question of leadership. But there is now no doubt that the current leadership represent a major impediment to the progress that the party needs to make. The issue of the free movement of labour has clearly played a crucial role in the Leave victory, which again is of little surprise given that issues of immigration have been identified as a key concern for many voters for a number of years. These concerns unquestionably, at times, take racist forms and one of the many deeply unpleasant facets of Nigel Farage’s campaigning is his willingness to play to this to suit his own ends. But concerns about free movement can also touch on anxieties about social mobility, the depression of wages for low-skilled jobs, pressures on infrastructure and questions of national identity. These required thoughtful and robust responses, including the willingness to press the EU to reform or mitigate the principle of free movement where this was clearly needed. The reported refusal of the current Labour leadership to include any mention of free movement within its national campaign leaflet, against the appeals of many Labour MPs, was indicative of a wider refusal to engage with this issue that has contributed to a large extent in losing Labour heartlands to Brexit.
The defensiveness of the current leadership gives no hope for serious reflection about this. In the media script sent to Labour MPs in the face of the impending Brexit vote, the Party’s existing policy on free movement is simply re-stated. The claim that Jeremy Corbyn is closest to the position of most British voters in the referendum ignores his basic failure to win over enough current and former Labour supporters to the Remain side. Some claim that his position is tenable given that the 69% (Remain)/ 31% (Brexit) split amongst Labour supporters was not significantly different to the split in vote amongst Liberal Democrat supporters. But this ignores the fact that Labour has already been haemorrhaging voters to UKIP for a number of years and Jeremy Corbyn has done nothing to reverse this process.
The issue of free movement is an emblem of the leadership’s unwillingness to engage with issues that concern voters but which fall outside of its narrow ideological comfort zone. It is traditional, in recent times, for anxieties about Labour’s leadership to lead to calls to pull together for the sake of party unity. This is not the time to heed those calls. Jeremy Corbyn has led a Remain campaign which has resulted in catastrophic defeat and will bring defeat again if he is allowed to lead the Party into an imminent General Election.
The demographics of the Party mean that a leadership challenge to him may well result in his re-election. But in good conscience, an attempt to move the Party in a new direction must be made now, and if it fails then perhaps this will just be another stage in the restructuring of progressive party politics in the coming years.
This is a moment of truth for the Labour Party and its fate depends on how willing its MPs are in the coming hours and days to face the difficult choices that have to be made.