Renegotiation, referendum and aftermath
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) You were working with Jeremy Corbyn from the start, were you?
Andrew Fisher (AF): Yes, I worked on his leadership campaign over the summer of 2015. He was quite late to join the race as a candidate, compared with the others. Then I worked for him when he won the leadership in September, all the way through until the bitter end in December 2019, and then left.
UKICE: How soon after Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party did you start to realise that this referendum that David Cameron had promised was actually going to happen, and you might need to think about how you were going to handle it?
AF: It came up in the leadership hustings within the Labour Party at that time, though not a lot. It wasn’t a major issue in the Labour Party members’ psyche at that point. We had a lot else to say, which was causing controversy, which probably knocked some of that out.
Jeremy was an outlier- as he was for a lot of things- on Brexit. He took a kind of balanced view, I would say. He is often characterised as being in the same camp as Tony Benn or Kate Hoey, for a more contemporary reference, of wanting to leave the EU, which he’s not. I think Jeremy is a genuine Eurosceptic. He’s somebody who voted against the Maastricht Treaty, he voted against the Lisbon Treaty, and he didn’t like the neo-liberal trajectory of the EU, as he saw it, and the movement away from the social Europe of Jacques Delors, that kind of vision of it. He was critical of the EU, but he also recognised that it was important to have international minimum standards, or European-wide international standards, on things like environmental protections, consumer protections and workers’ rights.
He valued all of that quite a lot, but thought the trajectory of the EU on the privatisation directives or liberalisation directives was a problem, and so was critical of that. I think he gave quite a balanced, nuanced view within the leadership campaign when he was asked about that.
Once he became leader, I think within a week, we had a kind of delegation from some senior members of the Shadow Cabinet – Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle and co – come to see us. There was me, Simon Fletcher, John McDonnell and Jeremy and those two, and maybe a couple of other people
They said, “We are campaigning for ‘In’. There’s a ‘Labour In’ campaign being set up under Alan Johnson. That’s going to stay, isn’t it? You’re going to campaign for Remain. The Party’s policy is still to remain in the EU, isn’t it?”. Jeremy just gave a very ‘Jeremy’ answer, “Let me start with what my view is.”
They were like, “No, we’ve got to campaign for ‘In’”. It was very anxious. The thing is, Jeremy would have come to that position, but obviously he, naturally, bristled a bit at that and went, “Well, for some Labour Party members…”. There has always been a tradition of Euroscepticism within the Labour Party – quite weak by 2016 – but in Jeremy’s lifetime, since he became an MP in ’83, after being a councillor before that and a member since the late 60s, Labour’s policy was to leave the EU right up until the mid-80s.
I think that probably made them worry even more. But eventually, by the end of the conversation, as we went round and round in circles, we all just went, “Well, yes, we all, on balance, think we should stay in the EU.” So, it wasn’t much of a problem. But the Labour In campaign had been set up under Harriet Harman as interim leader, and she’d appointed Alan Johnson to lead it. So, it was a fait accompli, really, that part of the campaign.
UKICE: But you weren’t minded to try and impose something else, to do something different, or to say, “Actually, we don’t want something that’s Labour In, I’m going to do it as leader of the Labour Party and be the figurehead”?
AF: I don’t think they wanted Jeremy to be the figurehead. Their message was, “Alan Johnson is there and appointed, and we want him to do it.” As it happens, I think he’s probably the most inactive campaigner I’ve ever seen in my life, heading up any campaign. Jeremy gets criticism for not doing enough rallies or not doing enough meetings, when he did several across the country.
I mean, where was Alan Johnson? He was just anonymous, considering how much passion there was, “We must have Alan Johnson leading this campaign”. It was quite bizarre.
Jeremy had appointed a very broad-church Shadow Cabinet. Our view was, “Look, we’ve got this overwhelming mandate from the members, but there’s a problem with the PLP”. Our view was, “Don’t provoke unnecessary battles”. Simon had negotiated with Rosie Winterton to stay on as Chief Whip. We’d got people like Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle, who are very much not on the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party, to be in the Shadow Cabinet. There was a majority of – without being pejorative, just descriptively – Blairite and Brownite kind of people, not left-wingers, in the Shadow Cabinet.
I think there were four who were kind of, ostensibly, left-wing. So, we were trying to just be accommodating and say, “Oh, okay, if that’s been set up, we’ll stick with that, that’s fine, not a problem.” We didn’t want to rock the boat and create arguments, unnecessarily, at that point. I think, there was no strategic discussion about the content of that campaign in that meeting.
It was just, “It’s Alan Johnson who is going to do it,” and that was fine.
UKICE: Did you have the view that, essentially, the referendum was a Conservative versus Conservative battle that David Cameron was pursuing, and that they could get on with it? Corbyn was likely to win the leadership contest and you had a big agenda of the changes you wanted to make. John McDonnell gave us a the impression that, actually, there were plenty of other things you were interested in –
AF: Yes, we wanted to talk about ending austerity and redistributive taxation and investing in public services and stopping the attacks on social security. That was our agenda, and that’s where we wanted to shift the Labour Party to. The referendum was, as you say, the Conservative psychodrama of David Cameron wanting to Remain, whilst knowing there was a big Leave wing in his party, and it was a compromise to get them through the 2015 election and try to buy off the UKIP insurgency that was taking Tory votes away.
So, it was really a matter for them. Certainly, the left of the Labour Party, by that point, was kind of, I would say, disinterested Remainers. There wasn’t much of a Bennite, “Let’s leave” approach. There was still some of that on the left more broadly – such as the Communist Party, which has about 200 members – which still believes we should leave. But the Labour left was just quite broadly disinterested, I would say, as a position.
UKICE: Did you have any contact with Cameron through the campaigns, or over the renegotiation?
AF: Yes. To start chronologically on the renegotiation, which was all around the emergency brake, we thought that was, again, just an example of the Tory issue with migration. This is a Tory thing of, “Oh, migration is a problem. Johnny Foreigners ruling us from Brussels”, and that kind of Tory agenda against the EU. Cameron is trying to appease that with a referendum, and with this emergency brake stuff.
I, Jeremy and John all thought the emergency brake stuff was dangerous, because it played into that rhetoric of, “We’re being swamped by migrants”. Others, such as Hilary Benn, who was the Shadow Foreign Secretary at the time, was very much in favour of it, and thought we should support it.
So, we had a kind of uneasy compromise as I recall on that, where, in the end, we didn’t criticise it. I think it’s a very Starmer-ish, technocratic, response. It was pre-Starmer, obviously, but it was that kind of, “Let’s criticise the process by which they’re going about it, and then try and nit-pick certain technical arguments they’re making rather than the principle”. Though once Jeremy was interviewed, he did criticise the principle of it and make a bit of a more moral argument.
But at that point, it hadn’t really come into play. In terms of the relationship with Cameron during the campaign, I think there were a couple of times where he or his office, certainly, contacted us and wanted us to do stuff. I think they realised it was going to be closer than they thought, and they knew they needed a Labour voice more to mobilise our supporters.
The polling around it shows that two thirds of Labour voters, I think, roughly, voted to Remain. So, in a sense, we did do our bit. We mobilised, and it was about the same proportion as the Lib Dems and the SNP. It was the Tory voters that voted two thirds to Leave – it was Cameron and Osborne that didn’t convince their base and not the other way around.
They were clearly rattled, and they did leave days in the calendar where they wanted us to say things. But then they would send through a script, and it was all this sort of fearmongering. “Every household will be £4,500 a year worse off, if we leave the EU” – it just was weak, and it wasn’t our sort of politics. That isn’t how we approach politics.
Jeremy wanted to do a different message about what you can achieve in terms of environmental rights and workers’ rights. That’s very difficult when you’ve got a Cameron government that’s imposing austerity, ripping up the ‘Green crap’ as he, by that point, was calling it. How convincing can we be, when we’re supporting a campaign that’s being led by the same Prime Minister who doesn’t believe in any of this stuff?
It was quite a difficult balancing act. The Labour In campaign really didn’t come up with any of its own messaging, and it was quite a separate little core in HQ. It wasn’t really aligned to us, and there were a few tensions.
UKICE: When you were doing in some of the Labour seats that did end up voting quite heavily for Leave, did you worry that you were getting out of touch, say, on concerns about free movement and things like that, that the Leave campaign was otherwise tapping into?
AF: Yes, there were two things. I remember having this conversation very early on, possibly even during Jeremy’s leadership campaign, which was, “There are arguments we’ve already won, and they just need to be articulated”. That was on things like public ownership, where the polling has shown for years that even a majority of Tory voters want the railways back in public ownership.
Redistributive taxation is always popular. Ending austerity was always popular. The difficult areas for us were around migration and social security.
I would say, on social security, we sort of shifted the argument over the period. We stopped all that ‘scrounger’ and ‘skiver’ rhetoric that Osborne and Iain Duncan-Smith had been using quite early on in Jeremy’s leadership, because we challenged them on it, knocked them back and got some reversals. But on migration, yes, that was a difficult one.
It was an argument we had to have, because for me and for Jeremy, and for John McDonnell and Diane Abbott as well, that kind of bit of the Labour left, people’s rights isn’t something you compromise on. You don’t just go, “Well, we’ll throw migrants under a bus, because we need votes”. That is never something that is going to sit comfortably with any of us.
So, it was a problem, and we knew we needed to address it. Whether we did or even had a strategy to, in that campaign, I think, is a separate matter. But we were never going to repeat the rhetoric of, “yes we do acknowledge we need an emergency brake”. That just gives Farage and Johnson and Gove the platform to go, “Yes, and we will, by leaving the EU.”
There’s no point playing up that issue and then, impotently saying, “But we’re going to stay in the EU with free movement”, which is the Remain side’s argument. You can’t play both sides. You’ve got legitimate concern argument where, if you pander to people’s emotions on it, they’ll agree with you – they won’t, they’ll say, “Oh, so you admit it too. I’ll go to the people with a solution”.
So, we didn’t really have the confidence or the strength within the Labour Party, by this point, to transform that argument.
But certainly, that was something we were aware of. But Jeremy did make arguments around that, during the campaign. Certainly, it probably was a bit more soft-pedalled, because most of the Labour front bench, and most of the Remain campaign in general, wasn’t very pro-migration, and wasn’t singing the praises of freedom of movement.
This changed by 2018/2019, when people were campaigning for a second referendum, and freedom of movement became a more acceptable thing for the liberal Left and liberal Right to argue for. But at that point in 2016, they weren’t making that argument. It was very telling that they’d sold the pup on that one, entirely.
UKICE: Looking back through the campaign – and I don’t know whether you went into it assuming that Remain would win – how did you see the campaign developing? When did you actually think, “we’re going to vote for Brexit”? Was it 23rd June?
AF: Probably the date of the referendum. I thought it would be close. But I thought Remain would win. I wasn’t centrally involved in this, I have to say. I mean, I wasn’t the Head of Policy at the time, I was a political advisor to Jeremy, so I was covering a lot of other things. As I say, the Labour In campaign was very standalone, and was requested to be very standalone and wanted to be separate from us, except where it wanted to use us to say the messages they wanted us to say.
It’s difficult looking back four-and-a-half years. My impression was that Remain was going to win, though it would be fairly narrow. I was a bit surprised by the result. Yes, there probably wasn’t a realisation, because all the polling was saying Remain was going to narrowly win, as well. So, that’s all you’ve got to go on, really.
UKICE: Had you worked out, or had you thought through, what might happen if there was a vote for Brexit, and were you taken aback when David Cameron actually did what he said he wouldn’t do and resign?
AF: No, we didn’t have a written down strategy for scenario A, scenario B, and so on. We kind of had a, “Okay, once this is over, this is what we’re going to try and focus on in the summer”. Obviously, it got thrown into complete disarray, anyway. But we had started building some plans for the summer. I remember us having an internal conversation where we joked, “Oh, if he loses this, Cameron is going to go, clearly, but he’s not. So, it’ll carry on.”
UKICE: All those Shadow Cabinet resignations must have, overwhelmingly, preoccupied you for that weekend after.
AF: Yes, that was on the Saturday night. We got wind of it quite late on the Saturday night. Then Jeremy phoned Hilary Benn at about 1:00am or 2:00am, I think, and then got him to resign, because Hilary said, “Yes, I’m going to resign, and I’ve coordinated something or other. Yes, it’s true what’s in the papers”. It was in one of the Sunday papers. Then, we had the Sunday of this stuff going on.
I was down in Sussex with my family, which is where I’m from, originally. So, I was discussing this on a conference call in a car park in Arundel, which is a lovely little Sussex village, which I used to go to as a kid. There were a few of us from there and we’d taken our kids and were reliving our childhoods ourselves.
But I spent most of it on a mobile phone in the car park discussing this, and every time interrupted was by, “Oh, and Heidi Alexander has gone now”. It was quite a weird period. I found it very odd. From what I’ve learnt since, it was very evident that it was pre-planned and they were looking for a context, or a hook, a pretext, rather, to do it.
In the local elections in May, nationally we’d beaten the Tories by one point. It was fairly underwhelming, but we were 31 and they were 30 or something, and UKIP and the Lib Dems were quite high. So, considering we lost by eight points in 2015, to be one point ahead of the Tories in our first local election test, that seemed okay.
Then there was the Oldham byelection, when Michael Meacher died, and people said we were going to lose that, that Jeremy won’t go down well with this sort of constituency. Yet we won that with a really good share of the vote. So, there had been all these things where doom was foreseen, and we’d kind of got through them. Then there was the fact that the Tory party had lost this referendum that they called, and now they were using that as the context for Jeremy to go. It just felt to me that it wasn’t going to work.
UKICE: Were you pretty clear that Jeremy Corbyn was going to see off threats to his leadership, then?
AF: Yes. I think the issue was, if that had happened to most Labour leaders, they would have gone, because they saw their role as the leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party. They had, at least at the outset, the support of most of the Parliamentary Labour Party. That was never Jeremy’s support base. So, the fact that it wasn’t there then it was like, “Okay, now they are just being honest about it. They don’t like us. We know this already.”
That’s not where our support base came from. Jeremy was elected, overwhelmingly, 60% nearly, in a four-horse race, by the membership and the affiliates. The membership and the affiliates, as far as we could tell, were still with us. So, nothing had changed, in that sense.
The only other left-wingers, apart from the four I mentioned at the beginning, are the people who were elected in 2015, like Rebecca Long-Bailey, Richard Burgon, Angela Rayner and Clive Lewis. People who weren’t put straight into the Shadow Cabinet, because they’d only been in Parliament two minutes.
But now we needed them, and it was like, “Quick, you need to get in the Shadow Cabinet. Oh, and you might have to double up and do two roles, because there are still only 20 of us.” So, it was quite a mad period it made us more determined and more resilient.
UKICE: How difficult in that period was it to put together a plan for Brexit, and why did you turn to Keir Starmer as the person who was going to be your Shadow Brexit Secretary, when Theresa May created that department?
AF: That’s a good question. Obviously, through the summer we had the second leadership election when, eventually, the coup fizzled out and they just went, “Okay, we’ll put up an actual candidate,” when they realised they weren’t going to force Jeremy out by bullying, effectively. By September, Jeremy is re-elected and, again, on a slightly stronger mandate than before.
So, my prediction was that nothing had changed much in the membership and the affiliates. Then we thought, “Okay, let’s try and broaden out again, but not as much as last time. Clearly that didn’t work. So, we’ll keep the people who have actually stepped up and done really well – people like Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey – but we’ll also add in some others”.
Keir Starmer had come to our office pretty quickly during the campaign, and I think had clearly seen Owen Smith wasn’t going to get anywhere. Probably by July, he was coming up to our office saying, “Look, Jeremy’s clearly going to be re-elected, I’d like to be in the Shadow Cabinet”. I think he wanted to be either Home Secretary or Brexit Secretary, which is quite a bold move, because he’d only been elected in 2015 himself.
We thought that this was a man with some confidence. But for Home Secretary, we wanted Diane, which is important because of what I was saying earlier about migration and stuff like that. We wanted somebody who was solidly on our side and not in this pandering mode. So, he was offered Shadow Brexit Secretary. It wasn’t a lot more strategic than that.
Those were the two things he wanted, and we didn’t want him to have one of them, so he had the other one, if I’m being frank. Our policy at that point in 2016 was, “We respect the result of the referendum, but we shouldn’t leave on destructive terms. We should try and negotiate a good deal that protects our industry and jobs”.
That was about it. That was about as detailed as it was, at that time.
Labour’s Brexit policy and the 2017 general election
UKICE: Were the Labour leadership, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, you and Keir Starmer, on the same page about Brexit at that stage?
AF: Yes. There was no real disagreement. Theresa May hadn’t even really set out what she wanted to do with Brexit.
UKICE: When you saw the emerging Conservative position, when it looked as though the government is ruling out membership of the single market, maybe, and even membership of the customs union, what was your reaction as you saw those emerging red lines?
AF: There were two elements. One was a very political, opportunist thing which is, a lot of what she’s saying is contradictory. She’s trying to speak to both sides of the parliamentary Conservative Party. That isn’t going to work. I think the phrase was ‘cakeism’, wasn’t it, that became popular to describe her policy? She was saying all these things of, “We won’t lose this, we won’t lose that. But we are leaving the single market and we are leaving the customs union.” That wasn’t going to work.
I think this may have been Keir Starmer’s initial thing, to come up with six tests, in either late 2016, or very early 2017. That was about saying, “There are contradictions here in what they’ve been saying.” So, we came up with things that were saying, “We’re going to leave, but you’ve got to meet these tests, because they’re the tests you’ve set yourself”.
It was really just teasing their contradictions, more than having our own policy. At the time, the Conservatives had a majority, Brexit was done and there was no kind of, “Let’s go back in” campaign, at this point. Our policy was, “Okay, this is going to happen, but we’re going to make it as difficult and as spikey for you, as we can, by holding you to your own contradictory statements”.
UKICE: Was there, at that stage, any attempt to have any cross-party conversations?
AF: I can’t recall that we did, and that’s not to say we didn’t, but I don’t recall it. It might have been that Keir met with his opposite numbers in the opposition parties, but certainly from the Leader’s office, I don’t think we did. That, I think, reflects how we saw it as an issue. We saw it as being done. There would be a process, but broadly speaking, that was the trajectory it was on and that was that.
But I don’t recall any, and if there was, it obviously didn’t amount to anything much. There were not any substantial talks across the parties.
UKICE: The government had its court battles with Gina Miller, and then had to put through the Bill to allow it to trigger Article 50. Did you at any stage think that this was an opportunity, before the government starts the process of leaving, to put down some conditions? There were some Lords amendments, I think, on citizens’ rights, and things like that.
AF: Yes, we’d always said that. We always said that citizens’ rights, both EU citizens here in the UK and UK citizens who lived in Europe, should have their rights protected, and that should be negotiated. I think that might have even been one of the six tests, actually. Although it’s always difficult to remember them. Six is far too many. It’s not a good number.
You know, you mentioned Gina Miller and that court battle. I remember everyone, and that includes Keir Starmer, thinking, “This is a distraction, this is not going to be good. We’ve settled this. There was a referendum. Fighting in the courts is not the way forward to trigger Article 50”.
Keir Starmer was very much in favour of that being our position, and so was Jeremy. Although we lost a couple of people out of the Shadow Cabinet at that stage, I think Jo Stevens and Dawn Butler, maybe.
I think there were about 50 Labour MPs who rebelled on that. It really wasn’t divisive, and there wasn’t a real backlash around that, as I recall. There was a fairly big rebellion, but when you’ve had 172 MPs say they have no confidence in you as leader, 50 feels like progress. Also, a lot of them were allies who just disagreed on that issue. There was no hostility with it.
Dawn was back in the Shadow Cabinet, for example, within a matter of months. So, it did seem like a fairly smooth issue for us, at that point.
UKICE: What did you think when you then had Theresa May say she had to call a general election, despite having ruled that out for so long, because she was worried about Parliament getting in the way of the Brexit that she needed to negotiate? Were you surprised by that?
AF: I would still speculate to this day that they assumed that we would either vote against or abstain on triggering Article 50, or follow some the Lords’ lead on this, and be more of an obstacle. I think their calculation must have been that. There’s no reason to have done that otherwise.
This idea that she went off for a walk and decided to do it, sorry, no. That’s just a myth. It’s a lovely story, but it’s not true. Whatever the reality is, that isn’t the story. That’s a lovely thing for the press. But clearly they framed it as, “Here is a trap for Labour. They won’t vote to trigger Article 50, or if they do, they will be massively split”.
Actually, the split wasn’t that bad, relative to the splits we had previously within the Labour Party. I don’t think it worked. Her framing of 2017 as a Brexit election didn’t work, because we hadn’t fallen into that trap. If they had any inside information, they would have known we wouldn’t have fallen into that trap, at that point. So, there was no prospect of that happening.
It did feel to me like they’d called an election on that premise, and then not re-evaluated their strategy, thinking, “Oh, well, we’re 25 points ahead in the polls anyway. We’ll obliterate them, and it doesn’t matter really. We’ll just say any old nonsense and that will do”. I don’t think it really worked. We weren’t making Brexit a big issue.
Our big issue was ending austerity, and by then we’d forced a couple of U-turns on tax credits and personal independence payments, and stuff like that. So, in a sense, that really didn’t faze us. We’d been planning for that election, from the point Theresa May won, because she had this quite big honeymoon period.
Obviously, Labour was in disarray because she was elected unopposed, which was in mid-July. We were in the middle of a leadership election, and she had this serene role, whereas we’re fighting each other. Back benchers are heckling Jeremy when he’s at PMQs, you know, it’s a difficult period. Whereas she built up this very strong lead, and all the focus groups that we’d done were saying, “People like her. She’s strong. There’s no kind of real weaknesses. There is nothing people dislike about her”.
She had very popular poll ratings, all the way through, until the election started, really. Then, her one-woman campaign fell apart. But we had been planning for that election, though I would say, in early 2017, it kind of dipped off, because it was a case of, “Well, nothing is happening. We’ve set up a skeleton framework of this is who is doing what, this is the process, if there is an election”.
It could be six months, it could be a year. We had monitoring meetings, I suppose, every month or six weeks, just to go, “Okay, where do we think we are with the election planning? What are our finances like?”, but there wasn’t any further big, strategic kind of discussions.
Then it was a surprise on 18 April when she came out and did that. We were all speculating, “Has a royal died? Is this her resigning, or something? Is she ill? Is this an election?”. Then there was no government crest on the podium outside 10 Downing Street, and that only leaves one thing.
Just before she formally announced it, we realised. We were like, “Okay, this is make or break time for us,” because we’d just about hung on in there for quite a rocky period.
UKICE: How did you come up with the Brexit position that was in that manifesto? Was that at all controversial, internally?
AF: No, it was actually pretty plain sailing. It was an expansion of the logic of the six tests, basically, which was, we want to have a close relationship, close to the customs union, and close to the single market. It was an approach of, “Look, we’ll leave, but not go too far,” which seemed to fit the 52/48 narrowness of the result.
There was one bit of controversy, in the Clause 5 meeting, where the section on migration was amended, and you can check the final copy versus the leaked version. It’s all out in the open, isn’t it?
The amendment put was ‘Labour will end free movement when we leave the European Union’. I said to Diane – because Diane was the Shadow Home Secretary, so it’s her policy area – “Are you comfortable with this?”.
She said, “Not really, but I didn’t feel I would win a vote on it if I opposed it”. I said, “What about if we say, ‘freedom of movement will end when we leave the EU”?”. Because that’s just a statement of fact. If you’re not in the EU, you don’t have freedom of movement. So, it became a passive thing.
She said, “Yes, great, use that wording”, and so we kind of slightly shifted it and nobody noticed.
UKICE: If you had a single market option, free movement wouldn’t end. So, you’d have to have gone for an EEA option. Were you talking about that at all at the time?
AF: Not at the time. That became a live debate later on, when you had the Common Market 2.0 campaign with Boles, Letwin, Lucy Powell and Stephen Kinnock as the driving force behind that. That did become a live argument then. But no, not at that point.
UKICE: Throughout the campaign, you saw support for Labour rise, almost at the same level among Leave and Remainers. Did you feel that the Conservatives were trying to pursue Brexit as a dividing line again, to try and break up the momentum that you were gathering?
AF: I think they did, but I think by that point, the wheels were beginning to fall off their campaign. Lots of things had happened which meant they weren’t really in control of the narrative of the election. You had the Dementia Tax U-turn, and that disastrous ‘nothing has changed’ of statement from Theresa May, two days after they’d launched their manifesto.
That put them on the back foot a bit. There were, obviously, the terrorist atrocities, the Manchester bombing and the London Bridge attack, which then made policing and austerity around policing, more of an issue, as well as the international aspects of policing and cooperation.
We did think, “Look, why don’t we get our team out?”, which was Keir, Emily (Thornberry) and Barry Gardiner at the time, and say, “This is our negotiating team. Don’t they look competent, united?’”, and contrast to the divisions on the Tory side.
But Jeremy, Keir, Emily and Barry are all, unfortunately, London MPs with touching constituencies, which isn’t the greatest look. But they were a united team. We did a press conference where they all answered questions. They all stuck to the lines, and they all said, “We’re prepared to negotiate a Brexit deal that’s good for Britain and will keep us close to the European Union. It won’t trash our relationship if we leave”.
That worked as a little thing and it didn’t come under too much scrutiny, actually. It didn’t get us a big news splash, but there was a press conference. I forget where it was. It was either in the Midlands or the North of the Home Counties. It must have been after the manifesto came out.
So, yes, Brexit wasn’t a big issue in that campaign, and it didn’t feel to me like there was a big demand for it to be the issue, either, from the press or from the public.
UKICE: When did you get a sense that you were going to do really quite well? Did you anticipate that Theresa May would manage to lose her majority before you actually saw those exit polls?
AF: No. I remember having a conversation, I think, with Karie Murphy, either the day or two days before the election. We were the two most optimistic, I think. We were the kind of more Tiggerish people in the room, as opposed to the Eeeyores amongst us. We were both quite optimistic that we’d done well in the campaign. I would say my position on polling day was content. I thought, “We’ve probably done as much as we could have done, given where we started from”.
There were some blips, obviously, within that campaign. But broadly speaking, we had done as well and probably better than most people expected. “Whatever has happened, we haven’t lost by 25 points. We aren’t facing wipe-out”, is what I think I said to Karie, “I think we’ll end up somewhere between 220 and 260 seats”.
Broadly, we might slip back to 10 seats down on what Miliband was in 2015. We could be, maybe, be 30 ahead. As it happened, that was pretty close.
There is no guarantee that 260 would have caused a hung parliament. That’s not, necessarily, quite enough, depending on results elsewhere. So I hadn’t really contemplated it would be a hung parliament. I thought we’d definitely increase our share of the vote, as all the polling had us slightly up on where we were in 2015. That was some progress I thought we could point to.
I was hoping we would gain seats, and I thought more probable than not, we would. I had feedback from my own constituency, which was Croydon Central, which is a kind of quite bellwether marginal. It was Gavin Barwell’s seat, obviously, and he played a bigger role in Brexit, later on.
Activists there were very confident we’d taken it, because we only lost by 165 votes in 2015. We had about five times as many people out campaigning there this time, and it felt like the doorstep reaction had changed. I was quite confident we had improved, and we’d done well, but not necessarily that we’d got a hung parliament.
UKICE: The day after, when the election results are coming through, Theresa May weakened and her majority lost, did you think, “There’s going to be another election in a few weeks or a few months’ time” ?”, or, “She’s going to reach out to the opposition parties, to try and do Brexit”. Did you have any expectations of what might happen?
AF: Yes, I think we thought there would be another election. I think we thought that 1974 would be the comparable thing – that within six months, she’d try and call another election. I guess, the problem was that it wasn’t really like ’74. In ’74, (Harold) Wilson beat (Ted) Heath quite narrowly, from Opposition. She was in government and had lost.
The Tories didn’t want her to run another election campaign. There was no way they wanted her to do that, having seen the first attempt. So, in hindsight it was probably a bit naïve, that we thought they would have to go for another election. They’re not in a strong position to do it, whereas Wilson was in ’74. He was a fresh – well, not fresh, because he’d been Prime Minister before. He was a fresh Prime Minister at that point.
He defeated the incumbent, narrowly, and had to try and expand on that and say, “Give me a mandate to do what I want to do.”. She’d already tried that, and the people had said, “No, we’re not giving you a bigger mandate”. So, in hindsight, that was probably naïve.
I think our miscalculation, if I’m being honest, at that point, was thinking “Labour are ahead in quite a few of the polls. This is how we’ve done it. We’ve talked about ending austerity, spoke about public services, social security, housing, all these kinds of bread-and-butter issues. Stick to that and don’t talk about Brexit. That’s where we build our support”.
In a sense, what we should have done is looked further ahead and gone, “Okay, what’s going to become the defining issue? Can we use the extra strength we’ve got from this?”. At this point, all kinds of people from Yvette Cooper to Tony Blair were doing a kind of, mea culpa, “Actually Jeremy Corbyn is not the devil. My God, he actually ran a decent campaign. We got it wrong”.
There was all this humble pie eating. I guess, again, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Strategically we should have thought, “Okay, now is our opportunity to tackle some of the tough issues and show a bit of leadership, like Brexit, and see what we can do”. The lesson we’d drawn, incorrectly, and nobody was advising us any differently from any wing of the Party, or internally, was, “Don’t talk about Brexit, talk about the other stuff. That’s where Labour goes up in the polls”.
UKICE: So, that sort of created a vacuum, a bit of a free-for-all for different parts of the Party to start deciding their own version of their careers.
AF: Yes. Early on (after the 2017 election) there wasn’t much of that, at least I don’t recall anything. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have been party to those conversations if they were going on. But it didn’t feel like there were a lot of people saying, “Oh, look, now the parliamentary arithmetic has changed, we can stop Brexit”. That wasn’t mooted by anybody in the Shadow Cabinet. I don’t remember it coming up in PLP meetings. Not that I attended all of them.
On the ones I did attend with Jeremy, when he spoke, it didn’t really come up. Not in that early stage. Obviously later on, it came up much more. I think that Theresa May’s inability to get a deal done gave that space and created that gap for them to come into. I think that came later.
Post-election Brexit negotiations and Labour's Brexit position
UKICE: Starmer has said since that he was expecting a call from May within the days afterwards to try and reach some sort of compromise. That does not seem to be your impression, or your expectation your expectation –
AF: No, she didn’t give any hint that that would be the case. As it hadn’t been much of an issue, and we weren’t trying to make it an issue or the dividing line between us and the Tories, it wasn’t something we were really looking at. It’s interesting that Keir says that, and I mean I’m not saying he’s wrong on that, or he’s misleading you in some way, but I don’t recall him saying that internally to us, saying, “Will there be this reach-out? Do we need a cross-party consensus on this?”.
I remember Jeremy making those sorts of points softly to May publicly, a couple of times of saying, “Look, you need to bring people with you on this. People voted to Leave, but they only just voted to Leave. We need a Brexit that reflects that”. I think we made those sort of points. That might not be the exact language we used. But rhetorically, that’s where, I think, a lot of our position was.
I don’t think there was any call from us to be involved or have co-negotiations or a cross-party consensus. For us, the major issue was still stopping austerity and we’d rolled them back on some things. You know, she had to scrap her grammar schools policy. She had to abandon scrapping housing benefit cuts for social housing and supported accommodation. So, we saw a few little victories. We were focused on playing up those sorts of things, rather than Brexit.
UKICE: How difficult was it to come out with a statement of Labour policy and the Coventry speech? Was that a big effort, of bringing everybody together to lay out the groundwork?
AF: That was, I thought, quite uncontroversial, and others, I think, think differently. Both the industrial trade unions, so GMB, Unite, and people who represent workers in manufacturing and industry, were saying to us, “We need to maintain a customs union”.
They very forcefully came in with their senior reps from different industries saying, “We need to be in a customs union, otherwise this is going to cost our jobs”. CBI and Make UK, were lobbying us to say they wanted a customs union. This became, for us, a quite easy thing – if the unions are saying it and businesses are saying it, why wouldn’t we say it? It fitted with our policy, so we just tweaked it slightly.
We said a customs union, slightly bespoke. Britain is a large country, it’s clearly a major economy and we should be able to negotiate some sort of deal in which we have a say in future trading negotiations, a seat at the table when the EU is negotiating them. There ought to be some special carve-out for the UK, given the size of our economy.
UKICE: I think Jeremy Corbyn was quite closely linked to European socialist parties. Did you have any conversations as you were developing those sorts of ideas, some of which were, to use Theresa May’s language ‘bespoke’, with European partners?
AF: Yes, we did. Keir, initially, had a couple of meetings out in Brussels. Then, I think, as the issue became more alive and the Tories started putting more meat on their bones, Jeremy started going as well. We met Michel Barnier, Sabine Weyand, Jean-Claude Juncker and his people. We met with the party of European socialists, our sister parties. We had different perspectives, I think it’s fair to say. It’s a pretty broad church, ostensibly, a social democratic party. But we had discussions.
We did discuss our proposals and we discussed what, in theory, “If we suggested this, what would be the issues for you with that?”. So, we were fairly confident, without having anything written down in chapter and verse, that what we were saying, was at least negotiable.
It wasn’t necessarily that was signed off by the EU, but it was something that could be negotiated in some form.
UKICE: Given where you were on pushing forward these proposals, what did you then make of the emergence of the People’s Vote campaign? Did you think, “This is going to be a major headache for us”? Or did you just think, “These are a bunch of ultra-Remainers who are not reconciled to the verdict”?
AF: I think I had two thoughts. One was to be quite cynical about it, just because of the composition of the personnel involved with it, or what it seemed to be upon closely observing it. They were very much from the New Labour wing of the Labour Party. It seemed like, instead of trying to convince the public, they were trying to lobby the Labour Party. That worried me, because if you wanted to run a People’s Vote campaign to say the people should have the final say on whatever deal comes forward, then actually, you need to make that argument to people who voted ‘Leave’. You don’t need to convince the Labour Party of that, really.
Nigel Farage in the referendum was saying we could be like Switzerland or Norway. Well, all of a sudden, he was a complete no-dealer, the minute he’d won the referendum. So, there was an argument you could make and a pragmatic case you could put, in the same way that trade unions, when they negotiate a pay deal, go back to their members and ballot them and say, “Are you happy with this? Will you accept it?”.
So, yes, there was an argument that could have been put, but it always struck me that there was either something malicious or something incompetent about it. It wasn’t targeting the right people, and it wasn’t going to be effective, if it was trying to actually get a People’s Vote.
If it was trying to create a wedge within the Labour Party, then it was pretty effective, credit to it. “Well done,” I suppose, through gritted teeth.
UKICE: Theresa May’s Brexit position evolves towards Chequers. You’ve got the backstop. She negotiated a withdrawal agreement, which, actually, you could argue would lead to the close relationship that you want.
Did you ever consider voting for that withdrawal agreement, maybe in return for some concessions about the shape of the long-term relationship? Were there principled objections, on the Labour side, to the May withdrawal agreement?
AF: Yes, I think there were. This goes back to what Jeremy’s concerns were with the referendum, when he was campaigning for Remain, at that point. His focus was environmental standards, workers’ rights and all of that sort of stuff. There was no guarantees on that, really. The backstop would have been in a customs union and would have been in a quite different relationship.
She’d made it very clear we wouldn’t end up in the backstop. Her rhetoric was, “That’s an insurance policy just to satisfy the EU. That’s not what I want. I want to negotiate this thing that would pander to the Rees-Mogg and Johnson wing. I’m hinting in that direction and saying that’s the insurance policy to satisfy the EU, but that won’t be the real thing, don’t worry”, which clearly didn’t convince her own side or the DUP.
But for us, we didn’t trust that there were safeguards in place on the core stuff. We didn’t trust their negotiating priorities on the environment, on workers’ rights, or on the whole range of other things. There was still too much wiggle room in what they were calling a customs union, which they were very clear was temporary until the negotiations finished. Then, there wouldn’t be one, and then the backstop, they wouldn’t even end up in, so that didn’t matter.
For us, there wasn’t really much in it. Even when it became clear that she was in trouble, I don’t recall any discussion whereby we said, “We should vote for this”. I mean, you can argue, in hindsight, “God, wouldn’t life have been simpler for us, if we’d have just got this bloody thing out the way and gone back to a nice debate about austerity?”.
But having said that, who knows what that would have done to Labour’s internal coalition, if Labour had voted through a Tory Brexit. We’d said, in our manifesto, “We won’t leave on a no-deal. We also won’t leave on Theresa May’s objectives” which had been set out broadly in our 2017 manifesto.
So, for us to then double-back on that and say, “Oh, actually we will, and we can worry about that after the next election when we can try and renegotiate it” – I don’t think would have been a tenable argument. I’m just going through it in my head. This wasn’t probably even discussed in that depth, at that point.
I just can’t see how that would either have been of benefit to us, because of what our position was, where the membership was, or where the parliamentary arithmetic was.
UKICE: Were you thinking, hoping, expecting a defeat on the scale that it ended up being, going back to after the 2017 election? Were you still thinking you could force an election, if you liked?
AF: Again, for the reason that I don’t think they wanted Theresa May to run another campaign, I wasn’t necessarily convinced it was going to force an election. What it was clearly doing was splitting the right-wing vote into a Liberal-Conservative soft Brexit Remain wing, and a UKIP-light – well, not necessarily UKIP light – or a UKIP/Tory vote, and their vote was being split by this.
In essence, it was almost a matter of, “Look, if we can hold together as the Labour Party, we’re in opposition, we don’t have to have a fully formed policy. We’re not the ones negotiating it. If we can hold together, and they split first, good. If the Right vote is split and we can hold together our own coalition by not jumping one way or the other, then that’s alright”.
I think that’s probably where we ended up, and that was, roughly, the mindset internally, at that time.
UKICE: What did you make when you saw that massive defeat? Did you then think, “She’s going to come to us?”. The Conservatives, I think, were trying to tempt some Labour backbenchers, weren’t they, with additions to the political declaration, or guarantees and legislation to attract some of your Labour Leavers. Were you worried about that?
AF: I think we were, but I think the scale of the defeat meant, even if she had convinced the 20 or so that, I think, Boris Johnson ended up getting for a harder Brexit for, what difference would it have made? That’s why they didn’t. They’d calculated and thought, “Look, why would I vote against the Labour Whip?”. Why vote against the views of most Labour Party members in their constituencies, even if their seat was more Leave, and probably against a large swathe of their vote, as well, in those constituencies?
Even in the constituencies that voted 70/30 Leave, probably at least half the Labour vote was still Remain, because the bulk of that 30 would have been Labour, probably. I don’t think there was much motivation, except for the die-hard ones like Kate Hoey, Gisela Stuart, Dennis Skinner, who had always had that view, for different reasons, of wanting to leave the EU. Apart from them, none of the Lisa Nandys or Gloria De Pieros were tempted, I don’t think, at that point, because it would have made no difference.
UKICE: At this stage, you have the creation of the Independent Group, which starts the defections. I think John McDonnell was worried that this actually could gain some momentum and there would be very significant defections. Did you see it like that, or did you see it as a much smaller threat?
AF: Once I saw Change UK launch, or the Independent Group, or whatever they were called, I was pretty confident that wasn’t going to be some mass outpouring of Labour MPs, because it was just shambolic. Clearly, there was a lot of egos involved with very different politics, mainly personal politics. You couldn’t see that vast swathes of Labour MPs were going to go, “I want to fall under the magnificent leadership of Chuka Umunna or Anna Soubry”.
They are not substantial enough politicians. They are not Shirley Williams and they’re not the SDP, in essence. So, therefore, I wasn’t worried by that, but at the same time, Tom Watson had set up this Future Britain group, and 150 Labour MPs had signed up to that. Some of them not with any intention of leaving.
Some of them, I think, just had to keep an eye on what Tom Watson was up to, because nobody trusts him. He’s betrayed every faction within the Labour Party over the years. So, that was a more substantial group, and clearly Tom Watson is a more experienced operator in these circumstances, more of an organiser, and hasn’t got the same personal ego and ambition that some of the characters involved with Change UK had.
So, that was more of a worry. I don’t think anybody thought, including John, that Change UK was going to become this big repository for Labour voters, or Labour MPs. But it was clear there were increasing tensions within the PLP, and as we saw from two years earlier. At that point, a lot of them don’t like Jeremy, and don’t like the direction of the Labour Party, really, even if they were a bit quiet on it for a year after the election.
I think there was certainly a need to keep the PLP more united and not have us split, in the way the Tories were clearly divided. At this point, our divides were showing more often, and the Tories were split. So, we had to try and be quite accommodating, I think, to some of the PLP. The reality was, there was no other process for this, at this point.
There was a series of votes going through Parliament. You had to play the parliamentary tactics. Everything was subsumed within that. So, there’s no point us declaring what our position is, if all our troops are going out and voting elsewhere. By that point, discipline was breaking down. Not just in the PLP, actually, but within the Shadow Cabinet.
It got worse later on as we go on. I don’t want to get into the personalities involved, but you had some people coming out and saying they were more Remain and going on marches dressed as the EU flag. You had others saying the opposite, and saying, “A second referendum will be the death of Labour, and all these people are awful for suggesting it,” and probably using stronger language than that.
It was quite a febrile moment, I would say. I think it was right to try and hold ourselves together, as much as we could, especially when the Tories are imploding. As in 2016, where the Tories have just lost their leader, lost their Prime Minister, and then the Labour Party decides to set fire to itself.
I mean, that was pretty stupid timing, and we were saying to people, “Look, don’t do the same thing again. That ends up with the Tories having a 20-point lead in the polls. We can’t afford that”. We were level pegging, roughly, in this period. It was quite volatile, but it was, roughly, level pegging throughout 2018 and early 2019.
UKICE: Where do you think Keir Starmer stood on all of this? You had the 2018 Conference, I think, where he did that intervention. Whereas other people are saying, “Privately, he was very sceptical about a referendum”. Do you think he was on the move the whole time? Or do you think, actually, he was pretty aligned with what you guys were trying to do?
AF: Oh, well, here we are. There were tensions within our office. So, you speak to different people within our office, and they had different positions. This caused a lot of tension. There was clearly some difference between us and Keir Starmer. By ‘us’ I mean, what Jeremy’s view was, not the different wings of LOTO.
Keir – and we’ve seen this since he’s been leader – is a creature of the establishment. He doesn’t take the view that what matters is what members think, what matters is whether the majority of the PLP thinks something. If so, he thinks that’s what he should do. That is where he’s ended up as leader, despite his 10 pledges and all of that.
So, this is consistent from Keir, in a sense. He is that kind of politician. Whereas Jeremy is very much an activist. Activist first, MP second, in a sense. He’s not somebody who loves the pomposity of Parliament, he’s somebody who uses Parliament as a platform to advance his beliefs. That’s a very different conception.
So, Keir Starmer, I think, from the conversations I had in the early stages, would be targeted quite a lot in that period. The People’s Vote Campaign were quite frustrating, and I found them irritating, and a lot of the people who were fervently advocating that position within Parliament were people he couldn’t stand, like Chuka Umunna. I mean, there was no love lost there and I don’t think that’s breaking any great secrets, and apologies if it is. But tough. He expressed his frustrations about him many times.
I think it was because Keir Starmer was occupying the front bench position, and he was being jostled by his back bench and he wasn’t used to that.
Whereas with Jeremy, it didn’t bother him if his back bench came up and said something else. But I think that made Keir uncomfortable and made him tense. He saw himself as a kind of bridge between the Shadow Cabinet and the PLP. I think that ended up dragging him into that position and he just accommodated to it.
I think that’s what Keir does. He takes the path of least resistance within the Parliamentary Labour Party, with the people he thinks are important. So, yes, our differences were there. I think a lot of people in the Shadow Cabinet, especially those who lived in Leave constituencies and were quite anti-second referendum, thought Keir was, slowly, ratcheting up our policy towards that trajectory.
But actually, in reality, the 2018 Conference had said, “Look, if the Tories can’t get their deal through, and there’s an impasse, then the best thing is to have a general election. If we can’t get that, then we should campaign for all options, including a second referendum”.
UKICE: So, constructive ambiguity, or whatever Jon Lansman described it as.
AF: Yes, and I paraphrase, but that was the position. The thing is, by mid-2019, that was exactly the position. Theresa May hadn’t got a deal through, we couldn’t get a general election, because the Tories wouldn’t vote for one, and therefore you have to put all options on the table, and that includes a second referendum.
Therefore, in Parliament, we voted for the common market deal, or the Whip was to vote for this; the common market deal, and the customs union, which is the Ken Clarke amendment. Then, I think, the second referendum one, which was Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson. Then, our own kind of Labour-Brexit alternative.
So, we voted for four different options, saying, “Look, these are all, at least in part, in line with where our policy is, so therefore let’s try and get Brexit done, and be as pluralistic as we can”.
UKICE: Did you ever think those indicative votes might lead to anything?
AF: Well, again, I go back to the tactics of the People’s Vote. The customs union option would have won, if the people who wanted a People’s Vote had voted for it, instead of either voting against it or abstaining. It would have won by quite a lot, if they had all done that en bloc.
Now, obviously, a customs union alone wouldn’t have been everything we would have wanted, but it would have scuppered the Tories, and leave aside the end point, it would have put Theresa May in an impossible position .
So, tactically, it was – and I don’t mean to be crude – a ‘shit or bust’ strategy, wasn’t it? It was a no compromise. So, yes, I found it very frustrating. I was having conversations with peoplee like Jack Dromey, who was aligned with Caroline Spelman. Jaguar Land Rover, that massive plant, straddled their constituencies.
They wanted this. I had meetings with Oliver Letwin, Nick Boles, Lucy Powell and Stephen Kinnock about the Common Market 2.0 plan. I, personally, would have gone for any of those.
I thought they were good, kind of, compromise positions, and they accorded with where our policy was at. They were ways of getting Brexit done that respected the referendum result, but also kept us closer to the kind of deal we had and wouldn’t trash the economy. So, I and others were trying to build bridges with those sorts of people.
I had numerous conversations with Jack Dromey, with Unite reps from Jaguar Land Rover. Oliver Letwin phoned me during the middle of – and this is very important to me – Tottenham’s quarter-final game against Man City, in the Champions League. It was the most surreal conversation I’ve ever had. I managed to get out of work early (by early I mean before 7:30pm), because I wanted to watch it.
I’m in my local pub, and just before half-time, my phone rings and it’s Oliver Letwin. I’m thinking, “Wow, this is weird”. I’m watching this and I’m thinking, “Well, it’s half-time in five minutes, I’ll just decline it and then I’ll phone him back”. I’m sat outside my local pub and he’s saying, “Oh, have you got a minute to chat?” I said, “Yes, I’ve got 15”.
We had this conversation and he’s telling me, “Theresa May is doing this and, actually, if you offer this –”. I think it shows that we were trying to get some sort of compromise. Oliver Letwin, I think, genuinely did want a compromise. He had no control over the Conservative Party and, at that point, he was very isolated.
And if you read Gavin Barwell’s memoirs, it shows there were a number of people, actually, even in the Cabinet, who would have accepted a second referendum vote, to try and get things done attached to May’s deal. There were people who wanted a customs union, and there were people who wanted no deal, clearly, the Penny Mourdants and the other wing of the Cabinet.
It was all over the place and very strange alliances were being built. I remember talking to lots and lots of backbenchers about what they would live with, what they could appeal to, what our policy was in trying to argue with people who said, “Well, our policy isn’t for a second referendum”. I said, “Well, look, it’s not. But it kind of is, because that’s one of the options we have to keep on the table”.
So, if that option keeps coming up in Parliament, we’ve got a conference mandate to vote for it, because that’s what the conference policy said. Jeremy came up through the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, all of the Bennite changes to conference, to try and make the party more accountable to members, and more democratic.
Jeremy respects conference decisions. He’s not one of these people who is going to come out afterwards and say, “That’s all very nice. You voted for that, but we are the Labour Party, not you, and we’ll do what we like”, which is what Blair used to do when conference votes went against him. That democracy mattered.
Although it was ambiguous, we had to try and negotiate that as best we could and try and hold the Party, both in Parliament and outside, together as much as possible. The Another Europe is Possible group, which was led by people like Michael Chessum and others, was a kind of left-wing, pro-free movement, pro-EU, grouping, that got the majority of the motions that went into conference through. It not the People’s Vote, necessarily, that had a great locus. Because the Labour right was still quite beaten back within the Party, it was a kind of young Corbynite, Liberal, Cosmopolitan base that wanted us to be in a more pro-EU position.
That wasn’t the totality of Jeremy’s support base, but it was a large chunk of it. That’s why I said, in hindsight, in 2017, if we’d come out and Jeremy had stamped his authority at that time, when he was on a high, that may have changed things.
But would it have changed things? The reality is, if Theresa May couldn’t have got a deal through Parliament and it had dragged on and on, then in that vacuum other things crop up. It gives the space for other things to emerge. I’m not sure that, even if we’d led on it more in 2017, in the aftermath of the election, it really would have changed much by 2019, to be honest.
UKICE: When Theresa May initiated cross-party talks in April 2019, did you actually think, “Finally, we’ve got a chance to do this. This is going to lead to something real”? Or did you think, “This is the death throes of a lame duck leader, who has already announced that she’s on her way out”?
AF: I think both those things. We were sceptical it could get anywhere for the reasons you’ve just said; she was in a far weakened position. The Tory Party was massively split, her authority was massively diminished. But we had no qualms about going into negotiations. We thought we had to. From the optics of it, for one,
But there were pitfalls for us. Clearly, if we didn’t get much out of the negotiations and then voted for some sort of very minor compromise, we would be chastised for enabling Tory Brexit by our own base. We wouldn’t have been able to take the PLP with us. So, we had to get something substantial for it to hold, and we would have lost Jeremy’s support base within the Party.
Clearly, the Liberal Democrats were a receptacle for some of our vote, and so were the Greens at this point. Some of that was already splintering away to them, in the same way that some of the Tory vote was splintering off to the Brexit Party. So, we had a balancing act. We went into it with quite clear red lines. It had to be a proper customs union, and proper guarantees of worker’s rights, environmental protections, which we never got on consumer standards, on a range of other things. And if we could get it, a second referendum attached to any deal, as well. The difficulty was, the Tories were massively split, and you saw it.
We would negotiate and speak, and talk about these things with David Lidington, who was obviously one of the more pro-EU people within May’s Cabinet. I mean, you’d love to play poker with some of these people. Some of them almost had their head in their hands when things were being said.
Julian Smith, every time somebody said, “Oh, well that won’t get through Parliament,” or, “We think we could get that through Parliament”, he was going, “Oh, God”, and he was their Chief Whip at the time. As if to say, “You haven’t got a clue. It’s just all broken down”. I think that was increasingly true on our side, as well.
There was an air of unreality. I think John McDonnell described it as ‘trying to sign a contract with a company going into administration’. Within a few weeks, it became clear that was where it was. Even if they’d offered everything we wanted, there was just no guarantee it would happen. To be honest, in some of the one-to-one talks, some of their Cabinet and some of their Ministers did admit that.
“You either get this done under Theresa May, and even if you do, it might not hold. This is the last chance to get any kind of sensible Brexit done, because she’s on her way out. It’s not going to last much longer”. From our point of view, why would we risk a huge backlash from the PLP, our own support base within the Party, and our own voter coalition, for signing up to something with Theresa May, that is then going to fall apart the next week?
UKICE: Were you at all concerned about having to fight the European elections?
AF: Yes. I think our decision as a Party was, “We’re not going to put a lot into them”. I wasn’t close to those decisions. I’m not involved in the organising and the campaigning side of things, my job was policy. From what I recall from the conversations I was party to, as an Executive Director, we didn’t put a lot of finance behind them.
We knew there was a strong chance there was going to be a general election soon, and we needed to save our money for that. We’re not the Tory Party, we don’t get all these multi-million-pound donations from private equity heads and all that sort of stuff. So, we knew we had to save our money, and European elections always have low turn-out anyway. Even so, I think the result of it shook us a bit.
I don’t think we thought we could get out of it. That would have created a huge split within the Party if we’d said, “No, we’re not going to stand candidates, this is a waste of time”. Maybe it might have been a good thing to do, to set us apart. But I think the danger is that, at some point, this goes to the European Parliament, and then Labour wouldn’t be represented in there. We don’t then have access to the resources of the European Parliament. So, probably, in reality, that wouldn’t have been a runner.
There probably was a conversation about it, or somebody suggested it as an idea. But it probably got shot down in flames, pretty quickly
2019 general election
UKICE: It becomes clear that Boris Johnson is likely to be the next leader of the Conservatives. Theresa May stands down. What thinking were you doing over the summer? You mentioned the prospect of another general election. Did you think he would go for a general election quickly?
You saw some of the promises being made about the absolutely getting out by 31 October, in the Conservative leadership race. So, how did that summer of activity in the Conservative Party and the rise of the Brexit Party affect your thinking, inside Labour, about what the autumn was going to look like?
AF: I think two things. One is, obviously, a new leader comes in with a new mandate, and they have a honeymoon period. Even though the Parliamentary arithmetic doesn’t change, he’s going to have a more cohesive effect within the Conservative Party, just because new leaders tend to. Obviously, Jeremy is an exception to that within Labour.
But broadly speaking, and within the Conservative Party, that tends to be the case. So, we knew it would be a renewed threat. We knew he would be a very different kind of character. He’s harder to pin down on things. He’s a very different character to Theresa May. So, we knew we’d have to adapt how we did things like PMQs and how we framed the debate around him.
Ultimately, I think we thought, “Well, the parliamentary arithmetic hasn’t changed. He still hasn’t got a majority. He’s still got 20 or 30 MPs that don’t really want Brexit and are going to be problematic for him, the Letwins and Grieve and so on, who don’t like him even more than they don’t like Theresa May”.
In a sense, we thought, “Well, look, he’s not going to get the Lib Dems, the SNP, the Green and the couple of Plaid Cymru on board. What’s going to change, ultimately, unless he does something massive?”. So, I thought, and I think this was the consensus view, that he was still going to be in an impasse on Brexit.
He would either have to go for a general election, which obviously Theresa May didn’t want to do, or would have to compromise. That would, clearly, bust his whole rhetoric. We still thought he was in an objectively difficult situation with regards to that. I think, what we didn’t bank on, is that he would get a new deal, although it didn’t do what it said on the tin, and it didn’t do what he claimed it would do.
I don’t think any of us foresaw that he’d stab the DUP in the back, especially since he’d been over there in that summer, telling them, “I’ll stand with you”, and all the rest of it. So, that was surprising. But I think, again, there have been so many points where you go, “Well, in hindsight, we made tactical mistakes”. I would love to know what the 20 or so Labour MPs who voted for his deal think in hindsight about how useful that was.
That gave him the ability to go to the country and say, “I can get Brexit done”, which helped wipe out the Labour Party. So, people like Caroline Flint, who voted for it, gleefully, lost her seat, as a result. It didn’t do her any good, because she still was there with a Labour badge on. Again, it’s the same thing, if you’re in the Labour Party and you try to sound tough on migration or right wing, people are going to go, “Well, actually, I’ll have the full fat option and not the diet coke version”.
It didn’t work, and I just think that was another one of the many tactical failures of people in this whole saga. It damaged us, there’s no doubt about that. His ability to do what Theresa May hadn’t done within a couple of months and get it through Parliament gave him a real fillip to go into an election saying, “Look, I’ve got an oven-ready deal. It’s gone through Parliament”.
UKICE: If we go back to the summer, one of the swirling discussions was about a possible government of national unity, and whether it would it be under Jeremy Corbyn as leader, or if that would be a barrier to that emerging. Were you part of those discussions?
UKICE: Were they serious? Were they really going anywhere?
AF: They were coordinating discussions, I would say, from April. Around then, give or take a month, from April in 2019, between the Opposition parties. It would be us and the SNP. Then, we’d have some sort of delegation to go and meet with the Lib Dems, who were more prickly.
We got on quite well with the SNP, to be fair. They were always quite constructive. Because they were the largest other bloc, they were the more significant, as well. Eventually, this included Change UK too. So, Anna Soubry would sit around the LOTO desk with Jeremy and Jo Swinson, Ian Blackford, and Liz Saville-Roberts from Plaid, and so on, and Caroline Lucas.
We’d have discussions about the tactics in Parliament, about what we were going to do, and it was all about coordinating. There were all different kinds of tensions. At the time, the SNP were keen to have an election, I think, because they didn’t want it to drag into the new year, when the Alex Salmond case was coming up. They thought, actually, they’d recover a lot of their losses from 2017, where they’d lost a lot of seats to the Tories, and six to us.
So, they were quite happy with an election, but they had different calculations that suited them. The Lib Dems moved into a revoke position, the same as Change UK. So, there was never any hope of consensus, I don’t think, around that table. Jo Swinson took a position, I think because she thought she could get loads of seats back off the Tories, in the shires, as they’re now beginning to do, actually.
She thought she could do that then, and therefore, part of that was by attacking Jeremy Corbyn. So, on the face of it, she had to be, “Jeremy Corbyn is a danger. Don’t worry, we’re the safe option against these awful Leave-UKIP-Tories”. That’s where she positioned the Lib Dems. So, there was never any real hope of a deal, or a government of national unity.
I think she said, publicly, “We wouldn’t serve under Jeremy Corbyn”. Well, who else are you going to serve under? There’s no other leader of the Labour Party. Is it going to be Ian Blackford? Yourself? I mean, probably she actually was deluded enough to think it should be her. But in a sense, that was another point at which there could have been a compromise.
I think, if there had been a serious prospect of getting this through – though I’m not sure there ever really was the parliamentary arithmetic for it – we would have said, “Okay, for six months there will be a minimal platform where we all agree, keep things steady, really, domestically, but we’ll get Brexit done in this way”.
UKICE: Do you think Jeremy Corbyn would ever have accepted being a Minister in a Cabinet led by some elder statesperson – Ken Clarke, those sorts of figures? Or, if this was going to happen, Jeremy Corbyn was obviously the right person to be Prime Minister?
AF: I don’t know, but my view was that this was never really signed off with Ken Clarke. I’m not sure how much of this was a kind of the lobby journalists getting excited and creating their fantasy cabinets, as they used to, every five minutes. You know, they’d have Jo Swinson in as Home Secretary and Ian Blackford as something. It was really mad stuff.
So, I’m not sure that was ever serious. But for us, we’re the official Opposition, and Jeremy Corbyn is the twice-elected, democratic leader of the Labour Party by a mile. Who else has got a mandate to lead? If it’s done on the basis of, “This is what we’re here for. We get this done to this point, in a matter of a few months, and then we call a general election”, why would they care that it’s not Jeremy Corbyn?
Of course, you could throw that back to us and say, “Why would we care if it’s Jeremy Corbyn?”. Well, because you then lose control, and why should we give that up? On what basis? I don’t think it was ever a serious prospect, and I’m not sure the arithmetic was there for it anyway. I’m not sure enough Tories would have backed that.
UKICE: Moving from Parliament to your Party Conference in 2019, you have this compromise composite motion forming the basis of your election manifesto, about Labour holding a second vote, committing to a second referendum, but not necessarily campaigning for Remain.
Did you think, “This might work at Conference, but what on earth would it look like when Jeremy Corbyn is in a TV studio, being grilled about what this policy actually looks like?”. Was this a good basis for a general election campaign?
AF: I think there was very little other option for the Labour Party, at that point, given the Parliamentary Labour Party, and given what Conference would vote for. As I said, this again goes back to the question of, “Should we have led on this earlier?”. Probably. “Would it have made a lot of difference?”. Probably not. But yes, we’d created a vacuum and therefore people had formed their own positions.
I don’t think there was any other possible position. I think the reason it wasn’t saleable, was not so much that Jeremy couldn’t do it – I mean, it’s a similar position to Harold Wilson in the ‘70s, with the first referendum, where he expressed his position, but he didn’t campaign. He said, “I’m the Prime Minister, I’ll implement whatever the people decide”.
Of course, he was fairly confident people would vote to go in, I suspect. But he wasn’t a part of the ‘join the EEC campaign’ himself. So, Jeremy took inspiration from that and said, “I’ll be this neutral person.” The problem was, Shadow Cabinet discipline had broken down. So, two minutes later you had Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, John McDonnell, going into a studio saying, “Yes, I’ll campaign for Remain”.
It’s difficult, because at that point, even the people who, privately, inside the Shadow Cabinet were saying, “Well, I’d campaign for a Leave deal, if it’s a soft Brexit” – the Jon Tricketts, the Ian Laverys and at different time, others – none of them were publicly saying, “Well, I’d campaign for Labour’s deal”. That would have balanced everything out, at least.
UKICE: The Conservatives’ view on the second referendum was, if you committed to a second referendum, it would make it incredibly difficult to negotiate a decent exit deal with the EU, because the EU would probably prefer the UK to change its mind and remain. Did the potential impact of you having to implement this commitment on the negotiations ever worry you?
AF: Yes, it definitely came up and we had rebuttals to it. But by that point, you had a Withdrawal Agreement on the table that was there. All it would have taken was a few tweaks, really. We’d been in discussions where we’d tested our view with the EU at quite a senior level and said, “Look, is this negotiable?”, and they’d indicated it was.
So, we were quite clear we could get a redrafted version back within three months, probably, and then put it to a referendum and get it sorted fairly quickly. But obviously, electorally, leaving aside whether there could have been any other feasible policy at that point, it clearly was going to lose against ‘get Brexit done’ and the simplicity of that message.
Why would you want, “You’ve had two years of this bloody thing lagging on with confusion. Labour is going to have another three months of negotiation, and then you’re going to have another referendum campaign”? It’s not ideal. But in terms of the internal Labour politics, I don’t think we could have ended up anywhere else, at that point.
There was just no other feasible thing, which is why the debate at Conference that year was actually between two composites – one of which was Labour remains neutral and the other one was Labour campaigns for Remain. The vote was pretty close, probably 55/45. I don’t think it went to card vote, in the end. But it was pretty close as to which one won, which was the neutral.
By that point, every single affiliate and every single CLP delegate voted for a second referendum. The only debate, at that point, was whether it was ‘and campaign for Remain’, or ‘and stay neutral’, or at least the Party, officially, stays neutral, even if individuals could have a free hand to campaign how they liked.
UKICE: Obviously, your Conference was disrupted by the Supreme Court’s announcement on prorogation. That’s, if you like, Boris Johnson beginning to frame Brexit as the will of the people versus an obstructive Parliament that had to go, to up the pressure for a general election.
Did Jeremy Corbyn, as the sort of person who really pays attention to things outside Parliament, you said, and just regards it as a platform rather than an institution, did he have any sympathy for the Prime Minister’s framing? What did you make of the tactics during this period?
AF: In a sense, on different issues, but they’d stolen our insurgent clothes. Jeremy was the anti-establishment candidate, much to the annoyance of much of the establishment of the Labour Party, let alone wider politics. Now, we were being lumped in with the Lib Dems and the others, you know, as this, kind of, obstructing Brexit.
It was the same as Gina Miller’s court case back in early 2017. It wasn’t very helpful. All of that sort of stuff, I don’t think, is. In reality, because the Labour Party had been so internally fractious about this issue, we hadn’t really gone out and won the argument. The People’s Vote campaign, which was, clearly, just a pro-Remain Campaign and not a, “Wouldn’t it be objectively democratic to let people have the final say on this?” campaign had done all the running on that, and hadn’t convinced anyone who wasn’t already in their camp.
To the public, it would have looked like we were just adopting that policy, which was not too far from the truth. It looks like that, because that’s, kind of, what it is. So, yes, of course, we were in a difficult place.
I didn’t think we could win an election at that point, because I thought we were just in such a mess, internally, and we hadn’t framed an argument for a while on anything outside of Brexit. It had just sucked all the air out of all politics. Then, our position on Brexit was not Remain-y enough for the ardent Remainers, and certainly not Leave-y enough for the people who wanted to leave.
So, we were caught between two stools, which was difficult. There was just a complete breakdown of discipline within the Shadow Cabinet, with people not sticking to the Party line, and people forming factions across the PLP, to try and push people in different directions. It was just deeply frustrating.
There was not much oxygen to talk about other things in that election campaign. Whereas, in the build-up to 2017, we’d made a lot of arguments about anti-austerity and so on, and we hadn’t managed to get any of that out there. So, when we did drop eye-catching policy in that election, to try and move the focus off of the Brexit issue, we hadn’t done any of the groundwork for any of it to land. It was just like polling showed – people agreed with the policies, but it didn’t matter to them, because the only issue was Brexit.
It was a really difficult situation. I’d worked hard on the 2019 election campaign, and I gave it my all. I knew we weren’t going to get anywhere. But then, having said that – and I do want to caveat this with the fact that Labour had internal polling that showed we’d be down to somewhere between 130 and 150 seats, based off a YouGov poll of polls of 20,000 voters that we’d commissioned – we knew we had to squeeze back our vote. The low-hanging fruit was the bit of our younger vote that had gone to the Lib Dems and the Greens. So, there was a big argument about our strategy which was, “Look, let’s heavily focus not on EU stuff, but on the issues that matter to them, like tuition fees, and start with those demographics, and try and recover that”.
The plan was, once we were back to about 30% to 32%, and maybe even up to the mid-30s, if we were lucky, we could then try and move the campaign on and be more confrontational with the Tories, and try and win back some of the Tory vote, the older vote, and be more focused on those issues.
But there was a huge internal argument about that. “That’s a defensive strategy, we don’t want that. We want to go all out”. It was just a mess. The whole campaign was a terrible mess.
UKICE: Labour had spent September and much of October opposing a general election, and put down the condition, I think, that there couldn’t be a general election with the prospect of no deal on the table. That evaporates with the Benn-Burt Act and the extension. Did you then think, “Well, we’ve just got to go for it now?” or did think, “What the hell are Jo Swinson and the SNP up to?”.
AF: Again, my personal view was, we’re going to look stupid if we do anything other than vote for it, by this point. We said, “That’s our objection gone. We’ve got to go for it. Yes, it’s going to be tough and I’m not very optimistic about our prospects, but I’m less optimistic if we’re seen to resist the election and then are forced into one”, which is what it looked like we would do.
If we’d have opposed it and the SNP and Lib Dems had backed it, which it looked like they were going to do, we’d be in the worst of all worlds – an Opposition that doesn’t want a general election, trying to fight a general election saying, “We should be the government, having said, “We don’t even want an election”. It would have looked incredibly weak.
So, yes, we had to go for it. There were people in the Shadow Cabinet arguing against that. But they were in a small minority, because even those that were apprehensive about the prospects of an election and what that would mean for Labour, realised it would probably be even worse if we hadn’t voted for it.
UKICE: We’ve talked a bit about the framing of the election. Did you think about- and it might not have been possible – if you could have brought an election against Boris Johnson when no deal still seemed a live possibility, before 31 October? Would that have been a lot more winnable, if you had been up against the prospect of Boris Johnson talking up the idea of a no deal?
AF: I don’t think it would have been. The fact that we didn’t was because that was one of our very clear policies – we were against no deal. So, that didn’t really come up. But if you think through the logic of that argument, we’d still have been split, and we’d still have lost big swathes of our vote to the Lib Dems and the Greens, in the last six months.
If the Tories had been able to say, “Look, there’s a chance of a no deal Brexit”, that would have evaporated the Brexit party even more, and reunited the right-wing coalition. So, I think, probably, if anything, that would have been even worse for us. If no deal is off the table, that gave the Brexit party space to go, “We’re the no deal party”.
Actually, as it happened, they saw the bigger threat as this coalition of Remain parties, as they would have seen it, who could actually scupper Brexit entirely. So, they stood down their candidates against the Tories, in Tory seats. So, that immediately meant that I thought, “We’re probably not going to gain any seats. It now does become a defensive campaign”.
That was about two weeks in, I think, they’d made that deal with the Tories, which some people have denied, but clearly did happen. So, yes, I don’t think there was an alternative scenario where, if no deal was still on the table, we would have done any better.
UKICE: We had this emergence of the progressive alliance in 2019, a bit of a tactical voting. Were you at all interested in any of that? You said that you were in competition for some voters that were drifting off to Lib Dems and Greens, attracted by its tuition fees, maybe net zero and things like that. Did you think, there was a last chance to get a sensible Brexit coalition, or whatever?
AF: It was never achievable, because Jo Swinson had positioned herself to be more anti-Corbyn than she was anti-Johnson, I would say. Certainly, in her rhetoric in the 2019 election. Her big thing was, “Corbyn is dangerous. Corbyn has betrayed Remain in the Lib Dem and Labour seats”, and, “Don’t worry, we’re nothing to do with Corbyn. We’re the Liberal Remainers”, to the Tory-facing constituencies.
I don’t think they wanted it, let alone that there were the relationships there to build that kind of thing. But as it happened, if you look at what happened to the polling within that election, we started off on about 24% or 25%, where we started in 2017. And although we didn’t hit the heights of 2017, obviously, we did go up to 32%, I think, give or take, by polling day.
That was because, broadly, we’d squeezed the Lib Dem and the Green vote. We did that by doing what we said on the domestic policy agenda, which brought our people back. The fact, I think, that the Lib Dems made a tactical error in going for revoke, meant that a lot of Remain people, who weren’t the most ardent ‘wrap yourself in the EU flag and shout at Parliament through megaphones” people, went, “No. Clearly, if you’re going to undo it, you need a referendum, and not just revoke”.
So, I think that shot them in the foot a bit, and therefore that moved some people back into being open to voting for us. I think our domestic agenda, which was broadly popular, dragged a lot of younger, liberal people back towards us. Our fairly principled stand on issues of migration and free movement, again, moved people back from them to us.
We became a kind of okay place again, and that’s why our vote did recover. Not on the scale it did in 2017, but again, historically, if you look at how much parties move in their polling during election campaigns – taking out 2017, which is the biggest outlier in British electoral history – from the day the election was called in 2019, to polling day, our votes still shifted by a pretty large amount, historically.
It didn’t, ultimately, do us a lot of good in terms of the Parliamentary seats, as we all know. But we did manage to recover a lot of ground, and end up in a better place, in terms of share of the vote, than Ed Miliband did in 2015, or Gordon Brown did in 2010.
So, it was a horrific result, but it has to be seen within the fairly unique context of what happened in that period. But I can’t see that there was a chance to do much of a progressive alliance. I mean, the Greens just aren’t a big enough force to do that with. The SNP, you can’t do that with, because they’re all anti-Tory seats, anyway.
In Scotland I don’t think there are any Labour-Tory marginals, they are all Labour-SNP. So, the SNP aren’t going to stand down in places we’ve won by 2000 votes. They’re going to think, “We can get those back”, and sure enough they did. So, there was just no partner for a progressive alliance really, at that point.
Johnson premiership and Keir Starmer’s leadership
UKICE: So, what have you made of the way in which the Labour Party has evolved since Jeremy Corbyn resigned, in particular its handling of Brexit, including whipping MPs to support Boris Johnson’s Trade and Corporation Agreement, and things like that?
AF: I suspect, in terms of having to vote for and not oppose Johnson’s Brexit deal, any Labour leadership would have done the same. I think, after that mandate, in the election, which was effectively a second referendum, and broadly mirrored the 2016 result, they had to.
UKICE: I mean, you could say 45% voted for parties committed to Leave and 55% or so for parties committed to Remain.
AF: Yes, but that, unfortunately, doesn’t reflect in how first past the post works, and the make-up and the demographics of the constituency. I think Labour had to, looking ahead, have not opposed Johnson’s Brexit deal. I think it had to say, “Look, he’s got a mandate for it, we have to respect that”, even if they abstained and let it go through.
The problem for Keir Starmer was that he said, “We’re going to protect freedom of movement”, and then he abandoned that entirely. That’s become a wider strategy, I think, which is why there is a lot of cynicism amongst – and I don’t mean this in a patronising way a more naïve Left, that was enthused by Jeremy, is younger, opposed tuition fees, likes stuff around public ownership, and is a kind of liberal, anti-Priti Patel’s Rwanda deportations, kind of voter.
I think that kind of cosmopolitan, young, urban-based Left voter shifted to Keir Starmer rather than voted for Rebecca Long-Bailey in that leadership election, because they saw Keir Starmer positioning himself as a kind of, slightly diluted Corbyn, but in a sharper suit, and with a more professional approach. That’s how he positioned himself.
His 10 pledges were, pretty much, a summary of the 2017 manifesto. He said as much. He said, “This is our foundational document”, in his campaign. “We should never trash the last four years,” he said then. So, a lot of people, I think, voted for him thinking, “Okay, he’s not going to be quite as Left-wing as Jeremy, and he’s going to be a bit more parliamentary focused, rather than an activist on picket lines. He’s the more established man in a suit. But he’s going to stand in a principled way for these sorts of policies”.
That’s why, I think, there is a bit of disillusion within the Party around him. He hasn’t really put anything in place, and he’s now not doing that well. Obviously, Labour is ahead in the polls, but for me it feels like it’s the 1990 default position.
Labour is ahead by default, not because it’s doing anything right, but because the Tories are hated. In the same way that Thatcher, in 1990, was hated because of the Poll Tax, and Labour was ahead in the polls, quite consistently, for about 18 months. So, in a sense, yes, his personal ratings are poor, but Johnson was still the preferred Prime Minister, or is pretty close on some polling.
There is, in the last few days, murmurs from his own Shadow Cabinet that he’s boring, he hasn’t got any ideas, all this quite nasty stuff that we haven’t seen since Jeremy Corbyn was leader, and which is now emerging under Keir Starmer. There’s an argument that was all cynical to trick the Left and he’d then shift to the Right, rip off his shirt and it would be, “I love Tony Blair,” underneath.
I’m not sure that’s quite true. But as I said earlier, Keir Starmer is an establishment politician. He will be swayed by, “What do my fellow Labour MPs think? What do the Lobby correspondents think?”. That’s what matters to him. That is the base, if you like, for him. So, the fact he now seems to be without any kind of anchor, all at sea and not really saying much – yes, they’ve had a relative win on the windfall tax, but actually the Lib Dems said that a while back. Now, it like, “Well, what is Labour’s other policy then? You’ve got the windfall tax. Where is the other big picture policy?”.
There are no big ideas. There’s no big framework. You can criticise Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, and I have in this interview – he made mistakes, no doubt about that.
But ‘for the many, not the few’ encapsulated the core of everything we were about. Ending austerity, public ownership, taking things out of the hands of private shareholders, redistributive taxation. Every core issue we talked about fitted within a framework. We knew where we stood.
For Keir Starmer, I don’t know where he actually stands on things. That’s the problem. He’s being buffeted by the PLP, which has clearly still got a very pro-New Labour political position. Certainly, his Shadow Cabinet has.
But there are still no ideas there. There is no big picture thinking. There is no eye-catching policy. You can argue that Tony Blair didn’t have this great big, ideological framework. But he had that pledge card in 1997, and it was quite effective. About class sizes, more police, investment in the NHS, minimum wage, all that sort of stuff.
There were big picture, big ticket policies. Maybe not massive revolutionary stuff, but there was a trajectory there.
UKICE: Did Corbyn’s opponents in the Labour Party weaponize Brexit to undermine the Corbyn project?
AF: I think there are two things. One is the issue of Brexit dragging on for so long, because Theresa May couldn’t get any form of deal through and couldn’t negotiate a deal that could satisfy her Party, even when she had a tenuous majority with the DUP. That allowed it to become the all-consuming issue, which definitely damaged us, because it didn’t allow us the space to talk about the other things we, and our base, cared more about.
Clearly, however principled some people were about wanting a second referendum – and there clearly were people who wanted that and passionately believed in it – it was weaponised within the Labour Party, to divide Jeremy Corbyn from a bit of his base and cause splits within the Party.
That was the first issue they found where they could divide the Left, and the bulk of the membership. Where did Labour stand in the polls before Brexit became the all-consuming issue? We were ahead in the autumn and early winter of 2017, and going into 2018, we were ahead in the polls.
If you look at where we were before Brexit became the all-consuming issue, we were ahead in the polls. We’d consolidated where we were in 2017. That’s not to say we were on course for a massive majority landslide, or anything like that. But you can only base an alternative history on the evidence in front of you. So, at that point we were still ahead. Would we have done it? No, there are lots of things we could have slipped up on and made a mess of. We made a mess of other things in between. We haven’t talked about whether that’s the response to the Salisbury poisonings, or whether that’s the anti-Semitism stuff within the Labour Party.
But as much as you can look at pointers that Labour would slip up on different matters, all you can really go on is where we were at the point before Brexit became the all-consuming issue. And we were ahead. So, if it wasn’t for that referendum then, yes, we probably would have been. But having said that, if it wasn’t for the issue of Brexit, Theresa May wouldn’t have called an election in 2017, which gave us the ability to come back to that point.
So, it depends where you start alternative histories from, doesn’t it?
UKICE: You can have nine million counterfactuals.
AF: Indeed. Exactly.
UKICE: Casting forward, the Conservatives seem to think that Brexit still works for them as a good wedge issue, and will help them hang on to what is termed the ‘red wall’, and retain some of those Labour Leavers who defected to the Conservatives in 2019.
Do you think that Brexit will still be a very difficult issue for Labour at the next election? Will it matter at the next election, or not? If you were advising the Labour leadership now, what would you be telling them they ought to be saying about Brexit?
AF: I think their first response would be, “How the hell did you get in the room?” if I was advising them, realistically. But, as I said initially, when we talked about the period just after the 2019 election, I think Keir Starmer was right and did what any other leader would have done, in terms of letting Johnson’s deal go through. You couldn’t do anything else following that mandate.
I think that has helped cauterise it, in the same way us whipping to trigger Article 50, cauterised the issue for the 2017 election. I think it won’t be a big issue in the next election – I mean, who knows? The PLP could, again, just implode and ardent Remainers could come out and start saying very counter-productive, silly things, that are going to whip it up as an issue.
Looking at the constituency break down of Leave and Remain, if you make the election about that, the Tories are going to win. So, I suspect, because there isn’t the added impetus of, “This helps undermine Jeremy Corbyn”, the PLP aren’t going to do that to Keir Starmer, even if there are some rumblings and murmurings.
I suspect it can be shut down as an issue. But what the Tories are doing around trans rights, the Rwanda deportation policy, is finding similar issues that divide the electorate in a similar way, to try to utilise the same votes. The problem for them is, I don’t think any of them quite have the unifying strength of Brexit.
It actually, probably alienates more people than Brexit did. I’m not sure. But that’s clearly the Tories’ tactics, because I think they know that Brexit isn’t going to be the defining issue of the next election.
My reading of the Tories is they’ve got this Trump-style, populist messaging of, “Send them back,” and the hate to trans people, to shore up their base.
They will try and pull socially conservative Labour voters in those kinds of industrial towns, in slightly older demographics, into their column by saying, “Labour is all concerned with unisex toilets and protecting refugees when they don’t care about you”. That kind of thing. That is how I think they’re going to try and put the divide down in the election.
I think the problem for Labour is that it sits on the fence on those things. It doesn’t want to make an argument about it. It looks deeply uncomfortable. Labour’s argument against the Rwanda Deportation Policy is, “Oh, it’s a bit expensive.” That’s not the argument.
You end up in an Ed Miliband position in 2015 where, again, a lot of the Labour vote went to the Lib Dems and the Greens, because they were not clear on some of this stuff. A lot of principled, younger voters under 40 want a principled position, and want a clear stand on some of these things.
If they’re not provided for, they’ve got no great Labour loyalty. They don’t think Labour is in their bones like used to be the case in Labour’s industrial heartlands, where you could stick anybody in a red rosette. Young people haven’t got that same commitment. Their vote is more transactional.
If Labour doesn’t stand up for those principles, then you can see that drifting away.
I don’t think Brexit will be the divide. Labour has got to have its own agenda to insert across that. If it’s fighting a rear-guard battle on Rwanda and trans rights, that isn’t going to mobilise enough of a base, either.
Just in electoral terms – leave aside the moral arguments around any of that – Labour needs its own agenda. Where does it stand on the economy? Where does it stand on public ownership? Where does it stand on tuition fees? Where does it stand on Universal Credit? Where does it stand on workers’ rights? Those things are going to matter.
At the moment, Labour either has got policies and is not really articulating them in any powerful way, or it just doesn’t seem to have anything. I think that’s the bigger problem for Labour at the moment – it’s not setting an agenda.
Interview conducted 15 June 2022, and finalised June 2023.