In an open letter to Jeremy Corbyn, Editor-at-Large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL spells out how fighting Brexit could win Labour the next election.
I recently drafted a speech which I was hoping you might use to announce a change of Labour’s position on Brexit. Sadly, this seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Undeterred, I have another idea which I genuinely think can form the basis of a new strategy for Labour which would help you do the following three things:
n Further cement your position as Leader. Which I know you want to do.
n Help you win the general election. Which I believe you want to do.
n Stop Brexit. Which I hope you would want to do if it prevented Britain from entering a period of sustained decline, and helped you to deliver the change you want for the country.
Indeed all of those objectives are related. The more you look like you might win, the greater your authority. But the more you cling to your current Brexit strategy the less likely, I believe, you are to win.
Your polling will have informed you that many people who voted Labour did so to stop Theresa May – successfully – from winning her expected landslide for her Hard Brexit policy, and since they are feeling somewhat homeless politically.
For some, your failure properly to challenge the Government on its chaotic Brexit strategy is leading them to question whether they could vote Labour again at the next election. They fail to see how you can simultaneously say Labour is for a ‘jobs-first Brexit,’ while backing the Tory Hard Brexit exit from the single market and the customs union. They have grown alarmed at how infrequently you appear even to mention Brexit, and though you finally went after Mrs May on it at last week’s PMQs, any impact was lost in the noise of the Budget which followed.
It is a statement of arithmetical fact that you will need more people to back you in the next election to get over the line. It is virtually certain you will be facing a stronger opponent. Indeed with the Prime Minister so weak, the Government so incompetent, the economy struggling so badly, the Brexit chaos mounting so fast, you really ought to be way ahead in the polls.
So please try to push to one side the confirmed antipathy of you and your team to New Labour, and see my advice here for what it is – a genuine attempt to help fashion a strategy which will benefit country and party to do the right thing for the next generation.
Good strategies, whether we like it or not, need good soundbites to be turned into campaigns. ‘For the many not the few,’ which you used at the 2017 election, just as we did to win our first landslide 20 years ago, is an example.
You may remember another Blairite strategy from that time, signalling a new approach on law and order, namely ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’.
It is an adaptation of this that I now suggest as the basis of your Brexit strategy going forward: Tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit.
It could be the perfect framing for the battle ahead. You already have many plans to deal with some of the causes of Brexit. But they will amount to nothing if Brexit is a done deal by the time you get into office. So before you can get to the ‘tough on the causes’ side of the equation, where clearly you feel more comfortable, you have to get ‘tough on Brexit’. The fact of it, and the Government’s handling of it.
Why? Because even well before departure date, it is becoming alarmingly clear it is going to damage our economy, living standards, public services and standing in the world. Even if we do not ascribe all of the gloomy economic news in last week’s Budget to Brexit, it is a major factor. The falling pound. Inflation. Declining growth. The impact of both on public spending and procurement. The loss of major EU institutional HQs. The loss of EU workers in our public services. The destabilisation of Northern Ireland. Our loss of soft power.
Even the Brextremists no longer appear to argue this is going to be good for Britain’s economy. Not do they any longer pretend the key promises on which they fought the campaign will be fulfilled. They state merely that the country voted for Brexit and so it must happen.
But democracy did not stop last June. As a democrat, and one who emphasises the need to listen to party members, you are surely aware that the vast bulk of Labour members do not want Brexit to proceed. And even with both main parties and most of the media saying Brexit has to happen, public opinion and mood are definitely turning against it, and will continue to do so as the costs grow and the chaos deepens.
I would urge you to ask every audience you speak to whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about Brexit. From open public meetings to university lectures, charities to business conventions, I have yet to get more than 10 to 15% in any gathering raising their hands for optimism. It is often closer to zero. You spoke before me at the Association of Colleges recently. You went down well. But when I asked about their views on Brexit, as with every audience, there was massive anxiety, massive opposition and the yearning for leadership somewhere to lead us out of the mess.
In recent months, I have spoken to several thousand people in different audiences, this large random sample revealing overwhelming pessimism about Donald Trump’s presidency and about Brexit. The near universal contempt for Trump is matched by a near universal disrespect for Mrs May’s abilities as Prime Minister. Speaking to 1,000 actuaries last week for example, asking for a show of hands on the questions ‘is Theresa May a strong leader? Does she have a clear strategy for Brexit? Does she have a strong team to deliver it?’ of the two thousand hands in the hall, the result was zero, zero and zero. This is unsustainable in a democracy whose electors have recently elected this same person as Prime Minister.
But in all frankness, things were not much better for you. More – but still less than 10% – thought you would be PM after the election. A handful thought you were a strong leader. Slightly more felt you had a strategy. Just a handful felt you had a good team.
So how can you break the scepticism about your credibility to be Prime Minister and John McDonnell’s to be Chancellor? Possibly, can I suggest, by being tough on Brexit and tough on the causes of Brexit?
I have done meetings too in some of the more working class areas where I know some Labour MPs worry that a change on this would lose them support. MPs tell me they can’t move against the mood because there is no sign of a radical shift of opinion. But why should there be if virtually the entire political class is united in saying Brexit has to happen?
What if you came out and said ‘no, it doesn’t have to happen, we have to keep all options open, and if the country decides it is not getting what it voted for, that the promises made for Brexit are not being delivered, that the costs will be too high, the national decline too steep, the country should be allowed to say so, change its mind, and stop Brexit’? Then government and Parliament would have to facilitate that change of view, and if you have led that process, far from eroding your support I believe it will increase it.
But only if, in addition to being tough on Brexit you are tough on the causes of Brexit too. This is where your manifesto for the next election can come into its own. It will have to be more detailed and costed than last time – you got away with one there because the Tories were so arrogant and didn’t really subject it to forensic scrutiny. Also, contrary to your statement at the party conference, there was nothing in it that EU membership prevents you from doing.
As for the policy agenda, inequality, and an economic model largely unchanged since the global crash, are at the heart of what delivered both Brexit and Trump. This is your territory. We see it in the growing gulf between rich and poor. In this being the first generation not to be better off than the last. In the crisis of homelessness on our streets and the lack of housing opportunity even for those with good education and good jobs. We see it in the growing gap between regions, some of which simply are not sharing adequately in the nation’s wealth. We see it in school standards, health outcomes and rising poverty. All compounded by anxiety about where the jobs of the future are going to come from in the next wave of the technological revolution, robotics and AI, about which all too little was heard at the last election.
In the referendum, many thought they had nothing to lose and were tempted to blame immigration for their grievances. Of course there are issues on immigration that must be addressed as part of the causes of Brexit. Ironically, however, perhaps the one area where you and New Labour have most in common is that we both know immigration is less the problem than poor schools, lack of opportunity, a sense of two countries, London and the rest.
But you must be honest with the people that the promises you made cannot be fulfilled even on generous growth forecasts, let alone those in last week’s Budget. But there is even less chance – and therefore the need to be honest about this too – if we go ahead with Brexit as currently envisaged. Brexit is not just the elephant in the room. It is the room.
The Government is wide open to attack on this. The lies told by the chief Brextremists, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, now both in leading positions in the Cabinet. The hopelessness of the negotiations. Money now going not to the NHS but to pay and prepare for leaving. These people said it would be easy to make trade deals. They said we would get ‘the exact same benefits’ as being in the single market and the customs union. Hold them to it.
I know you and John McDonnell have historically been on the Eurosceptic side of this debate. But to the questions Corbosceptics are asking – can he adapt to the modern world? Can he really lead? Can he really take the tough decisions and see them through?’ This can help answer them. Leadership calls don’t come much tougher than this, going out to persuade the country to reverse its decision on the biggest issue of the day.
Many of your promises sound fine but really, even with more tax on the wealthy, will that do? And don’t get me wrong; if you go for ‘tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit’ a wealth tax should be part of the strategy and I believe in this new context you would get massive support for it, as you would for greater employment rights, social and environmental protection, a real plan to deal with tax avoidance, not least by the internet giants. But at the moment all people hear is that you will spend more money on this, more money on that, and they know a Brexit economy cannot deliver, so you leave yourself wide open to the attacks that you cannot be trusted on what tends to be the defining issue in any election.
Moving on this now will give you strength, energy, momentum that goes beyond the already converted. It will show you have capacity for real leadership. It will make the strategic weather for the rest of this Parliament. It will give you the makings of a proper campaign drawing in all the major policy areas that really matter to people. It will further divide the rabble currently in Government, and show they have one priority alone – Brexit at any cost. You would be reframing the entire debate. It will be the basis on which you both persuade the country to change its mind about Brexit and in so doing change their mind about you and about Labour.
As sure as I was that ‘New Labour New Britain – future not the past, leadership not drift’ and yes, our old pal ‘many not the few’ was the right strategy to win us a landslide in 1997 I am convinced that ‘tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit’ could get you over the line now.
Yours in hope and patriotism,