Labour tanked in the north east because it offered no clarity over Brexit, not because notherners are ‘angry leavers’

As the dust settles on last week’s results, the mood will change from blame to solutions. For Labour, there must be no more ‘options on the table’, just people who know what it stands for

Phil Wilson
Wednesday 08 May 2019 10:55
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Local elections: Which councils have changed hands so far?

If your policy is for “all options to remain on the table”, then your intent is for all to remain seated at the table. Last week, many Labour voters in the north of England got up and walked away.

Of course local elections are always and rightly about all kinds of local issues. But Brexit was the elephant in the room and, when that’s the case, there is little space for the kind of deliberate ambiguity my party’s leadership has tried to create around the biggest issue facing our country for years.

There was a rejection of ambiguity in Barnsley where there as a 17.3 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats. There was a rejection of ambiguity in Sunderland where there was a 13.4 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats. There was a rejection of ambiguity in Wirral where there was a 11.1 per cent swing to the Greens. Others followed suit.

I was not surprised last week that in the chaos of trying to understand results without full analysis, journalists were resorting to questions of blame. It’s what they do. Yet I was surprised at their surprise.

This local election took place during one of the most “polled” periods in British history. The results are there for all to see. A majority of people in 96 per cent of constituencies in the north now back a people's vote. 75 per cent of Labour voters in the party’s heartlands – the north and the Midlands – now back a people's vote and 76 per cent now supporting remaining in the EU.

So why is the fact that voter patterns are shifting support to Remain or Final Say referendum parties a surprise? In truth, it is because of two things: caricatures and clarity.

Despite polling results showing the contrary, the north of England continues to be portrayed as a homogenous mass of angry leavers. At every available opportunity it has been used by journalists to fit a pre-determined narrative not the present-day reality. Find the empty mill or abandoned shipyard; find the social club or snooker hall; find the boarded-up shops, concrete wastelands, and above all, find the “angry” northern people.

Perhaps those same reporters could now return to the north. Maybe the north east, to an area where some of the £425m is being invested by the European Union to help address economic decline caused by Conservative austerity, and ask them why are they now choosing to remain?

They could apologise for confusing anger with determination and the belief in better. Or perhaps for using them to portray your agenda and not theirs.

Yet what else was striking about last week was the sense of surprise at the gains made by the Liberal Democrat Party and the Green Party. How could these parties have achieved cut-through against Conservative and Labour when the media landscape has been so heavily focussed on Nigel Farage? They never had wall-to-wall coverage of their launch.

The answer is in part because the media are not as influential as they would like to think they are, but also because like Farage, the Liberal Democrat and Green Party have clarity of message: he wishes to leave; they wish to remain.

It is clarity that gives value to a vote, as it demonstrates the courage of one’s convictions. It is clarity that enables an elected representative to say this is who I am, this is the party I represent, this is what we stand for: we hope you will stand beside us.

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Contrast this with “speaking with two voices” on Brexit as Barry Gardiner described. Just as voters don’t vote for divided parties, they don’t vote for divided opinions either.

The idea of “constructive ambiguity” is based on the belief that mealy-mouthed texts can create opportunities for advancing the interests of different sides in a negotiation: to keep people at the table and keep them talking. It is time for Labour to drop the ambiguity so that only the constructive remains.

For, as the dust settles on last week’s results, the mood will change from blame to solutions. For Labour this must be a return to clarity. No more “options on the table”. In fact, no more table either – just people who know what you stand for and who are willing to stand alongside you, who are willing to march in their hundreds and thousands for you, in their determination to secure a democratic right to have the Final Say: a people's vote.

Phil Wilson is Labour MP for Sedgefield

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