“Facts are chiels that winna ding” Robert Burns, 1786.
It is almost impossible to overstate the damage that backing a second referendum inflicted upon the Labour Party at the last general election. First of all, the U-turn guaranteed that Labour had absolutely no chance of winning back Leave-voting seats which (despite an increase in the Labour vote) were narrowly lost in 2017. For instance, Stoke-on-Trent South, which Labour lost to the Tories by just 663 votes, now has a Tory majority of over 11,000. Mansfield, which was lost by 1,000 votes in 2017, now has a Tory majority of 16,000. Similarly, Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland, which was lost by 1,000 votes in 2017 now has a Tory majority of 11,500, and Walsall North, lost by 2,600 votes in 2017 now has a Tory majority of 12,000. North East Derbyshire, which the Tories won by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2017, now has a Tory majority of over 12,000. Secondly, it also put an end to any chance of Labour winning in numerous Leave-voting constituencies which, in the aftermath of the 2017 gains, had become genuine target seats, such as Southampton Itchen, Hastings & Rye, Calder Valley, Thurrock, Preseli Pembrokeshire, Broxtowe, Bolton West and Norwich North.
Thirdly, it resulted in a whole host of Leave-voting Labour held marginals including Dudley North, Bishop Auckland, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Crewe & Nantwich, Barrow & Furness, Keighley, Ashfield, Peterborough, Ipswich, Stockton South, Bury North, Penistone & Stocksbridge, Lincoln, Wrexham, Derby North, Wolverhampton South West, High Peak, Stoke-on-Trent North, Vale of Clwyd, Blackpool South, Warrington South, Great Grimsby, Wakefield and Darlington all being lost to the Tories.
Worse still, the Tories even took relatively safe Leave-voting Labour seats such as Blyth Valley (Labour majority in 2017: 8,000), North West Durham (9k) Redcar (9k), Bolsover (5k), Sedgefield (6k), Rother Valley (4k), Stoke-on-Trent Central (4k), West Bromwich East (7.5k), Wolverhampton NE (4.5k), Leigh (10k), Gedling (4.7k), Bolton North East (3.8k), Birmingham Northfield (4.5k), Bassetlaw (4.8k), Burnley (6.4k), Bury South (6k), Delyn (4.2k), Don Valley (5k), Workington (4k), Hyndburn (5.8k), West Bromwich West (4.4k), Scunthorpe (3.5k), Heywood & Middleton (7.5k), and Dewsbury (3.4k). All in all, the Tories took a total of 54 seats from Labour, 52 of which had voted Leave in 2016. These defeats also weakened the left in the Parliamentary Labour Party, resulting in the loss of rising stars such as Laura Pidcock and Laura Smith as well as the veteran socialist MP Dennis Skinner.
And the results could quite easily have been even more devastating. Had the Brexit Party not stood candidates in Leave-voting North East seats such as Washington & Sunderland West, Houghton & Sunderland South, Wansbeck, and Hartlepool, the Tories would have undoubtedly gained those seats, given that the Labour vote fell dramatically.
Furthermore, it should be recognised that although they were retained, many previously secure Labour seats in Leave-voting areas have now been reduced to vulnerable marginals. These include: Dagenham & Rainham, Alyn & Deeside, Coventry South, Normanton, Pontefract & Castleford, Warrington North, Oldham East & Saddleworth, Stockton North, Hemsworth, Wolverhampton South East, Hull East, Newport West, Newport East, Chesterfield, Wansbeck, Wentworth & Dearne, Doncaster North, Doncaster Central, and Bradford South. All these seats saw a significant fall in the Labour vote in 2019 and now have majorities of under 2,400 votes.
Some have sought to lay the blame for the defeat at Jeremy Corbyn’s door or attribute the result to the party’s left-wing manifesto. Yet, in every single seat lost to the Tories in 2019, Labour’s vote increased under Corbyn’s leadership with a socialist policy platform in 2017. In many Leave-voting seats, the contrast in Labour’s performance between the two elections was astonishing. For example, in Scunthorpe, Labour increased its vote by 10.3% in 2017 only to suffer a 15.3% decrease in 2019. Redcar saw an 11.6% increase in 2017 followed by an 18% decrease in 2019. In Blyth Valley, Labour’s vote increased by 9% in 2017 and then fell by 15% in 2019. In Heywood & Middleton, a 10.2% increase was followed by an 11.6% decrease. Labour’s vote in Birmingham Northfield increased by 11.6% in 2017 and then fell by 10.7% in 2019. In Derby North, an 11.9% increase was followed by a fall of 8.7%. The only substantive change between these two elections was Labour supporting a second referendum on EU membership. Subsequent polling has underscored the centrality of Brexit in Labour’s defeat. YouGov polling found that Labour lost 33% of its 2017 Leave voters to the Tories and 6% to the Brexit Party, with Brexit cited as by far the most important issue for Tory switchers in a poll conducted in January 2020.
Some argue that this is easy to point out with the benefit of hindsight, but in truth, the warning signs plainly were there for anyone who wished to see them. We knew that 2/3rds of Labour-held seats were in Leave-voting constituencies, and it was clear that the vast majority of the Tories’ top target seats were in Leave-voting Labour areas. Not only that, but most Labour target seats in 2019 were in Leave-voting constituencies. In fact, in England and Wales, 78% of Labour’s target seats voted Leave. It was also abundantly clear that the impressive gains made by Labour in Leave-voting areas in 2017 – which meant that despite the collapse of UKIP, the Tories won just 6 seats from Labour – were predicated upon respecting the result of the referendum. This had allowed us to diffuse the issue to a large extent and move the discussion onto favourable ground like the NHS, renationalisation and a £10 an hour Living Wage. The claim that Labour gains in these seats in 2017 can be attributed to Remainers lending or switching votes is simply not credible. A thorough analysis of the Lib Dem vote in 2015 and 2017 shows that in most of these seats, not only was the vote often negligible, but what little vote share there was did not switch to Labour in significant numbers. For example, in Dewsbury in 2017 the Labour vote rose by 9.2% yet the Lib Dem vote fell only by 1.4%. In Wakefield, the Labour vote increased by 9.4% while the Lib Dem vote decreased by just 1.4%. In Blackpool South, Labour’s vote increased by 8.5%, while the Lib Dem vote fell by 0.5%. This was also true of Scunthorpe (10.3% Labour increase v 0.7% Lib Dem decrease) and Birmingham Northfield (11.6% Labour increase v 1% Lib Dem decrease). And the same phenomenon occurred elsewhere. Therefore, a far more plausible explanation is that Labour was actually continuing to win back some of those 5 million heartland voters lost between 1997-2010, including some ex-UKIP voters.
Indeed, for these reasons amongst others, when the second referendum commitment was first mooted, many people, at all levels of the party sounded the alarm. But unfortunately, those of us who tried to highlight the obvious dangers were dismissed and sometimes even maligned. Meanwhile, Labour MPs in Remain-voting seats with massive majorities such as Brighton Kemptown and Bristol North (which at the time enjoyed a 37,000 majority) were given national newspaper coverage to make the implausible claim that they would lose their seats if a second referendum policy was not adopted.
Perhaps the only sound argument in favour of the second referendum was that it was necessary to retain Remain-voting Labour seats in Scotland. Yet it failed to achieve even this, as Labour lost 6 out of 7 Scottish seats. While losses in Leave-voting constituencies piled up, Labour made just one Remain-voting gain in England: Putney.
Ominously, the new Labour leader Keir Starmer was a prominent advocate, if not the main architect of this calamitous second referendum policy. For Labour to stand any chance of reversing these losses and thus winning any future general election, Starmer and senior figures must acknowledge that Brexit was the decisive factor in the devastating election defeat and ensure that an error of this magnitude is never repeated.