Kate Hoey has paid a heavy price for being a supporter of Brexit. The Labour MP has been hounded online and faced a vicious deselection battle in her Vauxhall constituency from activists who say that she has no place representing an area in which nearly eight in ten voters backed ‘Remain’. But rather than change her mind, Hoey has stuck to her guns. At a Labour Leave event on the fringes of the party’s conference in Liverpool, Hoey had a message for her critics: there’s no contradiction in backing Brexit and being a leftie.
Hoey wasn’t the only Labour MP making that point at last night’s event. Graham Stringer, who has also been on the receiving end of similar criticism and faced a no confidence vote over his stance on Brexit, said he thinks pursuing a second referendum would be ‘electoral peril’ for his party. Some remain supporters have argued the reverse: that if Labour allows the Tory government to press ahead with Brexit on its watch, people will never forgive them. Indeed, much of the abuse in recent months that has been aimed at Labour Brexiteers has been because they sided with the government in a key Commons vote over the summer. Their critics said this was proof that they were enabling a hard Tory Brexit, and that it was time for them to go.
Yet while the mood at Labour conference among members might indicate a preference for another vote (around nine in ten Labour members would back Remain in another referendum, according to a YouGov poll), things are very different among working class voters. Labour needs such voters if it is to ever stand a chance of ousting the Tories. It’s also evident that the party is desperate to be seen to speak up for, and represent, the working class: panelists at the Momentum fringe festival seem obsessed by the idea of ensuring working class people are not sidelined and represented, even if they are nowhere to be seen on those said panels. Brexit, according to those speaking at Labour Leave’s rally, is the way to do that. The number of working class voters to back Leave in the first place – and continue to insist that Brexit is the right choice – does suggest that they’re right, and that while their situation might have seemed lonely, Stringer and Hoey are right to stand up to their critics. According to another poll last year, 63 per cent of poorer, working class voters said Britain had taken the right decision in the referendum, compared to 37 per cent of their peers who thought otherwise.
Stringer suggested this level of support is not simply a case of a backlash against the elite, but actually more of a conscious decision to do with workers’ rights. Whatever the EU might say about protecting these, it is actually undermining them, he said. The Labour MP also made the point that many items in Labour’s own manifesto at last year’s snap election would not have been legal under EU law (16, by his own count).
Another speaker, Paul Embery, from the Fire Brigades Union, called out his fellow trade union leaders for losing their faith in workers when it comes to Brexit. These organisations have, he pointed out, traditionally been fiercely anti-EU. Yet now the feeling has switched, with some trade unions saying that Brexit will be a disaster for workers. What happened to listening to the workers themselves, rather than the business leaders issuing the broadsides against the vote to leave and the economic damage that some economists are predicting? It’s always been a mystery, he said, why any organisation on the left would want to throw its lot in with the EU.
But for all the recent worry that Labour may be considering reversing its manifesto pledge that it respects the 2016 vote, it seems that Labour’s Brexit supporters are, finally, feeling more upbeat. Hoey hailed the ‘wonderful Labour fudge’ being put to delegates at conference today – a proposal that has effectively binned a second referendum offering a vote to Remain. She said that Labour supporters ‘should go away from this conference with our morale quite high. I am quite optimistic now that we will get a proper Brexit. If we can get a free trade deal, brilliant; if we can’t, then, as far as I am concerned, no deal is not a problem. No deal, no problem.’
But how long will that optimism last before the Labour leadership changes its mind again? And is this message from the likes of Hoey enough to win back Brexit supporters who have felt betrayed by the Labour party?