Back in February, during the debates and votes on the triggering of Article 50 (A50) to set the clock running toward Britain’s exit from the EU, as Jeremy Corbyn took flak from rebellious Labour right-wingers, the SKWAWKBOX analysed his ‘three line whip’ approach to the vote and concluded that he had played a difficult hand brilliantly.
Polling by ComRes suggested that the decision to back the A50 bill was the best approach to winning over working class leave voters in Labour’s key target marginals, while his strong position on achieving a ‘Brexit for all and not just the elite’ was a clear, honest position that would appeal to both leave voters and those remain voters who were now looking ahead to how the country would look after Brexit and who was best positioned to achieve it.
In the early hours of Friday morning, that prediction was borne out with even the BBC’s Andrew Marr commenting in amazement that Corbyn had managed to increase Labour’s vote in both leave and remain areas.
It was clearly a masterstroke by Corbyn and his team – and now the SKWAWKBOX can bring you an exclusive interview with one of Jeremy Corbyn’s core Brexit team, who has asked to remain anonymous, to shed light on how it was achieved and the background to the strategy:
SKWAWKBOX: Brexit and the article 50 bill were obviously problematic for you and Labour, because of the split opinions among the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) and the Labour electorate, as well as the need to appeal to other voters. How high up was it in your list of challenges at the time?
X: It was a major priority. We knew we had to win votes on both sides of the Brexit divide, but we also knew Labour was the only party naturally positioned to achieve it – but only if we went forward in the right way.
S: How did you arrive at the way forward you were going to take on the A50 bill – was it instinctive on the part of Jeremy or one particular team member or a team decision?
X: A bit of both – political instinct from Jeremy, Seumas (Milne), Jon (Trickett), John (McDonnell), Andrew (Fisher) and Karie (Murphy). Emily (Thornberry), Diane (Abbott) and Keir (Starmer) were also significantly involved.
S: There was a lot of pro- and anti- noise about Labour’s position at the time. What kind of feedback were you getting yourself and did you have to persuade any of the leader’s office team and front-bench MPs?
X:We had lots of criticism – especially from the right-wing members but also some from the left too – but we worked hard to build alliances. Amy Jackson was excellent and Mark Simpson, Jeremy’s ‘PAd’ [political advisor – the non-government equivalent to a SpAd], who was on secondment from the EPLP (European Parliamentary Labour Party) was just brilliant.
We were under fire from all areas but it was evident to us we had no choice so we needed to be bold.
S: How did you feel about the MPs who refused to follow the whip?
X: We understood those MPs who wouldn’t follow the whip – we wanted loyalty but they were scared and perhaps a bit selfish. All who came and explained their reasons we thanked – it was very civil.
Others like Clive were genuinely upset and we understood they had to vote with their conscience.
S: Looking back on it now, just after even the BBC were paying tribute to your success in getting more votes in both leave and remain areas, what do you think was the key to that success?
X: Strategy and the make-up of the team.
We had a strategy for engaging left behind working class communities and the Europhile metropolitan areas – and the people in the team reflected those communities. We’ve got white working class people, northern voices, Londoners, Scots. We were respectful and honest about New Labour and New Labour MPs, but we knew we needed to reach the communities that New Labour took for granted and make sure they knew we were on their side too.
Equally important was the cohesion of the team. In spite of all those varying backgrounds we weren’t just united by our common vision – we’re all friends. We’ve talked to reporters and MPs from other parties and they’re all amazed by it, but there’s seriously never been a cross word among us. That frees us up to get on with the job in the most effective way.
We knew we needed to increase our share of the vote in all those areas and Jeremy went to all of them during the campaign. It was about being bold and positive – once we had the plan, we went on the offensive.
The rallies were a key part of that and the fact we held many of them in ‘stronghold’ areas had a lot to do with the Brexit strategy. We knew the rallies were building momentum – we could feel it.
Jeremy’s energy is amazing. He was out campaigning up and down the country every week – every single one was planned for a reason. The Wirral rally was a good example – a great, left-wing, woman candidate with outstanding politics in Wirral West, facing a big challenge because UKIP had stepped aside for the Tories and the Greens were standing.
We wanted to give her every ounce of support we could and make sure that people who had voted UKIP in 2015 knew they could trust us – and it worked brilliantly. Margaret won Wirral West in 2015 by just over 400 votes, but last week – with UKIP not standing, supposedly to give the Tories a clear run, she increased her majority to almost three and a half thousand.
S: Did you have any tip-off/inkling/hunch that May might go for the snap election and did that play a part in how you handled A50 etc?
X: Most of us had no inclination that she would go for the early election. The exception was Seumas – he’d been saying all along that it would happen.
S: So that incredible manifesto was created with hardly any warning?
X: Absolutely. From scratch to nothing, detailed policies, all fully costed and we beat the Tories shoddy, vague effort by days – and they had a head start! We’re very proud of that – and of the way it cut through to inspire and enthuse people of all ages and all backgrounds.
S: Will Labour be offering any help to the lame duck PM in the Brexit negotiations or is it up to her to sink or swim and then Labour look to form a government to do it properly?
X: We will not help Theresa May. For the good of the country we will do everything in our power to destabilise her and her government. If you look at the chaos in the Tory party and the strength of Labour, the country needs Labour to govern – for Brexit and everything else.
S: Given May’s weakness now, what are the prospects for a ‘good Brexit’ and how would you foresee that happening if it can be achieved at all?
X: We will get a much softer Brexit now – and we’ll amend the Queen’s Speech wherever possible. In fact we’ll be looking to prevent it passing – and we’ll have our own ready to replace it.
Whatever happens with the Queen’s Speech, it’s not likely to be long before there’s another General Election. We’ll be ready.
Labour’s ability to increase its appeal to the leave and remain sections of the electorate is one of the stand-out hallmarks of the General Election last week and it clearly has the Tories terrified of facing Labour in a new contest, with – according to BBC Newsnight, unanimity among senior Tories that a new General Election would see Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting in Downing Street:
However, there’s widespread consensus that no amount of avoidance can hold off the prospect of a new General Election – and a Labour government – for long.
And the skill and boldness of Jeremy Corbyn and his team, their coolness under fire, in their handling of the Article 50 votes is a key factor in the transformed political landscape that now prevails.
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