The Inside Story of Labour’s Failed Remain Campaign

In my day job, I help to design resilient systems delivering support services for children. I spend a lot of time asking service leaders ‘if not you, then who?’

Every good system needs an alternative. The two-party political system is based on the idea of the alternative. No matter how venal, self- destructive or self-indulgent a failing government or new opposition becomes, there should always be one decent option. Just as a good opposition makes a bad government better, a good government makes the opposition get their act together.

Only our generation have the unique bad luck to live under a horrible government and a worse opposition; but then, only our generation is unlucky enough to suffer under the imperative of Brexit.

Unlike other key-seat Labour PPCs from 2015 I left the party comparatively quickly. It hasn’t been a recent thing for me and I don’t want to imply that it has. Partly this was bad luck – I stood in a hard- left seat two years before many of the attitudes I found so distasteful were replicated across country. Anti-Semitism, misogyny and bullying became inextricable from the Labour Party. As Jess Phillips said, Labour values risked becoming ‘just a fucking rose.’ Partly, I left Labour because I thought it should be more than just a fucking rose.

And then, I worked closely with the Leader’s Office in role as National Engagement Lead at Britain Stronger in Europe.

Like many of the campaign directors working for Remain, I had signed with my campaigning experience in UKIP strongholds in the Midlands and South Yorkshire gained during the 2015 election. In fact, I joined Britain Stronger in Europe before it had any infrastructure, or even a contact address.

All I could think to do was to ring Labour Headquarters in London and to make clear that I wanted to volunteer in line with party policy, which was to remain in the EU. After some initial confusion, they connected me to a mobile number – for Brendan Chilton, the Labour councillor who worked with UKIP to establish and fund Labour Leave!

Remain was and is the fight of my life. I fought on the grounds of the wrong that it does to already deprived communities, but it wasn’t anything like the campaign we’re now seeing described on television or in books and written in collaboration with a handful of the people who led Leave. There was no honorable ground war of TV producer’s imaginations. Contrary to popular belief, Britain Stronger In Europe tracked almost no campaign activity from Vote Leave at all. At the time, it was creepy. Now it makes sense. Vote Leave didn’t need people or the rudiments of a traditional campaign, they had illegal data scraping through Aggregate IQ, and with it, the ability to speak directly to a comparatively small number of voters. They decided the outcome of the referendum.

We usually have a good idea of who the undecided voters will be in any campaign. They are often women, often parents, people who are genuinely unsure and prefer to make a political decision on the merits of the evidence accessible to them at the time. They are people who listen, who consult those around them, who read a paper and are very likely to use social media.

The people who are best reached and persuaded by what we call a ground campaign. After all, a Facebook ad is persuasive, but someone from your community caring enough to knock on your door and share why they believe in remain? That matters. In my region, and in all the swing regions, the towns where the referendum was decided were traditionally Labour towns. Given how Leave campaigned and the weaknesses of Remain, the only thing that could have turned the result around was the intervention that the cross-party campaign was designed around- the prospect of a national Labour-led ground campaign.

I attended Britain Stronger In Europe training sessions nine months before the referendum day where we talked about the result standing or falling by the strength of the ground campaign. We all know what happened instead. The Labour leadership decided they wouldn’t be involved in the dirty work of a campaign that involved working with other parties. We know how Corbyn refused to share platforms, went on holiday and now even today says that he might back leave in a second referendum.

As its leaders have said, Labour’s Remain campaign was a cardboard initiative undermined at every turn by the leadership. At HQ, we begged for the support that had been promised and held regular meetings with the team directly around the Labour leader. In my local constituency in Derby, Labour In would campaign on one side of the Ram statue next to Westgate so that Stronger In could campaign on the other. We stood together, but if someone from Labour regional office came by, we could pretend we didn’t. It didn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t have been that way.

Today, 5,000 jobs are at risk in the constituency where we campaigned on either side of that statue. It doesn’t have to be that way either.

Labour has failed as the opposition that we have so badly needed for the past three years. They have failed to answer the question. If not you, then who? We needed TIG or something like it so badly. This bad system needs an alternative.

Kate Godfrey is a former Labour key seat PPC, field director and national engagement lead for Britain Stronger in Europe. She now works happily for an outstanding multi academy trust in the East Midlands.