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If you didn’t desert Labour over the Iraq war, why give up on it over Brexit?

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17.05.2019

In 2002 I accompanied Tony Benn for a short while on his lecture tour around Britain, watching him speak to packed auditoriums and outselling the magician Paul Daniels in Cornwall by three to one. It was a peculiar time that in many ways presaged the moment in which we find ourselves now.

A year earlier, Labour had just been returned with a huge majority and the steepest slump in postwar voter turnout to date. A BBC survey, Beyond The Soundbite, prompted by concern about that decline in participation, found that, while voters were neither “de-politicised” nor “uninterested”, they were “disillusioned” and “disconnected”. When asked to finish the statement “I would get more involved if … ” more than a third of respondents ticked either “I thought my contributions made a difference” (24%) or “I thought anyone would listen” (12%). And that was before the Iraq war.

So when Benn told crowds, “We’ve lost control of our destiny” and “hope is the fuel of progress and fear is the prison in which you put yourself”, it resonated. He told me he had been receiving a lot of correspondence from people who said they were leaving the Labour party because of Tony Blair’s leadership. “I always give the same response,” said Benn, who remained a party member to the end. “That’s all well and good. What are you going to do now?” Leaving a political party tells the story of what you’ve given up, he said, but what was truly important was what you were moving on to.

Both that trip and those words have kept coming back to me as a growing number of people say that having voted or campaigned for Labour for years, if not decades, they can no longer stomach the party. After a steep rise under Jeremy Corbyn, membership has started to fall from its 2017 peak – polling is volatile, but for both the European elections and in Westminster, Labour’s vote share is edging down.

It’s not difficult to see where that frustration comes from. The fudge on Brexit is most often mentioned, with the party’s........

© The Guardian