Thank you and sorry …

Following the close of poll and prior to the count for the European Elections on Sunday 26 May 2019 I wrote the following letter to Labour Party members in South East England thanking them for their roll and support during the campaign and addressing a number of important political issues that had arisen over the previous month.

Numerous members had raised questions about the conduct of the campaign during visits and in correspondence that I felt it inappropriate to go into in any depth during the election but who I felt were owed an explanation – at least as far as I could give one.

The reaction I had from members was largely positive across different currents of thought in the Labour Party. A sizable minority did not agree with my view, nor seemingly my right to express a view at all. Of them I would ask, if the worst Labour result in 100 years is not the right time to raise questions about the conduct of a campaign then when, exactly, is?

Rational readers will note the wording in paragraph 5 below and the reference to ‘leaderships’ of various political shades (1). Equally, the response from some to the point in paragraph 8 about the peddling of falsehoods was to peddle further falsehoods.

If Labour is now so fragile that it cannot tolerate criticism, then many of my points below are entirely proven.

Photo: above, campaigning in Brighton with No2 candidate, Cathy Shutt.


Thank you ...

First let me, on behalf of all ten of us on the South East England list for yesterday’s European Elections, say thank you for the hard work and support we received from Labour Party members across the region. Members do not have to work in elections, they are volunteers who do it because they believe it to be right. So thank you.

Second let me personally thank the other candidates on the list for their support, loyalty and enthusiasm in the face of very difficult circumstances. Your support was invaluable and you gave 100%. I very much hope the experience will reward you in years to come.

... and Sorry

Unfortunately, both the other Labour candidates and party members deserved better in this election. They all deserve an apology.

Had Labour’s ‘high command’ set out to lose an election they could not have gone about it in a more convincing way. These elections were there to be won, that victory was squandered and a key opportunity to stake a claim as the party of government in waiting was lost.

Time after time Labour has approached elections to the European Parliament as an inconvenience and, in an approach symptomatic of the UK’s dysfunctional relationship with the EU, sought to fight on domestic issues - ‘vote Labour for the European Parliament to put more bobbies on the beat/save the NHS’, or some such implausible rot. This is nothing new. It happened under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and now the current regime - in every case it was an insult to the intelligence of the voters and below par results followed as night follows day. It is simply not possible to fight a different election to the election on the ballot paper.

Labour’s NEC had plenty of warning, from MEPs, from polling data, from evidence of the last general election and from the local election results only three weeks ago, of the likely consequences of adopting an equivocal policy on Brexit not based on seeking to remain in the EU (2). Nonetheless come the NEC meeting to determine our election policy, what should have been a discussion about what were the best tactics to win an election became a skirmish in Labour’s internal war that ‘the leadership’ could not be seen to ‘lose’. From that point the die was cast. I and other Labour MEPs and MPs continued to receive right up to polling day messages from Labour members and supporters who intended to support other parties on 23 May. I received several hundred such messages - a lower proportion than many of my colleagues, but alarming nonetheless (I attempted to reply to everyone with a reasoned argument as to why this was a mistake - some I talked round, others not. I also received messages from some supporting ‘leave’ - but very few).

It isn’t that Labour’s message of ‘bringing the country together’ isn’t needed, simply that the country doesn’t seem ready to come together - Brexit is unfinished business. As such it was either phenomenally naive or utterly mendacious to put in place a policy that would knowingly lose votes in remarkable numbers.

From there on the party machine sought to close down any deviation for the suicidal central message. In an unprecedented decision the General Secretary was appointed agent for the entire country (1). At all other EU election since regional lists were introduced Regional Directors have been agents. They managed the desire of CLPs to promote candidates and help win the elections. The spending limits for these elections are huge, easily capable of accommodating local activity aimed at enhancing the campaign. This time spurious legal grounds were used to clamp down on local activity and even additional union assistance. The much derided nationally produced leaflets which carried no mention of a ‘confirmatory vote’ were presented to MEPs as a fait accompli that was “already at print” - this turned out to be untrue but it shows how the campaign was run. The eventual product was no better. While it was frustrating to be fighting an election with hands and feet bound and with Labour staff in apparent opposition it is not the fault of junior staff or middle managers - responsibility lies elsewhere.

Where from here?

Labour has lost a great opportunity and, over the past year, a great many members. By failing to listen to its supporters in the country who are ever more heavily ‘remain’, to the overwhelming bulk of its members, to the majority of its MPs and MEPs the Party has brought on itself an electoral humiliation at a time when the Conservative party is woefully divided and manifestly incompetent in Government. An open goal has been missed.

The absurd aspect of this is that Labour failed to capitalise on the credit it would otherwise have been due for fighting off May’s awful deal and backing a public vote with a whip and 84% of its MPs that it would otherwise have been given.

Sadly for many local parties who had spent time and effort since the days of the coalition removing the LibDems from their towns this campaign has allowed them back - not just into Conservative heartlands but to ours too - in particular to those ‘new’ heartland that produced such great numbers of Labour votes in 2017.

It is unclear how Labour will move on and recover from this position. Whether or not we retain Labour representation in the European Parliament for South East England is far from clear. As for a General Election - I would say, not for the first time, be careful what you wish for.

So once again I say thank you for the support I have received over the past two years. And apologies that you did not get the message or the campaign you deserved - it was not for the want of trying.

I hope I will be able to continue to serve.

All the best

John Howarth MEP.


(1) I wonder, from the tone of some replies, if they had read the original letter at all. It is fair to say that the HuffPost reporting of my words was considerably more sensational than the original.

(2) I and a number of others wrote to members of the NEC putting the case for a clarification of Labour's policy for the elections and the likely consequences of taking any other course. For information my representation is reproduced here:

(3) It is only fair to point out, as I had forgotten, that while the GS had not before acted as Agent for the whole UK , in the 1999 elections Alan Barnard, the then Head of Elections, did so. So perhaps not entirely without precedent, however, Mr Barnard described this as “the single most stupid decision I made while working for Labour”. It is also fair to add that in 1999 local parties had considerable latitude in helping promote candidates. It remains Labour’s best result under proportional representation.