This article first appeared in the print edition of The Witness, Autumn Term 2017
With a track record of cabinet positions in both the Blair and Brown governments and as a staunch Remainer, Ben Bradshaw is an unlikely supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. “He exceeded everyone’s expectations in the general election and result. He has earned the right to take us into the next election”. Although this hasn’t always been the way, Mr Bradshaw credits the Labour Party’s Brexit strategy for his changed view on the leader.
With what the Labour MP for Exeter terms “the biggest policy mistake since appeasement in the 1930s”, the former frontbencher asserts his determination for overturning Brexit. “Every ounce of my waking day is spent on this mission – it’s the most important fight for us to fight and win of our generation”.
The pro-European MP has broken the whip more times in the past 12 months over Brexit than he has in his 21 years in Parliament, and vows to continue doing the same if necessary. “If you’re someone like me who believes the existential threat facing our country is Brexit and your one priority is to stop Brexit on all counts, I don’t think you can possibly accuse me and those on my wing of the part of lacking courage or conviction”. Mr Bradshaw makes this claim in response to the suggestion that the MPs who hail from the Blairite years are unprincipled because of their ‘phony unity’ as a party when they staunchly disagree on a number of levels with the party leadership.
However, Mr Bradshaw gives off an air of renewed determination following the most recent general election. “Now we have to ensure we stop the Tory government’s disastrous extreme Brexit and convince the public that we are a credible alternative government in order to win the next election”.
Regardless, he makes no secret of the fact that he didn’t expect the results Labour saw in June this year. “There is no doubt that Labour did better than anyone expected, it exceeded my wildest expectations”. Despite this, Mr Bradshaw defends running a local campaign, stating that this is something he has always done regardless of who the leader of the party has been. “I think that’s what local people in Exeter like and value”.
“I believe the existential threat facing our country is Brexit and my one priority is to stop it on all counts”
The result wasn’t purely the success of Labour, and as an MP who faced the prospect of losing his seat when the election was announced as Labour trailed the Conservative Party by 24 points, Mr Bradshaw was at pains to emphasise this. “It would be a mistake to interpret the result as all to do with Labour – one of the main reasons the Tories lost was that they ran the worst election campaign that anyone can remember in history”. Branding their manifesto a ‘disaster’, he laments Theresa May as an “empty vessel with no emotional intelligence, who was a hopeless campaigner and handed the election to us on a plate”. Tireless campaigning meant the MP saw first-hand the reaction on the doorstep of those who had always voted Conservative to their manifesto, and remembers the dementia tax as being something in particular that turned voters away from the Conservatives.
The path to the next general election won’t all be plain sailing, and Mr Bradshaw points out some key areas Labour need to focus on the make themselves electable. “The next election will be very different from the last one – if we’re honest I don’t think anyone thought it was possible that Labour could win. Our policies and manifesto were not subject to the same level of scrutiny as will be the case the next time around”. Something that particularly worries one of just a handful of Labour MPs in the South West is retaining the voters who were happy to vote Labour because they knew they wouldn’t form a government. “If I’m honest, they’re a bit worried about Corbyn winning. We’re going to have to persuade people we can run the country and that’s the challenge we face”.
There were hints of Mr Bradshaw’s previous scepticism of Corbyn when he spoke about the difficulties Labour will face in the lead-up to the next election. “If Jeremy wants a good, solid, workable majority we are going to have to broaden our appeal”. However, he sees Exeter as a model for this, acknowledging that there are people who are not tribal Labour who vote for him.
Further evidence of Mr Bradshaw’s determination that Labour can unite to “rescue the country from Brexit” is in his conviction that there is little room for a new centrist party. “There’s certainly no appetite in the Labour Party for any type of split or new party”. He does, however, hint heavily at divisions within the Conservative party. “It’s much more likely the Conservatives will split over Europe”.
Mr Bradshaw also has high hopes for Labour entering into government sooner rather than later. “I can’t see this shambles lasting a full five years. We’ll have a good social democratic Labour government hopefully within the next year or two”.
“If Jeremy wants a good, solid, workable majority we are going to have to broaden our appeal”
As one of the most vocal pro-EU voices in the Labour party and a constant campaigner for overturning Brexit, Mr Bradshaw is optimistic about the future. “I think there’s a greater chance now than there has been at any time since the referendum of stopping Brexit. I think it can be stopped and I think it must be”. In contrast to the will of a number of anti-EU MPs, he believes “Parliament will certainly not allow us to fall out in a chaotic cliff-edge Brexit”. Speaking of the disarray of the government and the cabinet, and their incapacity to deliver Brexit, he says “one of the reasons the negotiations have been going so badly is the other 27 don’t know what or who they’re negotiating with”.
Mr Bradshaw makes no qualms about the role Brexit has played in uniting his party. “Our party is more united now than it has been at any time since the referendum”. However, it isn’t just an opposition to the Conservative’s hard Brexit that has brought them together. In a way, it’s made the party remember their roots and rally together around a common cause. “Wherever we end up on Brexit the Labour Party will always be informed and motivated by our sense of social justice”. With Brexit being “the thing that is likely to result in the greatest level of social injustice and economic chaos”, Mr Bradshaw recognises “the golden thread through the party will always be a hunger for social justice and equality of opportunity”.
Becca is Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Witness