Labour must avoid taking sides in the Brexit “culture war” if Jeremy Corbyn is to win the upcoming general election, one of his key advisers has warned.
Andrew Murray is the chief of staff of the Unite union and worked closely with Corbyn in the Stop the War coalition. He has been seconded to the Labour leader’s office part-time and is closely involved in conversations about a series of issues, including Brexit.
In a rare interview, with a general election looming after Corbyn declared on Tuesday that Labour’s conditions for an early vote had been met, he warned that the campaign to stop Brexit had increasingly become a form of identity politics, with remainers and leavers pitted against each other.
“It’s had aspects of it from the beginning, and now the culture war aspect of it is very, very powerful,” he said.
“If Labour becomes one side of the culture war – the side that is, stereotyping, the liberal side – that would be very damaging to the present project, and would have no basis in social justice.”
Labour’s Brexit policy has shifted over the past 12 months. The party now advocates negotiating a softer deal within three months of coming to power – and then putting it to the public in a referendum.
Many Labour members and MPs, not least the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, would like their party to go further, and embrace an all-out remain position. But Murray insisted that that would be a mistake.
“Most of the Labour party membership is remain, with varying degrees of intensity. About two-thirds of the 2017 Labour vote was remain. But that vote, as I keep reminding people, isn’t big enough. The Labour vote as it stands needs to be larger – you have got to think about people who aren’t voting Labour that voted leave.”
He added: “To go from speculation to fact, we actually lost six seats at the last general election. Only six, but had we held them, Theresa May’s deal with the DUP may not have stacked up. And they were all the leave-voting areas.”
Those six lost seats included Mansfield, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and Stoke-on-Trent South, while in many remain seats, such as Norwich South and Bristol West, Labour MPs saw their majorities increase significantly in 2017.
Murray voted leave himself, he admits – and was disappointed that progressive voices were absent from the Brexit campaign.
“I personally voted leave, but the leave campaign unfortunately gives no warrant for a Lexit position, because it was dominated by this alliance of xenophobic nationalists and Thatcherite utopians. And they set the tone.”
Together with his old friend the senior Corbyn aide Seumas Milne, the recently sidelined chief of staff, Karie Murphy, and the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, Murray is part of a group branded the “four Ms”, regarded by remain campaigners as a block on Labour’s shift towards supporting a referendum.
Asked if he thinks of himself as part of a shadowy cabal manipulating the Labour leader, Murray said: “I think – and I hope I’m not maligning him – that was an invention of Alastair Campbell, because he’s still got the old magic.”
He continued: “I don’t take that seriously. For one thing, none of the four Ms are elected politicians, and in the end it’s elected politicians who are going to decide these things. And Jeremy has advisers who don’t begin with M who have as much influence as those that do.”
But he is unrepentant about the influence of his union. “Unite has influence, and it should have influence,” he said. “It’s Labour’s biggest affiliate, and it has been rock solid in supporting JC from the very beginning.”
Murray has just published a book, The Fall and Rise of the British Left, placing Corbyn’s leadership of Labour in a historic context.
His influence alarms many centrist Labour MPs. Murray – a longtime member of the Communist party, who has in the past expressed solidarity with North Korea and praised aspects of Stalin’s legacy – only joined Labour in 2016.
Some also balk at the juxtaposition between his comfortable background (his grandfather was the governor of Madras, and he attended a minor public school) and the class struggle he espouses.
But he insisted: “I’ve always voted Labour in a general election – never voted anything else. My joining Labour was largely motivated by the wishes of my union: that as its chief of staff I be in a place to help advance its political strategy, which requires being a member of the Labour party. And Jeremy Corbyn’s election removed any remaining doubts.”
He has some reservations, however, about some of the radical policies bubbling up from Labour’s grassroots. Plans passed at the party’s conference last month included “integrating” public schools into the state system (under the slogan #AbolishEton), and implementing eye-wateringly ambitious carbon reduction targets.
Murray sees little need for policy to “rush far ahead” of the 2017 manifesto.
Even once passed by the party’s conference, policy motions are only included in the manifesto if agreed at a “clause V” meeting, which includes members of the national executive committee, the shadow cabinet and representatives of the trade unions.
“I think the 2017 manifesto – which I had no direct part in writing – was extremely well-judged and successful. And I’d imagine when the clause V meeting convenes, that politicians and others there would want to look at good reasons why you would be doing something very different,” he said.
At Labour’s annual conference – which Murray missed, because he was recovering from heart surgery – the chat in the bars and cafes was about who could replace Corbyn if, as even some of his staunchest supporters fear, Labour loses another general election.
But he is convinced that such an outcome would not mean a return to the politics of New Labour. “Corbynism’s critics haven’t really articulated an attractive alternative. And I think politics as usual – or politics as was usual from the mid-1980s until 2008, or maybe a bit later, because politics takes a while to catch up with economics – is not coming back anywhere in the world that I can see. And the main question is whether it’s going to be a nasty authoritarian right wing that benefits, or radical progressive movements like the Labour party has become.”