Labour leader Keir Starmer’s support for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s trade deal with the EU has sent a signal to Brexit-backing, former Labour voters that the party is listening to them again © Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament

Dan Jarvis has a complex relationship with Brexit. The decorated ex-soldier and Labour mayor of South Yorkshire — who also serves as MP for the town of Barnsley — campaigned vigorously against leaving in the 2016 referendum. His patch voted heavily the other way, so he duly backed the Article 50 withdrawal process. But he never voted for an exit deal.

He did, however, support Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s trade deal with the EU last week. What changed? Well, in the 2019 general election Mr Jarvis’s huge majority shrank dramatically, amid a surge by the pop-up Brexit party. “Regaining trust, rebuilding our Labour identity and reconstructing our so-called ‘red wall’ doesn’t require us to pretend this Brexit deal is a good one, but it does require us to engage with those communities who voted for Brexit on their terms,” he says.

That aligns him with Keir Starmer, his party’s leader who ordered opposition MPs to back Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal, even though many believe it a bad agreement (37 MPs out of 200 rebelled). Sir Keir insisted that the vote was about avoiding a chaotic no-deal break with the bloc, but it also told former Labour voters that the party was listening to them again.

Anne and Phil Robertson are among them. Residents of the small Yorkshire town of Conisbrough, they aren’t sure what to make of Labour and Sir Keir’s shift on Brexit. “It’s good he’s finally getting the message, but does he really believe it?” Phil says. Anne adds: “Aye, he was ‘Mr Anti-Brexit’ and I don’t think he’s really changed.”

Labour has to win back millions of voters such as the Robertsons to have a chance of regaining power. Backing the Tories’ Brexit deal, however unwillingly, is only the start. During the five years that Jeremy Corbyn led the party, its membership moved sharply to the left on public spending and other issues, taking positions that were out of kilter with working-class English voters. On immigration, just 19 per cent of voters say Labour is the best party to handle the issue.

In the port town of Grimsby, first-time Tory voters routinely tell me, unprompted, that immigration was their main reason for breaking with Labour. Susan Pearson, a retired food processing worker, explains: “We need control. We didn’t have it under [Tony] Blair, and [Jeremy] Corbyn wanted open borders. I have no idea what that new one thinks.”

Labour needs a delicate but decisive shift, even on issues that will fly in the face of the party’s grassroots. Backing the Brexit deal was a first step towards demonstrating the party’s plan to move on. Sir Keir has erased the Conservatives’ substantial national polling lead, but has made little headway among working-class voters.

But the rest of Labour’s agenda is barely fleshed out. Sir Keir must find a way to win back the north without alienating the south and cities. The younger, pro-Remain voters who enthusiastically backed Labour under Mr Corbyn are now core to the party’s voting base. Few of them would applaud his endorsement of Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal, or cheer on a tougher stance on immigration.

May’s local elections — a bonanza of mayoralties, devolved parliaments and local councils — will be a significant electoral test of Sir Keir’s ability to campaign. Activists are focused on two urban mayoralties currently held by Tories: the West Midlands and Tees Valley. If Labour is really on track to be in “government or the largest party after the next [general] election, we’d want to be taking both”, an ally of Sir Keir says.

Robert Hayward, a Conservative peer and pollster, thinks May could be a “Covid election” but he is unsure whether Sir Keir will benefit. “Despite all of the issues the government has faced over competence . . . people have the same views of Starmer. Voters may have become less pro-Tory, but there’s lots of evidence they’re not pro-Keir either.”

Mr Jarvis sees an answer across the Atlantic in Democrat Joe Biden’s use of a moderate social democratic platform to win back Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. There is “still hope for progressive government”, he argues. “Getting there will take time, and it will be tough, but for Labour, supporting this Brexit deal was a vital step in the right direction.” May’s elections will hint at whether he is right.

Get alerts on Labour Party UK when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article