ONE of Labour’s biggest individual donors has warned the party faces an “existential threat” in the wake of the EU referendum unless it shifts policy on Europe to reflect voters’ disaffection.
John Mills, the businessman behind the Labour Leave campaign, said there could be a “substantial realignment” of voting patterns, with the party losing much of its traditional support to Ukip or a Donald Trump-style populist figure.
Labour risks losing 100 of its 230 seats unless it wins back supporters who rejected the party’s pro-Remain message to vote for Brexit last month, he said.
Mr Mills donated £1.65 million worth of shares in his JML consumer products company to Labour in 2013, but has given no cash since Jeremy Corbyn became leader.
“The Labour Party made a huge mistake in being as Europhile as it was,” he said. Its failure to be “constructively critical” on issues like immigration and sovereignty led to 3.5 million out of the 9 million people who backed Labour in the 2015 general election voting for Brexit.
“If a significant proportion of that 9 million desert the Labour Party because they don’t like its stance on the EU and then go off to Ukip - or whatever Ukip’s successor may be or the Conservatives or Greens or whoever - every seat with a majority of less than 5,000 becomes vulnerable and Labour could lose 100 seats,” warned Mr Mills. “This is a really existential threat to the Labour Party.”
Speaking to reporters at a briefing in London, Mr Mills said Labour was distracted from addressing the issue by the current turmoil around Mr Corbyn’s position.
But he warned that simply replacing him with a leader wedded to the party’s current Europhile policy would leave it in “deep trouble” electorally. And a leadership election which confirmed Mr Corbyn in his position would leave Labour “back where you started, with more blood on the floor and nothing resolved”.
Following Leave’s referendum breakthroughs in Labour’s northern and Midlands strongholds like Sunderland and Birmingham, Ukip can be expected to target the party’s voters once it has chosen a successor to Nigel Farage, said Mr Mills.
To shore up its position, Labour needs a leader who is not necessarily Eurosceptic, but is willing to respond to voters’ concerns about border controls and migrant pressure on public services, he said. But he admitted it was not clear whether there was a candidate available to do this.
Mr Mills has floated proposals to pull the UK out of the single market before negotiating a free trade deal with the EU which removes it from free movement as well as the common agricultural and fisheries policies, while taking advantage of the collapse in sterling to boost exports around the world.
Despite evidence of widespread concern about the impact of globalisation on traditional Labour communities, he insisted they were best served by liberal democracy and free trade, rather than protectionism.
But he warned that, almost a decade on from the 2008 crash, voters’ confidence is “cracking” in the ability of mainstream politicians to restore growth in wages and living standards.
Their dissatisfaction is seen not only in the referendum result, but also in successes for the left-wing Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, as well as the far-right Front National in France.
“I think there’s a real possibility that there’s going to be a substantial realignment in the political scene in this country, especially if nothing is done to satisfy these dissatisfied people,” warned Mr Mills.
“I think the Trump phenomenon is really a reflection of what happened in the referendum, to some extent, and so is Podemos and so is Syriza and so is the Front National in France.
“Unless the western world can somehow or other satisfy large numbers of its people that it can run the economy and the country in a way which is in their interests, I think you are going to finish up with this discontent ... If we are going to save liberal democracy, it’s very important that something is done to get it back on track again.”