Senior figures in the Labour party, including Tom Watson, Ed Miliband and Chuka Umunna, have urged the party to step up its campaign to stay in the European Union amid fears that Labour voters will let the UK sleepwalk towards Brexit.
Tom Watson, the deputy leader, called on the party to “redouble its efforts” to persuade voters to stay in the EU, following concerns that many of its supporters could back Brexit over the issue of immigration.
He cited polling from the remain campaign that shows about half of Labour voters are still unclear about the party’s stance with just two weeks to go before the referendum.
“We’ve got to throw every vote at it,” he told the Guardian. “If anyone was in any doubt when David Cameron called this referendum that it would be close-fought, they were mistaken; but at this point in time, it is not won, and it’s not lost. That’s why we’ve got to redouble our efforts.”
According to the polls, Labour voters are the most likely political group to want to stay in the EU, with 61% backing remain compared with 39% of Conservative supporters. But the party faces a battle to convince its remain supporters to turn out to vote when the campaign has been fronted by Cameron and characterised by Tory infighting.
The party also has an uphill struggle to convince the undecided that they should vote to remain for the sake of the economy and workers’ rights, when these concerns may be trumped by worries about immigration.
Polls have tightened in recent weeks as the leave camp has begun to ramp up its warnings that immigration can only be controlled from outside the EU and has made personal attacks on Cameron’s character, a message that may appeal to traditional Labour voters who want to punish the prime minister. In general, the polls now appear to be tied, with victory for remain effectively relying on left-of-centre voters turning up on the day.
Anxiety in the remain camp, however, is only likely to increase after a new ORB online poll for the Independent published on Friday gave the leave camp a huge 10-point lead over remain, with 55% backing Brexit.
Umunna told the Guardian: “Everybody in the Labour party needs to do even more than we are doing already to ensure our Labour voters know not only that Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party want us to stay in but also we need people to go and vote to stay in.
“Let me put it this way, of course you want your striker to score as many goals as possible, and I want to see him score more.”
Acknowledging that the campaign has so far been too dominated by Cameron, a senior source in the remain camp said voters must be exposed in the next fortnight to “more Labour, more Labour, more Labour, with the possible exception of Ken Livingstone” to make the argument for staying in the EU.
“We need everyone and anyone out there in terms of Labour politicians, from Jeremy Corbyn to John McDonnell to Sadiq Khan to Tom Watson to Tony Blair,” the source said.
Miliband also said Labour had “more to do” and there was “all to fight for”.
“Labour people need to hear our message, and to know where we stand. This looks a bit like a blue-on-blue fight,” Miliband told the Guardian. “What I want Labour voters to know is where we stand. They’re got to make up their own minds, but every Labour leader that’s living, including Jeremy Corbyn, every major trade union, 95% of Labour MPs, are for remain. And I want that message to get across.”
He also urged Labour voters to resist thetemptation “to try and give David Cameron a bloody nose” because the issue was far more important.
Watson even took the high-risk move on Friday of warning that Brexit would spell the end for Cameron and lead to a takeover by the hard right of the Conservative party, who would be even worse.
He said the Tories running the leave campaign – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel – would pose a greater danger to workers’ rights and public services than Cameron.
Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, had earlier said there was a “very real prospect” of Britain crashing out of the EU because the remain camp was failing to reach beyond Hampstead to traditional Labour voters in its northern heartlands such as Hull. He later rowed back on those remarks, insisting he had only meant to talk about a long-standing analysis that Labour was too London-centric.
Corbyn has been touring the country to make speeches in favour of remain but the leave campaign has seized on his Eurosceptic past to claim he is a secret Brexiter.
His strategy has been to make a distinctive Labour case for staying in the EU based on protecting workers’ rights, while dismissing Tory “scaremongering” about the economic consequences and declining to share a platform with his political opponents.
However, one of the biggest worries of the remain camp is that Corbyn has been making speeches to events around the country but failing to transmit Labour’s message to the wider electorate. Aides have said he needs to be more visible, pointing out there is no point doing events if hardly anyone sees them.
Party sources said both Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, had been asked by senior figures in the campaign to step up their profile or risk being blamed within the party for contributing to Brexit.
McDonnell has taken a greater role in the campaign in recent days, with warnings against “Tory Brexit” causing VAT rises and axing child benefit, and he is expected to make further interventions next week. Corbyn is due to do his only live set-piece TV event on the referendum three days before polling day.
On Friday night, Watson defended Corbyn against the charge that he had failed to pull his weight, saying: “Of all the bricks that are thrown at Jeremy, I think this is the unfairest I’ve seen. There is no issue that has united the Labour party more than remain. Every living Labour leader, the shadow cabinet, all our local government leaders: we’re all swinging in on this remain message. He’s done speech after speech after speech.”
As well as worry about getting the blame, MPs are increasingly concerned about a permanent loss of working class voters to Ukip if Nigel Farage’s aims and values are legitimised by a Brexit vote.
Labour MPs in traditional, working class seats, say the issue of immigration is drowning out other arguments in the referendum campaign, including the remain campaign’s central argument that leaving would hit jobs and economic growth.
“Nearly every election we’ve had over the past five years, there’s been this backdrop about people’s concern about immigration, and we’ve got to acknowledge that,” Watson said.
He insisted it should not be the overriding issue on 23 June, however. “Please don’t be fooled by the leave campaign who are trying to make this a referendum on immigration.”
He insisted that Britain retains control of its borders, because of opt-outs from the Schengen travel zone, and that the UK would almost certainly have to offer free movement to EU citizens in exchange for retaining access to the single market.
“The leave camp are saying you can still be part of the single market; I think we just need to be realistic,” he said. “If you want access to the single market, you’re going to have to have access on their terms”.
This was echoed by the former shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, who emphasised on Friday that immigration is “not what this campaign is about – Brexit will not make a difference”.
The Labour remain team said activity would be stepping up from now on with a major campaign event every day until polling day. Its bus has already travelled approximately 3,000 miles to 80 constituencies, while 8.5m leaflets have been produced for volunteers to deliver. About 1.3m mailshots are currently dropping on doormats, including a first wave to postal voters who support Labour.
Despite panic in some quarters of the party, Chris Bryant, shadow leader of the House of Commons, said he was still feeling confident about the remain side winning because “outers are shouters” and more likely to be noisy about saying they want to leave.
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