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What went wrong? Two leading Remainers on how the movement to stop Brexit failed

People's Vote demonstrators protest against Brexit in London on the second anniversary of the referendum vote, 2018. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

Former Tory candidate SIMON ALLISON and Labour peer PETER MANDELSON offer their often contrasting analyses on how the Brexit battle was lost – and where the movement goes now.

Simon Allison

We pro-Europeans have lost this battle, but we have not lost the war – and along the way we have discovered that our alliance, and in many cases the new friendships created by it, can cross party boundaries.

It has been a wonderful sight to see students and political veterans, left-wingers and right-wingers, spinners and idealists all working together towards a common goal.

We have worked hard and forged something new, a pro-European identity that won’t go away and mustn’t be allowed to wither, not least by our own meek surrender.

However, if our response to December’s election and this week’s departure from the EU is wrong – as our response to 2016 was wrong – we may throw it all away for ever.

Here are some thoughts:

1) Jeremy Corbyn is laughing today (albeit secretly), not crying. His lifetime ambition has been to destroy the west, take the UK out of the “capitalist EU club”, weaken Nato, and damage the UK economy to the point where the working class clubs together in a welter of discontent to overthrow the evil domination of British business. He is at least halfway there, even though it is left to Johnson, now dependent on working class votes in the north, to clear up the mess.

2) For the first time in the history of the UK, we have a government that is neither liberal, socialist nor conservative. It has basically no tradition in UK politics, being nationalist, populist and, in spending plans, quasi-socialist. That should mean, as the election promises fade away, that it is possible to build a broad coalition against it – as long as we understand what works and what doesn’t.

3) The first step in that understanding is to recognise that the UK is not essentially a ‘progressive’ country. The only large Labour majorities ever achieved were by Attlee in 1945 on the back of war for which the public blamed the Tories and after they were desperate for a message of hope; and by Tony Blair who was hardly a left-wing radical. Even his progressive policies, on things like Lords reform and orientation-related rights, were largely catching up with a public opinion which had already changed. While that doesn’t mean a progressive alliance can’t win power, it should give pause for thought – certainly, for the centre-left to take power, it needs to be able to bring along some of the centre-right with it.

4) In terms of lessons to learn from the tactics from the election campaign and, indeed, the three years since Brexit, I’d focus on three. First, the arguments for tactical voting were swept away not because the concept is wrong but because Corbyn made them irrelevant. The results of most elections can be explained by the fact that voters are choosing a CEO for UK plc. Basic competence and a sense of vision are what it takes to beat someone who just looks and feels like a loser, regardless of anything else. Corbyn never looked like a prime minister.

Secondly, and similarly, if a candidate gives off a whiff of extremism, they tend to lose – Foot/Benn, Duncan Smith and Corbyn are testament to that. Johnson manages to hide his extremism behind a screen of vague affability, which worked this time even if it doesn’t next time. I have seen some commentary which suggests that UK voters must be dreadful quasi-fascists to have voted for Johnson. Not true. At least half the Conservative voters I met in the four constituencies where I was active were scathing about him – but they took a look at the alternative, red-blooded socialism, and decided that the cure was worse than the disease. Johnson didn’t really win the election; Corbyn lost it.

Thirdly, another factor in that outlook, which in our bubble we probably lost sight of, is that most voters don’t obsess about Brexit. We may have felt that stopping Brexit mattered more than stopping Corbyn – they did not. Indeed, we seemed to view the country as crying out for an alternative to Johnson and now assume that if we had thrown them a lifeline of ‘progressive unity’, they would have grabbed it; maybe not.

5) In order to extend our message beyond ‘progressive’ voters, we also needed to give out signals that the 4.5 million Tory Remainers/moderates can buy into.

Looking at subsequent analysis of the election results, the missing piece of the whole equation wasn’t the Labour voters or Lib Dem voters, it was that two-thirds of Tory Remainers put ‘Tory’ ahead of ‘Remain’.

In many ways that’s not surprising. Despite repeated pleas, little attempt was made by pro-EU groups to reach out to older voters and other right-wing influencers like farmers, police and the armed forces. Now, as ever, I say to those on our left – the only way to build a winning coalition is to reach out beyond your natural supporter base.

If ‘progressives’ have nothing to offer moderate conservatives, they will just keep losing. But….a return to old-style Blair-ism is no longer the answer and here’s why…

6) Electorates around the world currently reward leaders who offer a clear message. Whether that means Trump, Johnson or Macron, if you show you really believe in something and are prepared to pursue it, voters respect that. For now, at least, the era of focus-group managerialism is over. Farage got there through sheer ruthless determination and a willingness to make opinions, not follow them.

7) Moreover, the tactics used by movements like the People’s Vote campaign – endless marches and rallies – left Tory MPs and voters cold. These are people who remember the mass mobilisation of CND and the poll tax riots and detest street marches. We need to move beyond them in the next phases of this struggle.

8) We also need to learn from the other side’s mastery of language and slogans. They were masters at a clever use of words – ‘Brexiteer’ and ‘will of the people’ supplemented ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Get Brexit Done’. Simple, three-word slogans which were calls to action. ‘Strong, Safer, Better Off’ and ‘People’s Vote’ don’t compare. Why could we not coalesce around using terms like ‘isolationist’? How come they got away with ‘Project Fear’ while scaring people with seven million Turks? We need to play a much better game in the future.

9) And as part of that, we also need to recapture patriotism, even though some people may not like the idea of wrapping ourselves in the flag. It was our fatal weakness, especially among Tory Remainers, that we allowed Little Englanders to look more patriotic than Great Britons, retreat to look like bravery, Dunkirk to trump D-Day. That can’t keep happening if we are to have any chance of rejoining the EU or even of maintaining close links with it.

10) Going forward, we need ideally to identify a single, charismatic leader, someone who will capture the public imagination. It is hard, at this stage, to see who that can be. The Lib Dems are currently just too discredited and in danger of simply bed-blocking the centre ground. The moderate Tories are wiped out. If Labour can select a moderate as leader, maybe that’s an answer, although the candidates do not seem to be positioning themselves as such.

Failing that, maybe a new UKIP is the answer, from the pro-European wing of UK politics – a movement dedicated to changing policy, not just to winning power, willing to shift the centre of gravity of British politics, rather than aiming at No.10. In other words to replicate what Farage has done but in an opposite direction. Maybe former Tories can indeed have a major role to play in that movement, being experienced but having shown a significant commitment to principle over party.

11) We need to keep fighting. Not for ourselves, mostly people in our 40s and 50s who have, on balance, let our country down. But for all those young people who are seeing their country and their future snatched away.

For their sake, we cannot just retreat into acceptance of Brexit and the quasi-one-party state which Johnson aims to create. We need, of course, to pick our battles – first and foremost, on the UK’s future relationship with the EU and, simultaneously, our struggle to keep the UK together. Underlying that, however, we must never accept the legitimacy of what has happened – a leader taking the UK out of Europe with a 47% mandate to do so, opposed by 53% of voters, and based on a thoroughly disingenuous platform. We may, indeed in a democracy, we must, accept the legitimacy of the Johnson government; but we must never accept its policy on Europe.

That means we can’t sit back and watch events unfold, stunned by our defeat and no longer sure of our ground. Nor must we give legitimacy to a policy based on dishonesty and misinformation – the crucial mistake we made in 2016 and one which bodes ill for British democracy. Instead, we must hit hard and fast as the mess unfolds, enjoying perhaps the fact that we have little left to lose!

12) Why do I suggest that we bounce back rather than taking stock? Because a new world is taking shape, just as in 1979; and people will begin to shape themselves to that new world. Johnsonism will become established and, with his majority, he will be able to lead the Tory party where he wants to go, to build his dream. So we could, on the one hand, retreat into pure ‘oppositionism’, moaning and whining about every step he takes, as Labour did for nearly 20 years under Thatcher and Major. Or we can develop a rival dream, adapting where necessary to the new reality, while also offering a better one. If we don’t, those young people whose hopes we stirred will simply move on and find a way to compromise with Johnsonism; and those who don’t will be left crying in the wilderness with no leadership.

We will, of course, not agree on all the aspects of the dream – but we will surely be able to coalesce around a few. A country less selfish, with regard to each other but also with regard to our European neighbours. A country which wants to stay together. A country which believes it has a role to play on the world stage, for its own sake as much as to help others. A country which accepts the role of the market economy but also understands that free enterprise can’t answer every question. A country which raises its head to focus on the big picture – global warming, the looming end of antibiotic resistance, the long-term rise of China and India, the oppression of women in too much of the world, the battles against global killers like water shortages and malaria – as well as the need to feed a vast new global population and the challenges of managing and of necessity limiting immigration in a world where resource shortages will push millions of people to migrate to regions which probably don’t want to accommodate them. The 21st century won’t be easy and it will see the ongoing relative decline of the West, but if we
can rise above the petty identity politics and narcissism of recent years, we can build a movement which can bring the current government crashing down sooner or later if it refuses to listen or to learn.

– Simon Allison is a former Conservative parliamentary candidate. He later left the party and is chairman of Citizens for Britain, a grassroots movement originally set up to rally Tory voters opposed to Brexit. The group also set up and ran the Conservatives for a People’s Vote campaign


Peter Mandelson

There is one fairly indisputable point to recognise from the general election which has led us directly to this week’s departure from the EU. This is that Jeremy Corbyn repelled so many voters that they feared him more than they feared Brexit.

It’s not just that he didn’t look the part, he didn’t seem to believe in Britain, which is a fairly fatal disqualification for someone applying to be its leader. Not only was he continuously ambivalent in his personal attitude towards Brexit, he made it virtually impossible for many voters to embrace any alternative to Brexit from which he would benefit politically.

At every tactical unfolding of events, in the campaign to secure a second referendum, he became the main stumbling block to progress from our point of view. There was a debate among members of the Remain campaign earlier in the autumn in which it was argued that we should just put aside our personal misgivings about Corbyn and embrace him for the sake of the cause. But if enough voters (Labour, Lib Dem and Tory) could never do that it was immaterial what we chose to do. We were simply stuck.

As it happens, regardless of Corbyn, I think we made one serious tactical misjudgement not addressed in Simon Allison’s thoughtful analysis. We consistently shied away from mobilising support in favour of a Brexit ‘deal’ which would become subject to a second referendum. If in a more united and concerted way we had swung support in parliament in favour of May’s ‘deal’ with a People’s Vote attached to it we would have seen the Leave coalition explode and Brexit likely subsequently rejected. We were so intent in picking holes in a soft Brexit we missed a chance to stop Brexit all together.

The tirades that Allison mounts against rallies, marches, New Labour, ‘progressives’, Blair, the PV campaign, focus groups etc are all equally immaterial compared to the Corbyn elephant in the room. Allison is wrong, in any case, that Blair won three times on the basis of some focus-group led technocratic confection. He won with a strong values based offer to traditional Labour voters plus an uplifting optimistic offer to aspirational potential swing voters. Social justice and economic competence. It demonstrated that there is a progressive majority in our country as long as the offer is made by credible, radical people the public can trust.

This lends evidence to Allison’s view that the only way to build winning coalitions is to reach out beyond your natural supporters base.

But, back to our campaign, he then goes on to criticise the PV for not abandoning its attempt to appeal across the aisle and going hell for leather instead in a pure, principled pro-European campaign. You cannot have it both ways. Should PV have preached to the converted or gone for new allies? This is pretty fundamental for a campaign with a limited aim and target of the sort the PV campaign had.

The broader pro-European argument was always there for others to mount. And the PV campaign did create platforms for John Major, Tony Blair and Michael Heseltine to mount highly effective, bigger arguments about Europe which ably reinforced the case for PV. I think they were right to do so. The result of the general election indicated that while the country was still divided over EU membership, I think we can infer that a pro-European majority exists in the country.

At this stage, I think it is important not to learn the wrong lessons from our experience. Of course we have to be on the right side of patriotism. That was central to the pro-European case that Major/Blair made throughout their premierships and during the anti-Brexit campaign. This will not be made easier under a Johnson administration governing on the basis of nationalism and high public spending. We are not yet at first base in coming to terms with this challenge any more than we are in how we will address the public grievances about the EU should we wish at a future stage to campaign again in favour of membership.

There are a number of ingredients of our last campaign that will have enduring value, including the ability to cooperate across party lines. Unfortunately the progressive majority that I think exists in Britain has been divided at every election time by the competition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. I think it will be very hard for the progressives to win a majority in parliament any time soon unless this schism is addressed.

– Peter Mandelson is a former Labour minister who sits in the House of Lords. He was a member of the Open Britain board before Roland Rudd’s purge of its pro-PV members

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