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The terrain has shifted, but we can’t fight the same battle

Demonstrators on the March For The Many on September 23, 2018 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

The campaign for a People’s Vote has been transformed by the Labour Party, says ZOE WILLIAMS. But now we need to start making a new Remain case

Something remarkable happened at the Labour conference: it’s not de rigueur to go on about it, when all eyes have moved to the chaos carnival the Conservatives put on afterwards, but it is too unusual to pass over.

As it opened, the leadership had a stated position on Brexit. They would respect the referendum result. They would not respond to chants of ‘Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?’ on demonstrations peopled by marchers who’d brought wine-chillers with them (I don’t know why Chablis should be the death knell for radicalism, but somehow it is).

They would not be shamed by people wondering where they were, as the government unravelled (‘Never interrupt your enemy while he’s making a mistake,’ Barry Gardiner intoned sagely. But to put that another way, ‘never interrupt a government unless they’re brilliant’. What’s an honest opposition supposed to do on those terms? Play golf?). Labour were as they were, and commentators vied to see who could speak with most authority on the Bennite tradition of leftist euroscepticism, as though we could all be anaesthetised against the coming pain if we could only find the most acute historical overview.

That is, unarguably, how it would have stayed, but for the members. Too much has been made of the Leave vote in Labour heartlands, which is steadily shifting anyway, and even where it isn’t, Brexit is losing saliency.

The party members are vigorously Remain: 86% support a second vote. 90% of them would vote to stay in the EU if they could. Labour members didn’t get the memo about anger in Hull being more important than jobs in Hull. They didn’t buy the EU as the cause of hardship that was more logically traced back to austerity. They could see its flaws, but they still applauded its roots in anti-fascism and potential for transnational cooperation. They didn’t lie awake at night worrying about free movement; they liked freedom, too. As the political notion of what was reasonable settled around Brexit: a heady combination, possible neither to execute nor to avoid, Labour members just weren’t biting.

This wouldn’t matter in the Conservative party, where the party faithful are just there to provide meat in the room, their temperature taken by how loudly they bay. It wouldn’t have mattered in the pre-Corbyn Labour party, when a commitment to ever deeper democracy hadn’t been made. To Corbyn’s Labour, the members mattered: not rhetorically, but literally.

Over the course of five days, following a painstaking composite of 150 constituency Labour party (CLP) motions, the party’s position changed to a general election, ideally (what opposition doesn’t want a general election?) and, failing that, a People’s Vote, in which nobody was ruling out the option of Remain. Keir Starmer said this, out loud, on conference floor, to a standing ovation, and the party position is now different.

I have heard some pretty nonsensical arguments, now, for the fact that nothing has changed; a composite motion to nationalise the railways was put forward in 2004, overturning Blair’s preference. The difference then is that it was ignored. Others say that Starmer’s word is not binding, and of course, it isn’t in the sense that there’s any legislative architecture around it. It could be abandoned by decree. Yet it emerged from democratic consensus, and was agreed upon; so to stray from it would require an assertion larger even than any statement on Brexit, that nothing and nobody in the party mattered as much as the leader.

Many call it a fudge, as though putting a second vote on the table were the same as not to, and ruling in Remain were the same as having no stance. This is comfortable, but wrong. I can find no motive for the determined insistence that nothing has happened, but that some people are so in love with the principle of leadership that they would rather cleave to the idea of inexorable disaster than witness anyone try to arrest it from below.

This changes everything: it has changed the party, but also the sense of what’s possible among activists. The campaign group Another Europe is Possible (full disclosure, I do their podcast) coordinated many of the motions from constituency Labour parties; Remain Labour mustered others. All these campaigns are entering a new gear, to campaign for Remain in a People’s Vote that seems more and more likely.

The terrain has been remade for Tory Remainers, some of whom explicitly admit as much. Three days after the Labour conference, their most full-blooded Remainer, Dominic Grieve, called for a second vote, writing in the Telegraph: ‘The fact that this view is now shared by most of the parliamentary Labour Party and almost all the other opposition parties, demonstrates that the possibilities of a consensus on process is available that can lead to a far less divisive outcome than the one that threatens to engulf us.’ The second vote is more than just a floated possibility on one side of an unbridgeable party-political divide: the new sense of potential is contagious. Everybody is emboldened.

What will the forthcoming case for Remain look like? Most people are agreed that it cannot look like the last one. An argument based on expense, on the strength of the pound, on the value of future trade deals, on administrative detail, would come off as ‘that thing you want? You can’t have it. We can’t afford it.’ While prepared to be corrected, I’ve never known that as a vote-winner. Arguing with a Left-Brexiter (we call them Lexiters; or, for brevity, ‘what on earth are you thinking? This is a far-right project’), she said, ‘I don’t see how you’re going to win. I don’t see what’s changed in the country, except that some Leavers have died and some Remainers have got the vote. What’s your slogan going to be? ‘Are you dead yet?” And I can see, too, why I’ve never seen that on a poster.

As time passes since 2016, even as the jeopardy ratchets up and the sheer incompetence becomes intolerable, I am also glad of the result: it forced conversations that we should have been having anyway. Why are the north and the south divided? What has austerity done to the country, along with stagnant wages, the housing crisis, the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a few? Why did areas who benefited most from EU funding vote so strongly against the EU, why do areas where immigration is lowest mind most about immigration? What can the media do and what can it not do? What are the electoral implications of foreign interference, of big money moving in mysterious ways? All these are urgent, yet previously were treated as niche areas for charity workers to discuss. If the past decade has shown us anything, it’s that these questions can only be fielded from the left; robustly answered, Brexit will become an irrelevance.

And a positive case must be made for the EU, which will centre on four things: Its roots as a bulwark against fascism, which we once again need; its potential for reform, away from technocracy, towards a deeper, transnational democracy; its record already in fighting our most urgent foe, climate change; and the importance of organising socially across borders, in an age when corporate mobility is near infinite.

Grassroots activism has created the conditions in which this case can be made: now we just have to make it.

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