A second vote IS coming, says ZOE WILLIAMS. But the pro-European campaign must not repeat the many mistakes of the last one.
As fascinating as it is to consider what will happen on December 11: by what margin Theresa May will lose in the vote on her deal; what Jeremy Corbyn could and should say directly afterwards; the likelihood of a general election; the mechanisms by which one could be called, the hurdles it would have to clear… we are in danger, mired in it all, of getting surprised by the very outcome so many of us have fought for – a second vote.
For, in almost any scenario, whether after or instead of an election, it’s coming. It would be criminally irresponsible, on a near-Boris Johnson scale, not to be ready.
The questions to consider are what a Remain campaign would look like: who should run it, and who should be its figureheads? What are its core ideas? What would be on the ballot, who would get a vote? What were the mistakes of 2016’s referendum, and how can they be avoided?
The original vote is often thought of as a Remain campaign run by the establishment, with an insurgent, unallied movement opposing it: this is quite wrong. The Leave campaign was, if anything, much more of an elite project, bankrolled by hedgies, represented by the household faces of the right’s inner circle.
If it was maverick, it was only in the sense of having laid no plans, observed no basic standards of responsibility or maturity. It won because the world view it opposed – the unruffled status quo – failed to take hearts and minds with it. The problem with a campaign run by Cameron and Osborne was not some amorphous distrust of authority, but a concrete distrust of their particular qualities.
The next campaign should not run scared of leadership from an established political party; it just has to be the Labour party. For all that Brexit fatigue has set in, an attempt to reverse it merely to return to the pre-2016 normal would not succeed, nor would it deserve to.
Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are the only leaders who could make a plausible case for radical renewal: they have always been the embodiment of discontinuity with an exhausted political centre. They have never accepted low wages, poor working conditions, precarious household finances, as the face of modernity.
Corbyn is now depicted as the most ardent Bennite, anti-EU to his core, campaigning for Remain the first time because his grip on his parliamentary party was too fragile to do otherwise. In fact, even Benn wasn’t as Bennite as this narrative requires.
If Corbyn’s 2016 campaign was lacklustre, it was because he was loath to share a platform with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Major, unable to join a chorus composed of David Cameron and George Osborne. History has not yet had time to adjudicate on this preoccupation; such considerations would be moot, though, if he were the dead centre of the campaign, rather than an incongruous sideshow to a Downing Street bandwagon.
We need a new vehicle for the campaign itself and its £7million electioneering coffers. The organisations that sprang out of Stronger In – whether directly, as Open Britain, or indirectly, in shared personnel and outlook – will make the case to take it on themselves.
This would be a mistake; they failed once, with their uncomfortable mash-up of self-interest – what would Brexit do to the price of beans? – half-hearted cosmopolitanism – isn’t it nicer when we can all get along, and eat Brie? – and spikes of poorly explained fear-mongering, with an undercurrent of enslavement to finance – what will happen to sterling? What would the bond markets think?
None of this will fly the second time around; it didn’t ignite voters’ imaginations because it wasn’t imaginative itself; it won no hearts because it was, itself, passionless.
Instead, this should be taken on by a constellation of groups, spanning the political spectrum, who can make an authentic and credible case for Remain, based on values: Best for Britain, Another Europe is Possible, Momentum, the Lib Dems in whatever shape they choose to arrange themselves, such Conservatives as can bear to hold their course as their party veers wildly towards its fringes, which at the moment is just Ken Clarke.
There will be unions who cannot work with Conservatives, and have to operate as separate entities. There will be groups who operate best without the constraints of consensus-building. The important thing is that the arguments which emerge have some merit beyond the practical, and some burning drive beyond electoral advantage.
So it is interesting that young people are now 71% Remain, and it would be a stunning gain for any party to harness all that support with the simple expedient of offering them that choice: yet the meaningful thing would be to consider what migration would look like if it were genuinely free; if citizens of Europe were moving for genuine adventure and opportunity, rather than shunted by wages and conditions from one place to another.
It is a fact, meanwhile, that the EU is far from perfect, that it has been more than unresponsive, that the failures and callousness of the austerity agenda we’ve witnessed in our own country have been echoed and replicated on a wider scale; this was used, utterly expediently by figures like Farage, as a great reason for the left to walk away, while the right could be curried by the promise of sovereignty.
But what if, rather, we recast these criticisms as a social obligation to remain and reform? It was partly down to Britain’s influence that the EU took the technocratic course it did, privileging the interests of capital over those of citizens – which makes it a duty, if that course bothers you at all, to stay and remake it.
The mainstream political class lost its ability to make a case for immigration some time ago, when it iterated and reiterated how much richer it made the nation, and the nation replied, one way or another, ‘there’s more to life than money’.
But when did the rest of us forget how to make a case for migrants as people, who we’ve lived alongside for decades, all of us enriching one another more in friendship than in wealth? When did we stop arguing for immigration as a vital part of cross-pollination, in academia, in science, in discovery, in the gene pool, as a thing that keeps us all flourishing? It is bizarre to have ceded this territory to politicians who think you can measure a foreigner’s worth by his salary and, indeed, that the higher that salary is, the less people will resent him.
And while we’re here: it’s a long shot, but not, in my view, unreasonable: we need to talk first about what goes on the ballot, and then who is allowed to cast one. You cannot put no-deal before a voting public; it simply isn’t constitutional to offer a choice that could kill people.
Never mind if you think they’ve seen the risks and accepted them; if there’s one person in the country who hasn’t heard about drug stockpiling, that’s one too many. The choice has to be May’s deal or Remain. Finally, there are three million EU migrants in this country who should have had the vote last time, and should have it now; the reasons for their exclusion were opaque and have somehow doubled down, so no-one even polls them anymore since, without a vote, they are nothing but an irrelevant pressure group.
They’re not irrelevant; they have as much a stake as any of us in the destiny of this country; 16-to-18-year olds, likewise. We should have Scottish referendum rules: as we saw from that vote, it’s no guarantee of political radicalism, but at least it doesn’t divide us, arbitrarily, into who deserves a casting say and who doesn’t.
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