ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: The myth of the north/south Brexit rift
PUBLISHED: 14:00 08 March 2019
The New European's editor-at-large explains why Brexit is far from the black and white picture it is presented as.
In a world full of grey, it is the black and white voices that tend to get heard. It is amid a mass of conflicting greys that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has sought to navigate tricky Brexit waters, first dismissing, then avoiding, then confronting, the possibility of a People’s Vote (though never calling it as such), then wavering between different forms of dismissal, avoidance and acceptance until finally acceptance appeared to have been secured, only for new avoidance strategies to emerge.
I was with my daughter, Grace, when it was announced that Labour was finally moving to support a second referendum. “Why aren’t you more excited?” she asked. Because I was seeing the greys, not the black and white. I started to wonder how the four Ms around Corbyn – Len McCluskey, Karie Murphy, Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne – would push back; and sure enough, once shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said to Channel 4 News what Corbyn would not say to a gathering of confused MPs – Labour would have Remain on the ballot paper – Milne was out briefing that she “mis-spoke”.
John Mann, for many years my parents’ MP in Bassetlaw, Notts, and still my sister’s, is very much a black and white MP. He takes strong, clear positions, and campaigns hard for them.
He is among the MPs who have had access to Theresa May to suggest more help for poorer communities. But as fellow Brexit-leaning Labour MP Gareth Snell pointed out, the sums involved in the government’s new fund – aka Brexit bribe – are tiny when spread across four years and multiple communities, and do not even cover funds lost through local government cuts. Then, when you add in the economic costs of Brexit itself, you realise this is just one more desperate tactic of our desperate prime minister and her attachment to her miserable deal.
Mann’s black and white view of the Labour referendum shift, shared by Kate Hoey, Caroline Flint and others in the small group of Labour MPs who see themselves as protectors of the Brexit-come-what-may flame, and condemn the democratic option of a People’s Vote as deeply anti-democratic, was that it was electorally disastrous; that whatever chance Corbyn had of reaching Downing Street (and it is fair to say the prospect does not excite Mann as it does more committed supporters of the Labour leader) had now gone, because of the way ‘Labour voters in the north and the Midlands’ would react.
This view played into a narrative, endlessly communicated by most of the media channels on which he appeared, that splits the country into monolithic slabs – so the north and Midlands are for Leave; the south is for Remain. The wealthy are for Remain; the poor are for Leave. That plays into the myth, too, that the north and the Midlands are somehow universally poor, while London, home to some of the most severe poverty of all, is paved with gold.
To listen to Mann, you get the impression of his Worksop and Retford constituents ready to rise up should the people actually be allowed to have the final say on the dog’s dinner of a Brexit negotiated by May. I do not claim to know the area as well as he does, but I go there regularly, and meet plenty of people desperate to stop the route to madness on which, if the Mann/Flint/Hoey/ worldview prevails, we are inexorably embarked. Indeed, the last time I was there, the local paper lead story was headlined: “Worksop businesses write to MPs demanding People’s Vote on Brexit”. I didn’t hear their views represented in Mann’s media rounds.
The northern Leave cartoon conveniently overlooks the fact that Manchester, Liverpool and York backed Remain by substantial margins, Leeds and Newcastle narrowly so. That’s a lot of northerners. And a poll this week comprehensively debunked the myth of the monoliths. Far from Labour losing support in the north and Midlands by shifting to support of a second referendum, it showed they would lose support if they didn’t.
By three to one – mega-landslide territory in polling-land – Labour ‘heartland’ voters supported the shift. More than twice as many people said it made them more favourably disposed to Labour as said the opposite. And when it came to how the 5,000 people polled would vote in a referendum, Remain beat Leave by 76-24, rising to 81-19 if the choice was Remain versus the miserable deal. Just 14% wanted Mann and other MPs to back said miserable deal.
Public opinion, least of all on something as confusing and fluid as Brexit, is not static. 2017 Labour voters favoured Remain by two to one in the referendum. That they now support Remain by three to one represents a big shift.
People change their minds. Facts (when they can get a look in) change minds. Circumstances change minds. Like the Leave voter who was talking to me on a train to Burton upon Trent on Sunday, who said she was worried she might not be able to take her dog on holiday to France.
It is all a bit grey, when she was promised black and white. More money for the NHS. Black and white. Having cake and eating it. Black and white. Easiest trade deals in human history. So black and white. And nobody mentioned dogs. She will be at the next Wooferendum protest this weekend, with her black and white border collie.
The wealthy/poor cartoon is also exactly that. Of the many cons attached to Brexit, among the greatest is the idea that a wealthy elite composed of people like Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage, Nigel Lawson, James Dyson, Richard Tice and Arron Banks are pursuing Brexit for the ordinary Joe done down by the establishment.
There are poor Remainers, and rich Leavers; rich Remainers, and poor Leavers; young Leavers, and old Remainers; passionate northern Remainers, and equally passionate southern Brexiters.
Close Brexit-watchers are likely to be aware of the role of Chris Morris, the BBC journalist given the task of Brexit fact-checking. He is a home-and-away football fanatic, though his team is Southampton, not Burnley. He is writing a book on Brexit, based on travelling to away games, and talking to people in those towns and cities.
Given the two-to-one support for Leave in Burnley in the referendum, he was perhaps looking forward to a Brextravaganza there, and wanted to interview me to balance things up. All my life in politics and campaigns, Burnley fans have never been backward in coming forward to tell me their views. Quite a few did so as we chatted in the reception of the Bob Lord stand.
I think Chris will confirm they were a mixture of exasperated, worried, angry, confused – but also that the majority of an admittedly small sample was hoping we would get another referendum and vote to stay in. That included a couple of G4S security staff – low-paid northerners – who overheard us talking, and joined in. And as for the idea constantly spouted by the Brexit brigade that ‘nobody has changed their minds’, one of them had. Voted Leave. Now for Remain.
But, in the interests of grey not black and white, let me not leave you with a misleading impression of the trip to Turf Moor. My homeward train picked up a bunch of Queens Park Rangers fans at Wigan. You know, southerners. Londoners. Bound to be Remainers, according to the conventional wisdoms spouted by so many. Not so.
Fair to say drink had been taken. “Brexit means Brexit, Campbell” was among the more polite statements that came my way. “You f**k around with my vote and I will f**k around with you,” one of the less polite ones.
Their views may have been black and white. But they underlined that the world and the Brexit debate is grey. Remain Burnley. Leave QPR. No. But let’s not make stupid generalisations the other way either, shall we?
As for those easy trade deals, they are proving very, very hard. Liam Fox has had to move to a different version of the ‘easiest deal in history’ lie; namely that they ‘will become easy – once we are out’. Er, no. Meaningful trade deals will not materialise until the world knows where the UK stands in relation to the EU’s single market. There is no clarity on that and won’t be for some years.
That is deliberate on the part of the government, a breach of many promises made, as this is the only way May can hope to get her miserable deal passed, by persuading both hard and soft Brexit supporters that they can ultimately prevail. Turning grey into black and white. Or trying to.
Another promise was that our wonderful special relationship with the USA was going to be a guarantor of our post-Brexit economic prosperity. But with Donald Trump in office, about as black and white a leader as they come, and with ‘America First’ meaning exactly that, it looks like the ‘big one’, the one Brexiteers were sure would be as easy (sic) as the one with the EU, will be among the hardest of the lot.
Chlorinated chickens and hormone-overdosed beef may share the headlines with the NHS grab and the bonfire of food standards regulations, but it is the threat not to do a decent deal if we get too close to doing one with China that caught my eye.
Expect the phrase ‘my deal or no deal’ to cross the Trump lips some time in the future, once we are out, our negotiating leverage is weakened, and the country is wondering why on earth we went ahead with this act of national self-harm when we knew so much more by 2019 than we did in 2016.