Friday, 1 March 2019

A Vote For What?

It has always been unlikely that the current Parliament would agree to hold a second referendum, both because the government has committed to an exit from the EU on the 29th of March and because any Tory rebellion would be offset by Labour rebels insistent that the first referendum result must be honoured. Despite this being obvious since the Article 50 process was triggered in early 2017, we have seen the remain cause monopolised by the demand for a "People's Vote". What that campaign did get right was that a second referendum would ultimately be in the gift of the Labour Party, but what it wilfully ignored was that the best prospect of a fresh ballot would be via the election of a Labour government. In practice, continuity remain has shown that it considered the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10 to be too great a price to pay to achieve its goal, hence it has dissipated its energies between attacking the Labour leadership, vainly trying to rehabilitate the political establishment that lost the first vote, and encouraging business to repeat the errors of "project fear".

Labour's announcement this week that a Commons move to secure a second referendum is imminent has been presented as a concession by the leadership, despite it being simply the steady working out of the policy agreed at the party's conference last year. Though it is non-news, it has prompted speculation about the practicalities of a second vote, which has in turn allowed many to voice their frustrations with the strategists of the remain camp. But suggesting that the campaign should keep its distance from the likes of Blair, Mandelson and Campbell, while tactically sensible, is not in itself a strategy for winning. The problem for the remain camp is that almost three years after its original, clearly-flawed and ineptly-run campaign, it has failed to come up with any sort of coherent narrative to secure popular support. No "story" of the EU has emerged that comes anywhere near "take back control" in its visceral and intellectual power. The most obvious consequence of this is that "project fear" has continued to fill the media void by default, with tales of disinvestment and potential chaos prompting both despair and cynicism.

Attempts at defining a new strategy for remain have generally been negative. The trope of "legitimate concerns" in this context, whether directed at immigration or austerity, seeks to shift the blame for perceived or actual social ills away from the EU: we can limit freedom of movement under the current rules; we can bypass state aid regulations to invest in the public sector. This is not just uninspiring ("It's not as bad as you thought!"), it fails to address the attraction of unilateralism - the ability to exercise choice without restraint - which is what most people understood by the concept of sovereignty. Likewise, calls to extend the franchise, whether to 16 year-olds or EU27 nationals, speaks of a desire to erase the actual electorate of June 2016, in much the same way the claim that leave voters are "dying-off" does. Perhaps the most egregious example of this negativity is the insistence that "this time" we must ensure there is no outside interference by meddlesome Russians or dark money from the US right, despite the fact that a decisive influence by either on the 2016 result remains unproven and despite the patronising sub-text that treats leave voters as gullible fools.

Long lists of negatives, from chlorinated chicken to unavailable isotopes, aren't going to win over former leave voters in significant numbers, even if they can help raise doubts about the costs and benefits of leaving. Insofar as we can discern a shift towards remain in popular sentiment (and bearing in mind that this is not a reliable guide to what would happen were a second referendum to occur), it appears to be driven by dissatisfaction with the negotiation process and the realisation that the sunny uplands of freedom may prove illusory. This doesn't necessarily mean that people have slowly come to realise that they were conned. It may simply mean that they doubt the ability of the political class to secure the fruits of victory. Though people may be increasingly cynical, grudging acceptance of the status quo ante is not a reliable base on which to build a persuasive campaign. If anything, it risks inciting destructive bloody-mindedness, as the mooted "tell them again" slogan suggests.

Attempts from the left to make a principled case for remain have tended to be more positive than those originating in the political centre, but they have also displayed a weakness for rhetoric over narrative - notably in the guise of "remain and reform", which is definite about the former but vague about the latter. The attempts to reform the EU in the 1980s towards greater social responsibility, spearheaded by the likes of Jaques Delors, were popular at the time but the historic moment has passed. The shift towards neoliberalism that was championed by the UK, from Thatcher to Blair and Brown, and the increasing influence of Germany's ordoliberalism, have together led to an institutional stolidity and a bourgeois democratic hegemony that will frustrate any substantive reform in a social democratic direction for fear that it might revive continental socialism. That doesn't mean that reform is impossible, but it would require a genuine constitutional crisis in the form of a standoff between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. With the former dominated by the centre-right and nationalists constituting a bloc keen to restrain any growth in its powers, this is unlikely.

A feature of the left is its epochal historical perspective: it's expectation that change may be a long time coming. This is not just making a virtue of necessity, but an acknowledgement of the importance of hegemony ("the long march through the institutions"). One downside of this realism is an unrealistic belief that keeping the flame alight is sufficient to the moment. In the case of the EU, this means holding onto the prospect of reform without being specific as what that reform looks like or how it might be brought about (the main left remain campaign group, Another Europe is Possible, manages to capture this perfectly in its name). In many respects, this left position is merely a continuation of traditional internationalism, with its emphasis on pious hope and insubstantial solidarity. The problem with this tradition is that it feels obliged to dismiss any left sovereigntist arguments, damning them as the folly of "socialism in one country" or associating them with reactionary impulses like Blue Labour. But this means rejecting one of the positive arguments for leave voters to switch sides: that we have more potential power inside the EU than outside, both because we have ceded little sovereignty in reality (many of the supposed constraints placed upon us were the work of UK governments) and because membership gives us real leverage in areas like trade.

Ultimately, Brexit is a dispute over sovereignty and therefore power. If a second referendum were to be called before the conclusion of the Article 50 process, or were a future government to seek an explicit mandate for re-accession to the European Union, the arguments for and against would still centre on sovereignty. That the subject has been so little explored in Parliament, relative to the attention lavished on immigration and the economy, and that what limited debate has occurred has rarely risen above the superficiality of "meddling Brussels" or the faux-tradition of our glorious history, suggests that politicians either lack the intellectual tools needed to tackle it or (more likely) that they are reluctant to stir the hornet's nest of power and call into question the parliamentary sovereignty that unites both leave and remain MPs (as a side note, the new Independent Group of MPs are an almost parodic embodiment of the entitlement that parliamentary sovereignty gives rise to). To a significant degree, the tragedy of Brexit is the struggle of the political establishment to reconcile the implacable discipline of global markets and the imperatives of national sovereignty.

It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that a remain campaign might win a second vote on a combination of negativity and pious hope, particularly if the reactionaries who were persuaded to vote for the first time in years (or ever) in 2016 are persuaded to abstain on the grounds that the betrayal of Brexit is inevitable, though that would obviously risk stoking the far-right and a variety of hate-crimes. To be sure of winning, remain needs to present a positive story for the EU. That could be a centrist narrative that emphasises the real sovereignty that we actually enjoy as members and the benefits of our hybrid relationship (in the EU but out of the eurozone), but this would be a difficult case to make against decades of propaganda and the fear that ever closer union would be irresistible. The left's case is well-meaning and principled, e.g. in advocating both the free movement of people and Europe-wide employment and social rights, but it is unpersuasive about the future trajectory of the EU and the potential for reform, and ignores that the leavers it needs to win over are no keener on social democracy than they are on EU membership.

Arguably, a more convincing story might be one that recognises the necessity and value of pooled sovereignty. Presenting the EU as a bulwark against domestic socialism, and also advocating the benefits of a common European military in the face of Russia's "threat", might stand a better chance of swinging the pivotal middle-class voters who helped get leave over the line in the Home Counties and the Midlands. The mistake that "project fear" made was in assuming that people's chief worry was economic disruption, an error that arose from the Tories' emphasis on the risk of fiscal ruin in 2010 and which was compounded by the apparently pivotal role that the possible loss of sterling had on the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. In fact, the real fear is not the devaluation of the pound or recession but the threat to property rights, while if the gammon interlude of 2017 told us anything it was that the fundamental existential anxiety of national security remains a vote-winner among conservatives. Remain lost in 2016 because it was too centrist. It needed to win on the right. That the remain camp remains fragmented between left, centre and right, and without a positive narrative that can unite them, suggests it is in no better position to win another vote today.

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