The forward march of Remain? It still hasn't got out of the starting blocks

Remainers need to focus efforts on Tory and Labour MPs with marginal seats, but they're too distracted by painting apocalyptic pictures.

Mark Perryman
22 October 2018

Image: Chuka Umunna films Anna Soubry at the Peoples Vote March, 20/10/18. Credit: Yui Mok/PA Images, all rights reserved.

“The remain campaign, from its passion-free name and its inherent self-righteousness, is the worst campaign I have seen in my lifetime” – Suzanne Moore

Suzanne is brutally correct.

I voted ‘Remain’. But sheer bloody uselessness of both the original campaign and now the doomed ‘People’s Vote’ / second referendum, needs accounting for, and then some. Forward march? Remain never even got out of the starting blocks – not for the Referendum, and despite their big march, not now either.

Back in 2016 “Labour says R-E-M-A-I-N” said it all. The campaign started off bad, got worse and has never recovered. It is not the job of Labour to ever be in the business of remain, don’t change, everything’s fine as it is. Leave that to the Tories, that’s their niche appeal (the clue is in the name; Conservative).

Corbyn’s “remain but reform” stance during the referendum campaign was quite right. It could have chimed with millions, most of whom wouldn’t drape themselves in an EU flag in a million years. But – besieged by opposition from his own MPs and the party bureaucracy – Corbyn left the Labour Remain campaign in the clutches of Alan Johnson. Alan writes half-decent memoirs but in the crucial capacity of leading Labour’s Referendum campaign he was a spectacular flop (even his own constituency voted Leave by a large majority). Corbyn should have grabbed control of the campaign and steered it in the direction he was following himself, but he wasn’t in a powerful enough position to do so. The caution killed dead Labour’s chance of swinging a large part of its working class Eurosceptic vote. The PLP ‘chicken coup’ of the summer of 2016 then justified itself mainly by the make-believe idea that Remain losing was all down to Jeremy. Seeing off ultra-Remainer Owen Smith in the second leadership challenge and doing better than expected in the 2017 General Election strengthened Corbyn – but too late to save that vote for Europe.

However, the post Remain campaign wasn’t buying any of this. Forget Labour’s existential problem of having both large numbers of Leave-voting constituencies and large numbers of Remain ones. Forget that in a people’s vote, they’d lost. Their solution? Let’s have another one.

If such a venture was to be secured, or at the very least to soften the worst excesses of a Tory Brexit, the Remain camp needed to shift popular opinion. In this they have singularly failed. And yet they plough on regardless. The message has stayed the same, the EU treated as an entirely unproblematic institution, a line that convinces no one except the pre-existing adherents.

There’s little sense of the popular meaning of Europe either. A few weeks before the march, came the one occasion that flag achieves any kind of popular purchase in the UK – the Ryder Cup, this time won by Europe. Yet the Remain crowd are entirely disconnected to such opportunities, be they golf or indeed the most Europeanised institution in British society, football. The campaign lacks any kind of popular touch. Choosing to front your eve-of-march message with Messrs Blair, Clegg and Heseltine? Enough said.

Much more credible has been the emergence of pro-remain critical thinking including Anthony Barnett’s superb book The Lure of Greatness and from Compass their ground-breaking report The Causes and Cures of Brexit. Both address the most fundamental error of the post-referendum Remain campaign; their assertion that everybody else apart from them misunderstood what they were voting for. This is absolutely no way to win a political argument. It’s anti-politics writ large, and the polls reveal the dire consequences. The support for Leave remains virtually unchanged.

Of course that 700,000 gathered in London to march from A to B in time-honoured fashion is impressive. And if Will Hutton has finally found ‘a cause worth marching for’, well, good on him too. Don’t let's be curmudgeonly. The extra-parliamentary Left should welcome Will and his co-thinkers to the world of protest politics with open arms. Yet Will has fallen for precisely the same illusion that too many of us have done in the past, looking out over the crowds in Parliament Square at the end of a big march. “When hundreds of thousands give up their time for peaceful protest, they are never wrong.” They may not be wrong, but social change only occurs when a march is connected to a movement rooted in localities, and so far the People’s Voters have failed to construct anything remotely resembling that.

I can reel off plenty of marches I’ve been on over the years: Rock against Racism, CND, Anti-Apartheid, the Poll Tax, Stop the War, for Palestine, against Trump. Some smaller than Saturday’s, some bigger. But protest isn’t simply a numbers game. It’s about turning the campaign from People’s Vote to People’s Power.

Remain has palpably failed ever since the shock of being on the losing side. A failure caused by not creating any sort of extra-parliamentary leverage. They needed to base their campaign in the parliamentary constituencies of Tory MPs holding onto marginal seats. A non-party force pressing home the case that sticking with the government will lose them their seat could have had a substantial impact. Street-by-street, block-by-block, doorstep-by-doorstep.

Saturday proved Remain has the numbers to do this, but to date it hasn’t had either the leadership or the endurance for an effort with none of the glamour of a Saturday afternoon stroll from Park Lane to Parliament Square but one that is a hundred times more effective. And the advantage of our rotten electoral system is that the number of places requiring such an effort are relatively small yet crucial to the parliamentary arithmetic.

The Guardian writer John Harris is optimistic that Saturday was proof that such an effort may yet be possible. John tweeted “It felt like it on the first #PeoplesVoteMarch back in June, but now we know: there's now another mass activist movement, and it makes politics way more complicated / interesting/ unpredictable.” He shares the critical perspective of others that the causes of the vote for Brexit cannot be lightly dismissed, chronicling this case extremely well via his series of short films ‘Anywhere but Westminster’ – so John’s estimate of what is happening should be taken seriously.

I’m not convinced though. The march had all the feeling of one final hurrah of the same social forces that lost in 2016 with none of the lessons learned since. If the turn to localities, as reported, is to happen now, good. But we’ve had two and a bit years since the referendum already. Where’s the kind of ‘mass activist movement’ that was needed for the long haul of shifting a bloc of soft Leave voters, most especially in those key Tory marginals? Missing in inaction, that’s where.

The Remainers’ world view is fuelled almost more than anything else by the bile they like to chuck Labour’s way. Labour has made it clear the party will be seeking to overturn May’s deal. But because Labour is also committed to respecting the result of the referendum virtually anything else it says or does is treated by the Remainers as an act of unforgiveable treachery.

But as any final vote approaches, Labour’s position does deserve some close scrutiny – beyond the usual simple binary of left and right. Of particular interest are the Labour MPs – often of the right – who whilst not committed leavers, represent Leave-voting constituencies – MPs like Caroline Flint, Gloria del Piero, and Gareth Snell. If their votes are to be lined up against Brexit, Chuka Umunna’s time might be better spent bending the ears of his old friends on the Labour right backbenches, rather than cosying up with his new best friend, Anna Soubry. 

Already Martin Kettle in the Guardian is suggesting , “For more pragmatic Remainers the temptation to back a deal, depending on the softness of its content and the degree of compromise made by May, and which has also been agreed by the EU27, will be a serious option.”

Blinded by their anti-Corbyn rhetoric, the Remain crowd so far have entirely missed this crucial variable. Corbyn and Keir Starmer won't be calling on Labour MPs to vote with the Tories to secure their version of Brexit. But a section of the Liberal commentariat will, in the so-called ‘national interest.’ And there are Labour MPs ready to answer that call.

And this is crucial - because unless and until May’s deal is defeated, there is no conceivable electoral arithmetic for a majority in favour of launching a second referendum.

The danger now, however, is that a fractured Parliamentary Labour Party will defy Corbyn to vote, for a variety of reasons, all of them wrong, with the Tories, replacing the votes of potential Tory rebels to save May.

Will Remain see the urgency of stopping such a scenario? To date they’ve shown little interest in the dilemma of Labour MPs representing leave-voting constituencies. Instead they invest every effort in portraying an ever more extreme version of the socio-economic wasteland of Britain after Brexit. Scare tactics, combined with an idealisation of the EU, has been their retreat from politics: blaming their allies for the actions of their enemies, their blundersome tactic. Sadly, Saturday’s march didn’t change any of that, not one bit.

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