Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg speaking outside the House of Parliament in London, November 15, 2018. Stefan Rousseau/Press Association. All rights reserved.
Over the last few weeks Britain has found itself in a high stakes political drama. Political intrigue, threats and plots have become the watchwords of Westminster as small clusters of MPs scheme in the narrow corridors of power.
The Conservative European Research Group set the pulses of political commentators alight with Jacob Rees-Mogg appearing before an impromptu press conference last week in scenes reminiscent of Mnangagwu’s Zimbabwean ‘not-a-coup’. Meanwhile, millions of working people have watched on in despair – knowing full well that despite the lofty rhetoric of our political class, they remain as out of touch as they were at the time of the Brexit vote.
Stepping into this breach are the calls for a ‘People’s Vote’. Rejecting the Dad’s Army pantomime of the ERG, People’s Vote campaigners have laid claim to being the true voice of the British people speaking in the national interest. With an energetic dynamism over 600,000 of them marched earlier this month making their case for a re-run of the referendum and joining it with an appeal to progressive values. A cross-party collection of politicians, celebrities and business people bemoaned the injustice of young people’s futures being decided by an older electorate who would not have to experience the deprivations of the world they hanker after nostalgically. A world which these remainers argue will also completely erase the rights of EU migrants and imperil British Industry.
But these campaigners may have more in common with the older leave voter than they think. There is no ‘Back to the Future’ option to reset the political clock to June 23, 2016. And the dichotomy they offer is a false one; there is neither a simple dystopia outside of the EU or a simple utopia if we remain within it. One of the central criticisms advanced by Remainers of the first referendum, the lack of a positive narrative about the EU, remains largely unaddressed over two years later. So the best another Remain Campaign can offer is ‘business as usual’, despite this being the very same business that led to the rejection of the European Union in 2016. And while the 2016 referendum result, they could argue, was a case of ignorance, this time around their campaign would clearly show an insensitivity to the views of millions of people that could only serve to further deepen the divisions brought to light by the first people’s vote.
Remain and reform?
Here Remainers would point to a keener focus on the ‘reform’ aspect of a ‘Remain and Reform’ campaign as something that will distinguish a second campaign from the failures of the first. However, this choice of tactic bumps straight into another of the central criticisms – one often levelled by People’s Vote advocates themselves – of the first referendum. That the binary answers the 2016 referendum offered were unable to capture the complexity of the question it asked.
Nobody would argue for an unchanged relationship with the EU but what they would want to change is dependent on what political camp they fall into. Trade unionists and those on the left might well want a relaxation of restrictions on EU Rules on State Aid to allow for a proper Industrial Strategy. But this would be anathema to Tory Remainers like Ken Clarke who introduced the ‘internal market’ to the NHS.
Those in Brexiteer heartlands would want some restrictions on free movement. But this would be opposed by the liberal metropolitan core of the Remain campaign. And then there are the little matters of sovereignty, and the ECJ’s jurisdiction, Pandora’s Boxes all on their own. With such competing impulses for reform it would be impossible to identify the collective intention of millions of individual voters, each with their own preferences.
Neither would a People’s Vote really protect migrant rights. While May’s reciprocal agreement on a ‘right to stay’ challenges the myth of EU migrants being left without any rights whatsoever even in the worst case scenario of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, the alternative outcomes don’t properly protect them either. As most commentators predict, there would be a significant backlash by Leave voters in the case of a People’s Vote deciding in favour of remain. This backlash would directly target ethnic minorities as a whole as we saw in the aftermath of the first referendum.
Outside of the immediate implications to the physical safety of the UK’s minority communities, the longer-term political repercussions could also be damaging. As seen in the last eight years, the Conservative Party has steadily moved to the right under the challenge of right-wing populism in order to prevent an electoral attack on its right flank. The result of this has been that even while Britain was in the EU, this didn’t stop the Conservatives harming migrant rights by imposing restrictions on the right of EU nationals to claim benefits or imposing unfair restrictions on spousal visas for non-EU migrants.
Perhaps more acutely, the route offered by People’s Vote proponents would do little to change the causes of the first referendum. Despite acknowledging the failure of neoliberalism as the rising tide that has lifted all the boats in England’s left behind towns, its proponents have paid scant regard to it in their response to the 2016 vote itself.
In so doing, they have only advanced superficial solutions, dealing with the referendum reductively in terms of our formal relationship to the EU as an institution. This is symptomatic of the same wider alienation across the developed world where modern democratic institutions fail to resonate with the real lives of those that they were created to represent. Labour MPs in Leave-voting constituencies are right to warn of a backlash from the party’s heartlands for this very reason: that while it purports to be a solution it is actually a part of the very problem it tries to solve.
What people expect from political systems is that they are able to solve their problems. Failing to meet this expectation is a gift to a rising tide of right-wing populism.
Polling deadlock and systemic change
As a response to this, some MPs have advocated the idea of a ‘Globalisation Fund’ to deal with the economic roots of Brexit. This is not new. It is a rehashing of Gordon Brown’s Migrant Impacts Fund scrapped by the Tories in 2010 and brought back as the rebranded Controlling Migration Fund in 2016.
Neither has been able to deal with the economic alienation it seeks to address as the 2016 vote showed and the deadlock in polls on the result of a second referendum have since proven. Some may argue that the dramatic increase in funding – from £100 million to £4.7 billion – must serve as the game changer in this second round. This ‘new deal’ to spend on housing, schools and hospitals however fails to account for the vast sums of money really needed to truly regenerate left-behind communities. The Health Foundation think tank estimates that day-to-day running costs in the NHS alone will rise by nearly £4 billion next year.
It also pales in comparison to the actual ‘New Deal’ demanded by the Trades Union Congress which would directly tackle the failed economic consensus behind Brexit. This goes to the heart of the issue in the first Brexit referendum – a social divide between those who think the system can simply be managed better and those that want to change the system itself.
A change which is impossible if the Tory Party remains in power to see Brexit to its conclusion, regardless if it’s a Tory Hard Brexit, a Tory Renegotiation or a Tory Remain. Industries most vulnerable to a hard Brexit would simply revert back to the world of managed decline before the 2016 vote.
In the automotive sector, a botched Brexit isn’t the only problem faced by companies failed by the absence of any industrial strategy. The refusal of the government to take a more flexible approach to the implementation of diesel taxes has been one example of it being at loggerheads with industry. The liberal economics of People’s Vote proponents like Ken Clarke who disavow state intervention in the economy would only mean that we continue eroding our manufacturing base. We would continue to fail to properly invest in the skills and infrastructure necessary to remain competitive in the high-skilled, advanced manufacturing future embraced by Germany and Japan.
The alternative is a different government, a Labour government that could pursue a real industrial strategy and replace the failed economic consensus rejected by the 2016 with a new, radical agenda. Alternatives like Labour’s promise to spent £500bn on infrastructure to bring the UK into the twenty-first century and to make us a workshop of the world again. A workshop with Regional Investment Banks that could tackle the skills gap holding us back and a Manifesto for Labour Law that would empower trade unions to take back control – of the wealth working people create.
Caroline Lucas has called out a Tory Brexit as a ‘project of the right, by the right, for the right’. But a People’s Vote with a Tory Government in occupation would also be a People’s Vote of the right, by the right, and for the right.