Boris Johnson and Michael Gove looked petrified as they addressed supporters the morning after the Leave vote. What have we done? they must have been thinking to themselves. This was only ever supposed to be about winning the next Tory leadership contest, not the referendum.
As has now become abundantly apparent, those supporting a Leave vote had no plan whatsoever in the event of an actual win. They were political arsonists, throwing a petrol bomb at the political system and walking away whilst it burns.
And burning it is. The leadership of both major parties in Westminster has collapsed at just the time when leadership is most needed. Parliament faces a set of extremely difficult decisions on how to implement Brexit. Fascists have returned to the streets of Britain, engaging in intimidation and violence against non-white British people and immigrants.
How did we end up in this mess? How did the Remain campaign manage to lose a campaign they led for so long? And where do we go from here?
The UK is not accustomed to having referenda. The three we have had over the last five years, on Scottish Independence, the Alternative Vote and EU membership, are relatively rare, and it took many years of campaigning from anti-EU activists to get this referendum held.
Perhaps as a consequence of this, politicians in the UK are relatively inexperienced at running referendum campaigns, and that showed here. The strategy around the calling of the referendum was a mess.
The referendum campaign strategy really started with the Prime Minister going to Brussels to demand a renegotiation of the terms of UK membership of the European Union. The plan was for the UK to win significant concessions that would allow a naturally skeptical British public to endorse continued membership. The logic of this made some sense. The UK public had been bombarded with negative messaging about the EU for decades, and a new deal might have been an opportunity to wipe clean some of the EU’s damaged reputation.
The problem was that David Cameron’s expectations were wildly unrealistic. He set off with a list of demands, such as placing restrictions on the free movement of people within the Union, that were transparently impossible to achieve.
When he came back more or less empty handed no one was fooled by the ‘new deal’ David Cameron had got on a few technical matters. It was a gift to Leave campaigners; the campaign would be on the same EU that politicians (including David Cameron) had been relentlessly attacking for years.
Many of us were frustrated with the flagrant lies told by the Leave campaign over the course of the last few months. However, the reality is that politicians from both major political parties have lied to the public about the EU for the last 30 years.
For a cowardly government minister it is much easier to go to Brussels, take a decision behind closed doors, and tell voters that they were made to do something by ‘Brussels Bureaucrats’ or ‘Europe’, rather than doing the hard work of explaining the policy choices they had made with their European colleagues.
Even when the dangers of continuing the lie should have been obvious, ministers could not kick the habit. Last year, as thousands of steel workers in the North East faced losing their jobs, Anna Souberry and Sanjid Javid, two government ministers, travelled to Redcar to meet with workers. They told them there was nothing they could do to save their industry, and that EU rules prevented them from intervening. It was a lie.
For years their government had been blocking attempts by Brussels bureaucrats to stop the flood of cheap, state-subsidised Chinese steel entering the European Market, the very thing that was killing the steel industry. Far from being powerless, the UK government were demonstrating the control they had over the Brussels machine, by vetoing a rise in steel tariffs and in doing so making the decision to destroy the European steel industry in order to keep good relations with the Chinese. In the end, Redcar voted 66% for leave, with Port Talbot 57% for leave.
The decades-long mistruths told about the EU were irresponsible but they were also undemocratic. They hindered the ability of voters to make a clear and true decision about their own future. This contempt for the democratic process from our political elite is just part of a political culture born of not living in a democracy. In the UK our laws are made by a Parliament, the majority of which is unelected. Our Head of State, the Queen, is unelected. The Prime Minister is not directly elected but selected by his party. He and his cabinet have no influence over the selection of top officials in their departments. All we, the public, can do is vote for our local representative, and most of us don’t get the person we voted for.
It is not government of the people by the people, but rather by a small elite most of whom were educated at one of two universities and who come from wildly different backgrounds to the rest of us. They are born to rule and need not bother themselves with engaging with the wider public.
All of this leads to a general perception that elections really don’t matter. All we really get is a choice between a government made up of one set of Oxbridge-educated elites or another, implementing a similar set of policies. Elections simply become a public vote of confidence in the competence of the government.
The referendum was no different; many people saw it as a vote of confidence in not just a government but in the entire political and economic elite. It was held at a time when those elites had fundamentally failed to provide the public with a better standard of living and were mired in scandal. From phone hacking to MPs’ expenses, Hillsborough, the financial crisis and foreign exchange fixing, the last few years have not shown those in positions of power to be acting in our best interests, and the public was ready to give them an almighty kicking. Unfortunately many people forgot that that kicking had real consequences, leading to farcical interviews in the days after the result with rueful Leave voters publicly regretting their mistake.
Although politicians backing Remain started from a position of weakness, the referendum was not a lost cause. Polling consistently showed that the majority of people wanted to remain within the European Union for a period of two years before the referendum campaign began.
Strategically the long standing lead in the polls was a handicap for the In campaign, which pursued a defensive strategy. What the public needed was a clear explanation of the benefits of the EU beyond the raw economic figures. The fact that far from losing control, the EU empowers nation states to shape their destiny and protect their citizens from the forces of globalisation. These arguments were of course made, but they were not at the centre of the campaign. Instead the focus appeared to be on suppressing the Leave vote by making them nervous about the economy. Early on in the referendum campaign, a senior employee of Britain Stronger In told me that there was no time to change the public’s perception of the EU, they just had to make people too scared to leave it.
The strategy was like pouring cold water on grease fire. By appointing a business leader to lead the campaign, and spending so much time talking about why it was so important we did what extremely highly-paid businessmen wanted, they reinforced the view that the pro-European elites simply don’t understand the needs of many people in our country.
After Sir Stuart Rose was quietly dropped, the campaign paraded a series of well educated, highly privileged and highly paid experts to tell the public that they needed to vote Remain because if they were clever they would understand it was in their own best interests. After years of suffering government cuts, industrial decline, high living costs and low wages the public were tired of being told what was good for them and instead were looking for people to blame.
All this could have been rescued to some extent by a strong Labour party. Of all the lies and deceptions of vote Leave, the idea the libertarian fringes of British politics had suddenly become converted to large scale spending on public services and the protection of workers’ rights was a particularly incredible fantasy.
The political history and agenda of the Leavers was transparent. A low-tax economy with low levels of public spending, fuelled by labour cheapened by the removal of workplace standards and at the expense of a natural environment. Yes, perhaps there will be few immigrants competing for jobs, but those jobs aren’t likely to get any better. On the political battlefield of the referendum it was frankly Labour’s job to attack this dismal future as hard as possible, but they were found wanting.
After a very difficult few months, the referendum should have been a godsend for the Labour party. An opportunity to re-unite and re-energise the party by campaigning together against this very clear threat to their members’ interests, on an issue that almost the entire Labour movement agreed on.
Instead the party ended the referendum campaign more divided than ever, with the mess in which the party currently finds itself frankly an embarrassment to watch. Rather than be re-energised, the bitter in-fighting that has swamped Labour is making it squander a golden opportunity to take advantage of the chaos now engulfing the Tories.
Why was Labour’s campaign so bad? The issue was one of leadership. Not in terms of personality but in skills. Jeremy Corbyn is no doubt a man of principle who can connect with many Labour members. At a time when there was a general feeling that the party had lost its way, electing a candidate like Corbyn, who understood the soul of the Labour movement, was important for Labour members. But the referendum campaign showed that Corbyn had little interest in engaging with or leading the wider public. He was barely heard from in the national media, preferring instead to tour the country speaking to his own supporters. It is difficult to imagine how he thinks he will win an election, which may come this year, with this approach.
Sadly for the Labour party, their internal battles are being defined as a choice between a politically vacuous leader that can win, or a principled leader that can’t. It isn’t a choice; there is no reason why a left wing leader with strong values couldn’t win an election, it just isn’t going to be Jeremy.
So what now? The first issue is to discover what Leave actually means. The Leave campaign at no point actually put forward an alternative model for the UK’s relationship with Europe. What did those who voted Leave actually vote for? Did they vote to leave the common market or to stay? Did they vote for the UK to become more like Albania or more like Norway? Do we join the European Free Trade Association and submit British judges to rulings of the EFTA court? The irony of the situation we find ourselves in is that there is most likely no majority for whichever Leave option is taken.
And apart from our economic relationships with Europe, leaving the European Union means detaching ourselves from a whole host of international agreements on the environment, workers’ rights, foreign policy and so on.
In short, the entire political direction of the country is now up for grabs, and it is difficult to see how we can move forward without a new general election. It is time for the public to decide what kind of country they want to live in, not just whether they want that country to be part of a European Union. That choice can only be made though the election of a new parliament, preferably on a more democratic basis.
And that is why all of us who campaigned for an open, internationalist Britain that is built on European values of social democracy and human rights, that is tolerant, co-operates with its neighbours and is governed by the rule of law, cannot abandon the political battlefield. There is still so much to fight for.