Could Anti-Brexit Be The New Politics?

Political analysis has long been unpredictable, but as Tory Brexiteers are reaching new heights of lunacy with talk of unseating Theresa May, reading tea leaves might make more sense. Who will be PM by the time we get to All Fools Day? The Tory Brexxies want to oust her for carrying out Brexit, but the wrong kind of Brexit. On 29th January the Daily Express confirmed the lunatics have taken over the Tory asylum with the  classic headline BATTLE TO SAVE A FULL BREXIT which means walking over the edge into a No Deal Scenario. 

As an indication of the temperature of the Tory hot plate, the Daily Telegraph same date has a phone conversation between Ben Bradley MP, Tory Vice Chair, saying “Getting some s…t from the usual suspects about Sell Out and Traitors” with Claire Perry, Minister for Energy reviving the old Cameron description of their opponent as “the swivel eyed few” who apparently are “mostly elderly retired men who do not have mortgages, school aged children or caring responsibilities”. The Tory split is not about Brexit  but over attempting to  sugar the pill so the worst disasters happen after Hammond and May have quit.

Given that Brexit is now policy for whoever is in Number 10 from whichever main party can cobble together a majority in parliament, the Brexiteers have won but fear they will lose their fantasy of an instant cost free divorce. And they may launch a civil war in the Tory Party to get one of their own in charge. This makes for sensational headlines, but it diverts  media attention away from the big issue, which is why the Anti Brexiteers are doing badly and cannot get their act together. 

The most recent poll asking how people would vote in another referendum (always referred to as a second, the 1975 referendum is totally forgotten) UK Polling Report said (27th January) that ICM found 45% Remain, 43% Leave, pretty much the figures over the last year. Britain4Europe found that most people thought the decision had been made — by the referendum — and the issue was closed. ICM found only 47% favoured another Referendum. Given the attempts by the Remain campaign since June 2016 have been extensive, this confirms that the Remain campaign has not changed the landscape. Hugo Dixon of Common Good argued last November that 60% had to show against Brexit for it to go down, and this is not happening.

The Limits to Opposition 

The main strategy of Remain organisations is focussed on parliament and the so-called ‘Meaningful’ vote on negotiations due in the autumn (or later) which will challenge Labour’s ability to sit in the fence — but there is no opinion poll data yet on how this plays with the voters, though it is clear that Labour has gained in the short term from its ambiguity, and surely would have lost the Stoke Central by election had it not supported Brexit and Article 50.  Christian Wolmar argued exactly a year ago on this site, that MPs should have defied the whip and voted against Article 50. In retrospect this was correct in principle, but would have allowed UKIP to take Stoke Central, which saw a large UKIP effort to paint Labour as anti-Brexit fail. Labour’s front bench got the tactics right though in the autumn it will have to vote or against a Tory position — possibly devised by swivel eyed loons — and the risks of a Labour split are growing. 

Labour  will have to look again at its 2016 conference policy of a referendum on Brexit, though this is not a panacea as it is not popular, even with Remain voters, and the Lib Dems have gained nothing from being defeated in both Houses when calling for another Referendum.  Lord Ashcroft alone seems to have polled on the Referendum issue, and his results are not encouraging. Only on the one issue of voting for the government policy of accepting the deal or leaving without a deal vote is any modest support for a vote. This option got 39% supporting a vote, 31% opposing and 30% Don’t Know. The voters were against a vote on all other options, with even Remainers not wanting a further referendum. And a vote on the government position would accept that Britain will leave with only the terms up for grabs. The majority of the population is clearly against another referendum. So why has the situation been so unfavourable to anti-Brexiteers?

Understanding Progressive Weakness

An excellent way into this issue was the Guardian article by Nicky Hawkins on 23rd January WE NEED A REALITY CHECK. Progressives were “Struggling to make sense of a world that was unthinkable just a couple of years ago….Progressive campaigning efforts largely haven’t worked, and are still not working. Since the EU referendum, little has changed in the tone and tenor of the public conversation on Brexit….” This is obviously true. Apart from the little understood Corbyn surge, what has happened in Britain and America has been the triumph of the populist right, and on Brexit the failure to make any inroads has been marked. 

Further, some in the Remain camp have clung to the idea of Bregret – the wishful thinking that hordes of remorseful leave voters would quickly change their minds. In reality, there’s no evidence that leave voters regret their decision: in fact recent polls suggest they stand by their vote even as they become more pessimistic about Brexit’s impact on Britain”. The ICM poll actually suggested some movement between Remain and Leave – in both directions – but that “A very small lead for Remain….(is) down to people who did not vote in 2016 disproportionately claiming they would vote Remain…” but the figures are tiny and are not weighted or filtered by the likelihood to vote. 

More to the point, “To stand a chance at winning over voters, progressives need to be able to answer the question of why something really matters… You can’t argue against an emotion with numbers – you  have to weave the facts into  a different and more appealing story than your rivals”. This is the heart of the issues, and not just a problem for the number crunchers who tried to combat the big red bus with hard evidence. Slippage over the money for the NHS have been monumental – Brexiteers are now down to £100m per week not £350m, if not arguing the money can be found by cutting overseas aid. Its not the facts that mattered, it was the emotional link between Brexit and the crisis in the hospitals. Brexiteers  grasped that a solution to a crisis was needed, and the progressives lacked a costed answer.

The article suggests postive campaigning, suggesting “activists in the US, the UK and Ireland won the campaign for equal marriage by framing it in terms of love, commitment and family – values that speak to conservatives – rather than the language of human rights. They didn’t seek to shout people down or fact check their beliefs”. There is a lesson here for Corbyn’s victories over the critics in the PLP who delivered him two party majorities – and the basis for a successful election campaign. Democracy was his calling card, and he used it well. Compared to Gordon Brown, who never stood for a leadership election, Corbyn won fair and square and carried the mantel of democratic support. So does Brexit. There is no choice but to win a referendum. Democracy is popular, and the 2016 vote was seen as democratic.

The broad point made by the article is that “The first step is understanding where people are coming from: lots of analysis to work out what’s really going on when someone answers yes or no on a ballot paper”. Very much the task, and for the Labour Party’s internal politics clearly vital to understand that the  Corbynista victories are not clear victories for the Hard Left, but they certainly mean no support for the Hard Right. Blairites please take note. Your day is over. Members vote against your candidates in every internal election, so move on.

On the main political front of Brexit, the progressive failure is profound, with  no sign eighteen months since the 2016 vote that  the divided and ineffective anti-Brexit movement can get to 60% plus of voters wanting to challenge the 2016 result. Less arrogance is needed by those who lost in 2016, and immediately an attempt to work with voters’ perceptions. For example, with the Swivel Eyed Loons on the march, the option pursued by Theresa May in attempting a soft Brexit may go belly up. But there may well be value in exploiting her weakness in appeasing the Loons by questioning how far she has  concealed  material evidence to keep them happy. For example, on Article 50. Why does she not reveal the law officer’s advice on whether it can be reversed? Sow doubt, legitimately, and the seeds may germinate in the mind of soft leave voters that they have not been given all the information. Which is what progressives tried to do over the Big Red Bus, and failed. 

Nicky Hawkins is right that labouring over facts and figures does not persuade the unconverted. We might learn from the old Maoist opera and Take Tiger Mountain by Strategy. Why not?

Trevor Fisher

February 2018



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