The ter­rain has shifted, but we can’t fight the same bat­tle

The cam­paign for a Peo­ple’s Vote has been trans­formed by the Labour Party, says ZOE WIL­LIAMS. But now we need to start mak­ing a new Re­main case

The New European - - Agenda -

Some­thing re­mark­able hap­pened at the Labour con­fer­ence: it’s not de rigueur to go on about it, when all eyes have moved to the chaos car­ni­val the Con­ser­va­tives put on af­ter­wards, but it is too un­usual to pass over.

As it opened, the lead­er­ship had a stated po­si­tion on Brexit. They would re­spect the ref­er­en­dum re­sult. They would not re­spond to chants of “Where’s Jeremy Cor­byn?” on demon­stra­tions peo­pled by marchers who’d brought winechillers with them (I don’t know why Chablis should be the death knell for rad­i­cal­ism, but some­how it is).

They would not be shamed by peo­ple won­der­ing where they were, as the govern­ment un­rav­elled (“Never in­ter­rupt your en­emy while he’s mak­ing a mis­take,” Barry Gar­diner in­toned sagely. But to put that an­other way, “never in­ter­rupt a govern­ment un­less they’re bril­liant”. What’s an hon­est op­po­si­tion sup­posed to do on those terms? Play golf ?). Labour were as they were, and com­men­ta­tors vied to see who could speak with most au­thor­ity on the Ben­nite tra­di­tion of left­ist eu­roscep­ti­cism, as though we could all be anaes­thetised against the com­ing pain if we could only find the most acute his­tor­i­cal overview.

That is, unar­guably, how it would have stayed, but for the mem­bers. Too much has been made of the Leave vote in Labour heart­lands, which is steadily shift­ing any­way, and even where it isn’t, Brexit is los­ing saliency.

The party mem­bers are vigorously Re­main: 86% sup­port a sec­ond vote. 90% of them would vote to stay in the EU if they could. Labour mem­bers didn’t get the memo about anger in Hull be­ing more im­por­tant than jobs in Hull. They didn’t buy the EU as the cause of hard­ship that was more log­i­cally traced back to aus­ter­ity. They could see its flaws, but they still ap­plauded its roots in an­tifas­cism and po­ten­tial for transna­tional co­op­er­a­tion. They didn’t lie awake at night wor­ry­ing about free move­ment; they liked free­dom, too. As the po­lit­i­cal no­tion of what was rea­son­able set­tled around Brexit: a heady com­bi­na­tion, pos­si­ble nei­ther to ex­e­cute nor to avoid, Labour mem­bers just weren’t bit­ing.

This wouldn’t mat­ter in the Con­ser­va­tive party, where the party faith­ful are just there to pro­vide meat in the room, their tem­per­a­ture taken by how loudly they bay. It wouldn’t have mat­tered in the pre-cor­byn Labour party, when a com­mit­ment to ever deeper democ­racy hadn’t been made. To Cor­byn’s Labour, the mem­bers mat­tered: not rhetor­i­cally, but lit­er­ally.

Over the course of five days, fol­low­ing a painstak­ing com­pos­ite of 150 con­stituency Labour party (CLP) mo­tions, the party’s po­si­tion changed to a gen­eral elec­tion, ideally (what op­po­si­tion doesn’t want a gen­eral elec­tion?) and, fail­ing that, a Peo­ple’s Vote, in which no­body was rul­ing out the op­tion of Re­main. Keir Starmer said this, out loud, on con­fer­ence floor, to a stand­ing ova­tion, and the party po­si­tion is now dif­fer­ent.

I have heard some pretty non­sen­si­cal ar­gu­ments, now, for the fact that noth­ing has changed; a com­pos­ite mo­tion to na­tion­alise the rail­ways was put for­ward in 2004, over­turn­ing Blair’s pref­er­ence. The dif­fer­ence then is that it was ig­nored. Oth­ers say that Starmer’s word is not bind­ing, and of course, it isn’t in the sense that there’s any leg­isla­tive ar­chi­tec­ture around it. It could be aban­doned by de­cree. Yet it emerged from demo­cratic con­sen­sus, and was agreed upon; so to stray from it would re­quire an as­ser­tion larger even than any state­ment on Brexit, that noth­ing and no­body in the party mat­tered as much as the leader.

Many call it a fudge, as though putting a sec­ond vote on the ta­ble were the same as not to, and rul­ing in Re­main were the same as hav­ing no stance. This is com­fort­able, but wrong. I can find no mo­tive for the de­ter­mined in­sis­tence that noth­ing has hap­pened, but that some peo­ple are so in love with the prin­ci­ple of lead­er­ship that they would rather cleave to the idea of in­ex­orable dis­as­ter than wit­ness anyone try to ar­rest it from be­low.

This changes ev­ery­thing: it has changed the party, but also the sense of what’s pos­si­ble among ac­tivists. The cam­paign group An­other Europe is Pos­si­ble (full dis­clo­sure, I do their pod­cast) co­or­di­nated many of the mo­tions from con­stituency Labour par­ties; Re­main Labour mus­tered oth­ers. All th­ese cam­paigns are en­ter­ing a new gear, to cam­paign for Re­main in a

Peo­ple’s Vote that seems more and more likely.

The ter­rain has been re­made for Tory Re­main­ers, some of whom ex­plic­itly ad­mit as much. Three days af­ter the Labour con­fer­ence, their most full­blooded Re­mainer, Do­minic Grieve, called for a sec­ond vote, writ­ing in the Tele­graph: “The fact that this view is now shared by most of the par­lia­men­tary Labour Party and al­most all the other op­po­si­tion par­ties, demon­strates that the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a con­sen­sus on process is avail­able that can lead to a far less di­vi­sive out­come than the one that threat­ens to en­gulf us.” The sec­ond vote is more than just a floated pos­si­bil­ity on one side of an un­bridge­able par­ty­po­lit­i­cal di­vide: the new sense of po­ten­tial is con­ta­gious. Ev­ery­body is em­bold­ened.

What will the forth­com­ing case for Re­main look like? Most peo­ple are agreed that it can­not look like the last one. An ar­gu­ment based on ex­pense, on the strength of the pound, on the value of fu­ture trade deals, on ad­min­is­tra­tive de­tail, would come off as “that thing you want? You can’t have it. We can’t af­ford it.” While pre­pared to be cor­rected, I’ve never known that as a vote-win­ner. Ar­gu­ing with a Left-brex­iter (we call them Lex­iters; or, for brevity, “what on earth are you think­ing? This is a far-right project”), she said, “I don’t see how you’re go­ing to win. I don’t see what’s changed in the coun­try, ex­cept that some Leavers have died and some Re­main­ers have got the vote. What’s your slogan go­ing to be? ‘Are you dead yet?’” And I can see, too, why I’ve never seen that on a poster.

As time passes since 2016, even as the jeop­ardy ratch­ets up and the sheer in­com­pe­tence be­comes in­tol­er­a­ble, I am also glad of the re­sult: it forced con­ver­sa­tions that we should have been hav­ing any­way. Why are the north and the south di­vided? What has aus­ter­ity done to the coun­try, along with stag­nant wages, the hous­ing cri­sis, the con­cen­tra­tion of land own­er­ship in the hands of a few? Why did ar­eas who ben­e­fited most from EU fund­ing vote so strongly against the EU, why do ar­eas where im­mi­gra­tion is low­est mind most about im­mi­gra­tion? What can the me­dia do and what can it not do? What are the elec­toral im­pli­ca­tions of for­eign in­ter­fer­ence, of big money mov­ing in mys­te­ri­ous ways? All th­ese are ur­gent, yet pre­vi­ously were treated as niche ar­eas for char­ity work­ers to dis­cuss. If the past decade has shown us any­thing, it’s that th­ese ques­tions can only be fielded from the left; ro­bustly an­swered, Brexit will be­come an ir­rel­e­vance.

And a pos­i­tive case must be made for the EU, which will cen­tre on four things: Its roots as a bul­wark against fas­cism, which we once again need; its po­ten­tial for re­form, away from tech­noc­racy, to­wards a deeper, transna­tional democ­racy; its record al­ready in fight­ing our most ur­gent foe, cli­mate change; and the im­por­tance of or­gan­is­ing so­cially across bor­ders, in an age when cor­po­rate mo­bil­ity is near in­fi­nite.

Grass­roots ac­tivism has cre­ated the con­di­tions in which this case can be made: now we just have to make it.

Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/getty Im­ages

DE­FI­ANCE: Demon­stra­tors on the March For The Many on Septem­ber 23

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.