Nick Cohen

How the ‘people’s vote’ campaign gained momentum

How the 'people's vote' campaign gained momentum
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A year ago, campaigners for a ‘people’s vote’ seemed an eccentric bunch of no hopers and bad losers. Mocked as ‘remoaners’, their arguments barely covered by the media, history had left them behind. As the leave campaigns’ central claim that we could have the benefits of EU membership while leaving the EU is revealed for the absurdity it always was, the ‘people’s vote’ has gathered mass support and moved from the fringes to the mainstream with heartening speed. One mark of the campaign’s success is that even its critics acknowledge that a ‘peoples vote’ is a viable solution to the constitutional, economic and diplomatic crisis that engulfs us. A second is that their deliberately loaded phrase ‘people’s vote’ has caught on to the despair of editors who vainly instruct reporters to find neutral alternatives. Here, with only a few comments from me, is how leading figures in the 'people’s vote' campaign believe they will carry their momentum forward and secure a second referendum.

Their first assumption will not be controversial: Theresa May’s deal is terrible. But, then, what did you expect? Liam Fox’s ‘one of the easiest (deals) in human history’? An extra-large helping of Johnsonian cake?

The rejection of  May's plan by the DUP and the apparently solid opposition of  hardcore Tory leavers and remainers means the PM needs Labour votes to get it through. Yet the three Labour factions that might vote for her Brexit look as if they will refuse to help.

If they were being honest with the public, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and their sympathisers would support May. Almost alone among the communist and post-communist movements of Europe, the British far left is anti-EU. Andrew Murray, Corbyn’s adviser, who was, until two years ago, a member of the Communist Party of Britain, is reportedly urging him to back May. His stance makes sense, for his former party rejects in the authentically militaristic language of Stalinism, the 'anti-democratic ruling class counter-offensive' to sabotage the referendum result.

The ‘people’s vote’ campaign assumes that not even Corbyn and McDonnell would dare save a Tory prime minister in the name of a ‘jobs-first’ Brexit that they have never attempted to explain to Labour members, for the fundamental reason that a left-wing job-creating Brexit is an impossibility.

Kate Hoey and Labour’s handful of other hard Brexit supporters look as if they will vote with the DUP and Tory right, while northern Labour MPs in leave constituencies have become markedly less eager to talk about backing Brexit as the Labour vote in their constituencies has become markedly more remain.

Maybe Tory right-wingers can convince themselves that the fantasy of a high-tech solution to a hard border in Ireland will spare them the need to revolt. They believe in so many other fantasies, one more would not hurt. But as it stands, May’s deal will fail to pass the Commons. Then what? The government’s position would shock a nation that was not already beyond bewilderment. It expects the markets to panic, as they panicked when Congress first rejected George W. Bush’s bank bailout in 2008. Just as Bush went back to a chastened Congress, which duly passed the measure, so May will see a chastened Commons adopt her plan. As one senior figure in the ‘people’s vote’ campaign said, his voice rising with incredulity:

‘A conservative government, A CONSERVATIVE GOVERNMENT, wants the markets to crash so it can push forward a policy it knows is against the national interest.’

It may not work. The crash of 2008 dominates our imaginations because it was the worst since 1929, maybe the worst ever. So powerful are our memories of it, we forget that most financial crises are piddling in comparison. The pound has already fallen since the Brexit vote. It’s hard to second-guess markets but it is not fanciful to think that the rejection of May’s deal will not produce the apocalypse she needs to frighten MPs into line. In any case, if her plan is comprehensively defeated on the first vote, it could be dead beyond hope of resurrection in a second vote or referendum.

Labour wants a general election. But, even if it gets one, an election would not answer the EU question, if Labour keeps its Brexit policy as vague and mendacious as it now is. We could just crash out on 29 March, but a majority of MPs say they will stop that. The EU will not accept the various Canadian-style deals offered by the Tory right to their limitlessly gullible supporters because they necessitate a hard border in Ireland. Michael Gove and Nick Boles’ claim that we can go off into the European Economic Area until we work out what to do, fails because the EU would not allow it as an interim measure, and the Tory and Labour parties would not accept permanent free movement as a permanent solution.

Which leaves the 'people’s vote'. Unless May supports it as a way out of the deadlock – a hard decision to imagine her taking, but these days, who knows? – its promoters must have the support of the Labour leadership. The campaign believes that a second referendum cannot pass Parliament without the support of one of the major parties. They expect Keir Starmer’s gradualist tactic of nudging the leadership towards a second referendum will pay off by Christmas.

There are three reasons to think the far left will back down.

  • The overwhelming majority of Labour supporters and members from left and right of the party want a second referendum:
  • Posing as the cavalry, riding in at the last minute to save the day, will appeal to Corbyn’s vast vanity.
  • Arron Banks, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and David Davis represent everything the Labour movement opposes.
  • Brexit was a right-wing policy conceived by, fashioned by and implemented by the right. Can Labour's ‘left-wing’ leaders get away with supporting it? They might think they can. Centre-left votes in England are not switching to the Greens or Liberal Democrats in significant numbers. There is no challenge to the leadership inside the party. Meanwhile the promised new centre party makes Godot look a model of punctuality. Don’t forget either that Labour’s leaders live in a bubble and do not listen to outsiders. They have the deep, solid complacency of ignorant men, who think that never changing your mind is something to be proud of.

    Set against that Corbyn, 69, and McDonnell, 67, are also ignorant, old men. If they want to hand over control of their party to their protégés, they must glimpse, however hazily, that tying the far left to Brexit will destroy it. So maybe the 'people’s vote' campaign is right to believe they will crack. I do not share its confidence because I think far too many on the centre left still don’t understand that the far left hates them and their causes.

    I accept that in this instance I may be wrong. I would certainly not underestimate the campaigners’ ability to apply pressure on Corbyn. Too many, who underestimated them now look foolish. For politicians frightened of being held responsible by the voters for Britain’s decline, for centre-left MPs who do not want to be the right’s enablers, and for Tories who know that they cannot accept no-deal if May’s plan falls, sending Brexit back to the voters may soon be the best, indeed, only option.

    Written byNick Cohen

    Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

    Topics in this articlePoliticsbrexituk politics