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A People’s Vote is no substitute for an effective opposition

15 October 2019

1:18 PM

15 October 2019

1:18 PM

Sympathetic journalists covering the Remain movement are stuck by how far away it is from the ugliness of politics. Its activists are, to use a word that damns with faint praise, ‘nice’. It is better to be nice than vicious, of course. It is better to be nice than mendacious and unscrupulous and so criminally irresponsible you would burn down the whole country rather than admit to a mistake. But, we liberal reporters flinch at the sight of all the niceness. The nice never win a war, we think. Nice gets you nowhere in modern Britain.

When we ask how they will deal with thugs and manipulators of the calibre of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, they quote Michelle Obama and say, ‘When they go low, we go high’. When we ask who will lead a second remain campaign, they talk about then need to find ‘diverse voices’ from outside the old political world. When we press them for specific answers, they retreat into warm and woozy words that anaesthetise like a lullaby.

That the People’s Vote campaign has got this far is a tremendous achievement. Three-years ago, the idea the referendum could be rerun was so far out on the fringe it was barely discussed. Today every opinion poll shows a majority wants Britain to remain in the European Union, and there is a fair chance that Parliament will agree to a second referendum. Phil Wilson and Peter Kyle, who have been organising MPs, are confident they have the votes. A portion of the moderate Tories Boris Johnson purged from the Conservative party are now ready to support them, and Paula Sherriff and other previously dubious Labour MPs now see a second referendum as the only way to bring the crisis to an end. The emphasis on diversity and self-organisation hasn’t been all warm words either. Tens of thousands of people have joined local groups and are ready to fight. The radicalism of the Brexit right has radicalised liberal Britain.

But it is a radical movement without leadership. Despite the best efforts of backbenchers and the small parties, Britain has been engaged in a unique experiment of trying to run a country without an opposition. The results can be seen in the chaos around you. Labour has failed to do the basics. Any half-way or even quarter-way competent opposition would have held the politicians who led the Leave campaign to account. It would have thrown their false promises back in their faces, and educated the public about the realities of Britain’s position. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove could not have survived a robust challenge. Nor could many in the Cabinet. Indeed I suspect if we had had a Labour party with anything resembling effective leadership, it would be in power now.

Labour’s historic failure to be honest with the country has forced the People’s Vote campaigners to waffle. They talk of finding new voices and praise the nebulous virtues of diversity because they have no choice. Since 2016, the official opposition has been absent without leave and they have had to rely on what replacements they can find.

The makeshift movement they formed hasn’t really been a Remain campaign. I call them that, like so many others, but strictly speaking its members have been fighting for a second referendum, rather than building the arguments about why it is in the best interests of Britain to remain in the EU. While the Labour party has lost itself in spin about ‘constructive ambiguity’, the ‘Remain’ campaign has been concentrating on winning the procedural battle rather than the political debate. Even at this late hour, the huge demonstrations in London on Saturday, and 15 other cities, will be marches for a second referendum. ‘They cannot, must not and will not force this broken Brexit on the British people without giving us the final say,’ its organisers say. ‘The time has come when we must all stand up and demand: Put it to the People.’ The organisers remain silent on what arguments, if any, they would like the people to hear.

I don’t mean to be too pessimistic. Maybe as John McDonnell effectively takes the Labour party over, it will end its shameful dereliction of duty. The more hard-headed People’s Vote campaigners are also not as worried as others that, whatever the polls say now, Cummings and Farage would destroy them in a second referendum. They can see an anti-establishment path to victory. They will play on the dangers to workers at Nissan and Airbus. They will say the real choice is not between the EU and national liberation, but between the EU and subordination to Trump’s America. They will argue, accurately, that the only way the right sees Britain competing outside the single market is as a low cost, low wage economy in which the bulk of the people pay the price for their leaders’ nationalist fantasies.

I can see a winning argument there. Nevertheless, it will need politicians to make it. For years we have been told they don’t matter, and social media and celebrities have taken their place. The British experience is a striking counter example. Without an opposition, the country has fallen into a rolling crisis and no amount of Twitter warriors and angry celebs can pull it out. We will know Britain is changing if, in the next few weeks, leaders step forward to convince the public that they deserve better than this.


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