Whatever the results on Thursday, there have been aspects of this election campaign not revealed by polling. My experience of speaking and campaigning in my MEP patch in the North West has been revelatory. I am in awe of a layer of new activists who have been inspired to want more fundamental change than that offered by the establishment parties. Many are new to politics, have found their voice and have discovered the power of being actively engaged. It reminds me of a far earlier experience of the miners’ strike, when miners’ wives groups sprang up nationally and formidable women started to take control.
It’s exhilarating to be with people for whom politics might mean a fresh reboot of democracy; I have been humbled by their energy and hard work. But I won’t lie to you: it is not easy being a Brexit party representative in this election.
There is no soft-soaping the painful quandary this election is for many Leave voters, largely because many are in a predicament, scared of splitting the Leave vote.
The recent departure of the four Brexit party MEPs, if we take their statements in good faith, sums up how many people feel about the dilemma: how best to stop a Remain Alliance taking over parliament and thwarting Brexit through a second referendum?
The Brexit party’s controversial decision to stand down 317 candidates to prevent the Lib Dems/ Labour Remainers gaining Tory seats recognised that some compromise was necessary. Inevitably, many Brexit party supporters in those areas have felt disenfranchised by the lack of a clear Brexit party voice. Many can’t face voting Conservative and will surely generate record numbers of spoilt ballot papers. Others will vote for the Conservatives but with a heavy heart.
Even where the Brexit party are standing candidates, many of those who may opt to vote Tory have not become Tories and have qualms. Those I have met say they will “hold their nose” and vote Boris but they feel squeezed into the option and are resentful at being frightened into choosing what they see as the least worst option.
Then there are those who tragically will opt out altogether. Many Brexit party canvassers hear the refrain from life-long voters, as well as those who voted for the first time in the referendum:
“Why bother voting? Would you vote for any of them after they ignored us the last time?”
It’s a heartbreaking consequence of the disdain meted out on constituents over the last three years.
More positively, many more will vote Brexit party with enthusiasm. Even though the Brexit party has not swept through Labour’s Northern heartlands taking all Leave votes, it is a breath of fresh air to meet those who are delighted to have a chance to vote constructively for a new party that they actively support, after years of being taken for granted as a Labour stage army.
A campaigning highlight for me was speaking at a rally in my old hometown, Buckley in north Wales. Hundreds of my erstwhile neighbours weren’t in the slightest surprised that the likes of Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford – in a panic at the cracking Red Wall – slanders Brexit party supporters as being far right. After all, they’ve had several years of seeing the Labour party machine attempt to discredit Leave voters.
Perhaps more surprising has been the levels of vitriol being thrown at Brexit party Leavers by Tory Leavers. A ferociously aggressive “Back Boris” social media campaign has doled out abuse at grass-roots Brexiteers as splitters and closet Remainers.
It’s a shame, as in some ways the Brexit party was the original and most successful Leave Alliance, attracting candidates and voters from all sides of the political spectrum in the European elections.
Now many of the natural Conservative voters – supporters of the Brexit party in the EU elections – have returned to the warm embrace of an established Conservative party. Clearly MEPs Annunziata, Lance, Lucy and John are not alone in being so fearful that Brexit will be thwarted that they are lashing out at fellow Leavers who want an alternative to Boris.
What explains this intense and unpleasant blue on blue antagonism? Let’s take a step back and remember that in only March this year, most Leavers thought Brexit had been defeated. The majority of Leavers I knew were in despair at both Theresa May’s Conservatives for selling us out and the lengths Remain MPs (backed by the Lords, big business, the judiciary etc) would go to thwart the referendum result. After three and a half years of being metaphorically battered by a belligerent establishment, it felt as though it had all been in vain. It was a bitter feeling, and no one wants to feel it again.
The unintended consequence of parliament’s endless delaying tactics was the European elections, which suddenly provided Leave voters with a chance to be heard once more. The emergence of the Brexit party proved to be a brilliant vehicle we could use to earn a reprieve from defeat. Soon afterwards, Theresa May was crushed and the Conservative party forced to embrace Brexit to survive. Boris was revived, his Brexity rhetoric caught the mood, and here we are at the General Election.
It is very important to grasp the psychological impact of this roller-coaster, near-defeat experience. One family matriarch sums up the mood. An ardent Welsh Leaver, she hates the Tories, doesn’t trust Boris and has studied his Withdrawal Agreement to the extent that would make our most expert academics blush. Her conclusion is that it is nothing more than a rehash of Theresa May’s sell-out. However, she keeps saying to me: “Won’t it be WONDERFUL when you march out of Brussels on 31 January? I can’t wait to see the faces of those Lib Dem and Labour MEPs when you leave”.
When I ask if it really will be a victory if we leave on Boris’ Deal (with no guarantees that he won’t extend the transitional period beyond the end of 2020), she concedes he is unlikely to deliver. She repeats her fear that his Treaty is vassalage. But regardless, she concludes, “can you imagine how enjoyable it will be when the likes of Gina Miller LOSE”.
And all Leavers knows what she means. You see, Leavers desperately need a psychological win. We need to feel our vote for change can actually change things. We want to enjoy a momentary victory, to recapture some of the elation we felt in June 2016 when we won the referendum against all odds.
Does that mean the Brexit party should stand aside to guarantee Remain parties are defeated? Certainly not. Left to their own devices, the Tories will squash the life out of what Brexit really represents in terms of the chance to shake up political life and overturn a complacent status quo. We cannot let that happen.
A few thoughts on the Tories. I don’t think one can underestimate the humiliation they felt at being routed at the European election. They hated that an upstart new party could successfully challenge the UK’s oldest establishment party. In that context, the main driver of “Getting Brexit Done” for too many Tories seems less a commitment to national sovereignty or rescuing democracy, but more a mechanism for saving their own party from civil war and obliteration.
This has become apparent since the General Election was called. Senior Tories have exhibited a brand of entitled arrogance that implies that they own Brexit. It seems that anyone else who claims its mantle can be pushed to one side. And that includes voters.
I don’t hang out in Conservative circles, but where I have encountered the occasional grandee in recent weeks, with little fanfare they have demanded I make the Brexit party shut up and stand down. The most generous response has been a pat on the head, as they tell me “you’ve done a good job. Now is time to move aside”, as though the Brexit party was some sort of downstairs retainer or servant whose services can now be been dispensed with.
The paternalism of the Conservative party is breathtaking. Indeed, when Boris tells Leave voters “I want a future where Brexit is done and we’re focusing on the issues that matter to you and your family”, it assumes Leavers see Brexit as a dry, managerial hurdle to be got over, before more serious issues are tackled.
But that is only true if you see Brexit as merely a technical matter. Yet its original appeal was the slogan “Take Back Control”. Of course, it was this very aspect – of voters grabbing control, taking centre stage, demanding their votes and voices mattered as equals – that we know gave such a fright to the Remain establishment. It may well be that the Tories’ irrational antagonism to the Brexit party shows the issue of control is just as much an existential threat to a party that assumes it has a right to power and resents any upstart challenges.
My problem with the Tories then is this: they look to be taking back the levers of control from any voters who want to shake up the two-party duopoly.
Why else would they deploy a version of electoral Project Fear to strangle at birth a new anti-establishment party which, even they will concede, reset the leave agenda after it was nearly defeated?
In many constituencies, election material has not made a positive case for voting Tory but has solely – solely – focused on attacking the Brexit party.
However genuine the motives of the four defecting MEPs, the timing of their departure and the slick video and comprehensive media strategy shows less evidence of a moral quandary than a Tory PR stunt aimed at demoralising Brexit party candidates and activists.
When the gang of four tell us Johnson’s Brexit deal is ‘the only game in town’, they mean there is no alternative.
This is the clarion call of anyone who has sought to demobilise voters over recent decades. When Boris-supporting newspapers literally command Leave voters to only vote Tory, they dispense with even a pretence that general elections are supposed to give people choices. Instead voters are expected to meekly obey and do as they’re told by those who assume they know better.
When we all stood as MEPs in the European elections, I was struck by how many people I met on the campaign trail – from left to right – who told me that the Brexit party slogan Change Politics For Good was what really resonated. The failure to deliver the referendum vote had shone a light on far more than the EU’s ring-fencing of decision making from national electorates. It also revealed how our own technocratic elites were merely paying lip service to real popular sovereignty.
Discovering that a commitment to universal franchise was paper thin; that career politicians of all stripes were more at home doing deals behind the backs of the electorate than winning face to face arguments democratically, has given many an appetite for substantial and radical reform.
People want a democracy that is more direct and accountable. Do the Tories really think this craving to increase the electorate’s power over their own lives can be sated with an oven-ready Brexit (don’t worry about the ingredients or bother cooking yourself; we’ll do it for you)?
This depoliticised quick fix, without even an attempt at harnessing the exhilarating potential for new ideas that we felt in June 2016, is the real betrayal by Tory machine politicians.
What the Brexit party’s poll ratings don’t reveal is that many millions now have a taste for more than the same-old, same-old, business as usual. The electorate has discovered that real, meaningful change is possible.
Boris may soon find that his microwave meal is not going to satisfy the newly-revealed hunger for a radical shift in political priorities. Hopefully the Brexit party activists I have worked with over recent months will once again declare, in the immortal worlds of CLR James, ‘Every cook can govern’, and take back control once more.