The Peoples’ Vote March: Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

By Mark Perryman, Editor, The Corbyn Effect (Lawrence and Wishart)

‘ The remain campaign, from its passion-free name and its inherent self-righteousness, is the worst campaign I have seen in my lifetime’ – Suzanne Moore

An old friend, we don’t always agree nowadays, on this Suzanne is brutally correct.

Don’t get me wrong, I voted ‘Remain’ (sic) and bitterly regret the outcome of the referendum, but the magnitude of the haplessness and sheer bloody uselessness of both the original campaign and now the doomed  ‘People’s Vote’, aka second referendum, needs accounting for, and then some. Forward march? Remain never even got out of the starting blocks, not for the Referendum, and despite their big march not now either.

Large numbers of Labour MPs representing constituencies which voted Leave by considerable margins, whilst many others represent constituencies who’d voted the other way, to stay in, by equally big majorities.  Rather than grasp the potentially existential importance of this chasm, the Remain campaign has treated it as a mere detail. To be filed alongside the inconvenient fact that in a people’s vote, they’d lost. Their solution? Let’s have another one then.

The absolute need, if such a venture was to be secured, or at the very least to soften the worst excesses of a Tory Brexit engineered by the then three Brexiteers, Davis, Johnson and Fox, was for the Remain camp to shift popular opinion. In this they have singularly failed. And yet they plough on regardless.  The message has stayed the same, the EU treated as an entirely unproblematic institution, a line that convinces no one expect the pre-existing adherents. No sense of the popular meaning of Europe either. A few weeks before those who drape themselves in the EU flag marched from Park Lane to Parliament Square the one occasion that flag achieves any kind of popular purchase in the UK took place, the Ryder Cup, and even better Europe, led by a Dane, won. Yet the Remain crowd are entirely disconnected to such opportunities, the same is true of the most Europeanised institution in British society, football. The campaign lacks any kind of popular touch, choosing instead to front their eve-of-march message Blair, Clegg and Heseltine. Enough said.

The fundamental error of the post-referendum Remain campaign is clear: the belief that everybody else apart from them misunderstood what they were voting for.  This is absolutely no way to win a political argument, if only the other side knew what we know, well they’d join us wouldn’t they? This is anti-politics writ large and the polls reveal the dire consequences. The support for Leave remains virtually unchanged.

Of course 700,000 gathered in London to march from A to B in time honoured fashion is impressive. And if Will Hutton has finally found ‘a cause worth marching for’, well good on him too. Don’t let’s be curmudgeonly though, the extra-parliamentary Left should welcome Will and his co-thinkers to the world of protest politics with open arms. Yet Will has fallen for precisely the same illusion that too many of  us more used to marching for causes we believe in are victims of too often once we reach the end of a march and look out over a crowd  huge enough to fill  Parliament Square or wherever we’ve ended up. “When hundreds of thousands give up their time for peaceful protest, they are never wrong.” No, not wrong, but social change only occurs when a march is connected to a movement rooted in localities , and so far the Peoples’ Voters have failed to construct anything remotely resembling that.

I can reel off plenty of marches I’ve been on over the years.  Rock against Racism, CND, Anti-Apartheid, the Poll Tax, Stop the War, for Palestine, against Trump. Some smaller than Saturday’s, some bigger but protest isn’t simply a numbers game.  It’s about turning the campaign from People’s Vote to People’s Power.

Remain, has palpably failed in that regard ever since the shock of achieving what their leaders are least used to:  being on the losing side. A failure caused by not creating any sort of extra-parliamentary leverage. They needed to base their campaign in the parliamentary constituencies of Tory MPs holding on to marginal seats. A non-party force pressing home the case that sticking with the government will lose them their seat could have had a substantial impact. Street-by-street, block-by-block, doorstep- by-doorstep. Saturday proved Remain has the numbers to do this, but to date it hasn’t had either the leadership or the endurance for a dogged effort with none of the glamour of a Saturday afternoon stroll from Park Lane to Parliament square but a hundred times more effective. And the advantage of our rotten electoral system is that the number of places requiring such an effort are relatively small yet crucial to the parliamentary arithmetic.

The Guardian writer John Harris is optimistic that Saturday proved such an effort may yet be possible. John tweeted “It felt like it on the first #PeoplesVoteMarch back in June, but now we know: there’s now another mass activist movement, and it makes politics way more complicated / interesting/ unpredictable.” He shares the critical perspective of others that the causes of the vote for Brexit cannot be lightly dismissed, chronicling this case extremely well via his series of short films ‘Anywhere but Westminster’ so John’s estimate of what is happening should be taken seriously. I’m not convinced though.  The march had all the feeling of one final hurrah of the same social forces that lost in 2016 with none of the lessons learned since.  If the turn to localities, as reported, is to happen now, then good. But we’ve had two and a bit years since the referendum already, where’s the kind of ‘mass activist movement’ that was needed for the long haul of shifting a bloc of soft Leave voters most especially in those key Tory marginals? Missing in inaction, that’s where.

The Remainers’ world view is fuelled almost more than anything else by the bile they like to chuck Labour’s way.  This is despite Labour making it perfectly clear the party will be seeking to overturn May’s deal but because Labour’s is also committed to respecting the result of the referendum virtually anything else it says or die is treated by the Remainers as an act of unforgiveable treachery.

But as any final vote approaches Labour’s position does deserve some close scrutiny. Best done without the usual simple Labour left vs Labour right binary opposition.  First, there will be some Labour MPs who will vote with the Tories to secure Brexit because they are committed Leavers.  Of those most likely to only John Mann comes from the traditional Labour right, Field (now ex Labour) and Hoey are best described as mavericks, Kelvin Hopkins (currently suspended) is from the Labour left, Graham Stringer too. Their votes are probably irrecoverable. 1-0 to the Tories.  Secondly, there are those Labour MPs who whilst not committed leavers represent Leave-voting constituencies and are minded to vote with the Tories on these grounds.  Caroline Flint, Gloria del Piero, Gareth Snell head up this list. They share a close political affinity with Chuka Umunna, Progress, Labour First et al.  If their votes are to be lined up against Brexit, Chuka’s time might be better spent bending their ears rather than cosying up with his new best friend Anna Soubry.

But that would depend on a key third factor. Already Martin Kettle in the Guardian is suggesting, “ For more pragmatic remainers the temptation to back a deal, depending on the softness of its content and the degree of compromise made by May, and which has also been agreed by the EU27, will be a serious option.” Blinded by their anti-Corbyn rhetoric the Remain crowd so far have entirely missed this crucial variable. Correct me if I’m wrong but the last thing Jeremy Corbyn will be asking his MPs to do is vote with the Tories to secure their version of Brexit.  Keir Starmer won’t be setting any such strategy out either.  But a section of the Liberal commentariat will, in the name of their particular version of the ‘national interest.’ And there are Labour MPs ready to answer that call.

This is the most likely basis on which Brexit will pass any parliamentary vote.  There is no conceivable electoral arithmetic for a majority in favour of launching a second referendum unless first May’s deal is defeated, so this is crucial. The danger now however is that a fractured Parliamentary Labour Party will defy Corbyn to vote, for a variety of reasons, all of them wrong, with the Tories. Stopping that right now is the most pressing objective.  Yes the Tory rebels might add the numbers to tip May’s defeat over the edge but if these Labour MPs votes replace them nothing else much matters.

Will Remain see the urgency of this? I’m not holding my breath, to date they have dismissed the very obvious dilemma of Labour MPs representing leave-voting constituencies as irrelevant.  Instead they invest every effort in portraying an ever more extreme version of the socio-economic wasteland of Britain after Brexit.  Scare tactics combined with an idealisation of the EU has been their retreat from politics, blaming their allies for the actions of their enemies their blundersome tactic, with Remain it’s been ever thus. Sadly, Saturday’s march didn’t change any of that, not one bit.

Mark  Perryman is the editor of The Corbyn Effect, his new book Corbynism from Below will be published by Lawrence & Wishart in September 2019.