Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 26 July 2017

Why Owen Jones is wrong about Brexit

Owen has written a very clear account of why he supports the referendum result, even though he campaigned against it. He is, to use one terminology, a ‘re-leaver’, and as he points out there are many like him. He is quite right that those advocating overturning the referendum result have devoted insufficient attention to this group. However I think in key respects his argument is wrong.

I think it is helpful, as I have done before, to set this debate in the context of future decisions that may realistically face MPs. I can see four:
  1. Having left in 2019, we are likely to remain in the Single Market and customs union while we negotiate some kind of trade agreement to allow us to leave one or both. The first decision, which could face an incoming Labour government, is should those negotiations continue or be abandoned.
Owen does not explicitly address the Single Market, which is surprising. In my view leaving the EU but staying in the Single Market (the ‘Norway option’) is what Labour should choose to do if it gains power. That is fully consistent with respecting the referendum result. Those who say that the referendum was about immigration and therefore we have to end freedom of movement commit a simple logical error. A majority (those who voted Leave because of immigration) of a majority (52%) is not necessarily a majority. There is no mandate of any kind for leaving the Single Market.
  1. During the vote on whether to leave in 2019, there is a vote to hold a second referendum where the choice is to accept the deal or remain in the EU.
Again he does not directly address a second referendum, but some of his arguments are relevant to it.  You could argue that holding a second referendum would disrespect the first. If the Brexit decision was changed as a result, then Owen’s arguments about a large section of the population losing faith in democracy would perhaps still apply. However it seems to me the rationale for holding a second referendum is overwhelming. In the first referendum, what leaving would entail was very unclear. In particular, we did not know what the divorce bill would be, and what the economic implications would be. Information is crucial in voting decisions. We now know much more, and therefore it seems only right that people should be allowed to change their minds. We are familiar with the idea of requiring new information to reopen issues in other contexts, so why not for a referendum.

To argue that the 1975 referendum over joining was a once in a generation event is irrelevant, because by then the nature of the deal was clear. Why should the fact that Cameron or anyone else said this would be a once in a generation vote bind parliament? The bottom line has to be that if Leave cannot win two votes just a few years apart then we should not be leaving. Remember the first referendum had an electorate chosen to keep the Brexiteers happy, and likewise it had no super majority. To argue that we have to respect the first referendum to uphold faith in democracy and at the same time argue that to hold a second referendum would be undemocratic seems a bizarre, and very worrying, notion of democracy.
  1. During the vote on whether to leave in 2019, there is a vote to remain in the EU without a second referendum
Here the referendum would have been overruled by parliament. Owen has two, related arguments why this would be wrong. First, both government and opposition said that they would be bound by the referendum result. Second, the people will have been overruled by parliament. On the first, I agree that any MP that said their vote would be bound by the referendum and then went against that has some explaining to do. But an explanation along the lines of ‘I had no idea how bad Brexit was going to be’ sounds reasonable to me. MPs, like people, are allowed to change their minds.

I also cannot see why pledges by the government and opposition have to bind MPs who did not so pledge. This gets back to the nature of our representative democracy. Although Owen does not think much of people, like me, who keep noting that the referendum is advisory, this does express the fact that parliament is sovereign. We live in a representative democracy. People may be upset to learn that, but it is true. Ed Miliband was right to rule out holding a referendum. Just because Cameron chose to hold one to appease his right wing should not bind the actions of MPs.

The fact that the referendum result was achieved as the result of a completely inadequate campaign matters. The Remain side (and the media) failed to adequately put across their case, because the positive case for immigration was not made. The Leave side lied their socks off. To equate the dishonesty on the Remain side with that of the Leave campaign, as Owen does, is quite wrong. Two central planks of the Leave case, that the NHS would have more money and that Turkey was about to join the EU, were complete lies. The main plank of the Remain campaign that Brexit would reduce the real income of UK citizens has been shown to be true. Information matters.

If such a vote was almost certain to fail because it lacked the backing of enough Conservative MPs, then there might be a tactical reason for not supporting it for reasons I outlined here. But this is not the case that Owen makes. Barry Gardiner has also departed radically from this script. As I said in that post I did not know if Labour's Brexit position was strategic or just confused and conflicted, and Owen's piece together with these recent developments reinforce such doubts.  
  1. The government fails to negotiate a deal but wants us to leave despite this. There is a vote in parliament to revoke Article 50 and not leave the EU.
If you remain unconvinced by the above, consider this outcome. No deal would be a disaster, and bring immediate chaos. But all of Owen’s arguments for respecting the referendum would still apply! Would Owen really argue that Labour should not support such a vote for the sake of Leave voters’ faith in democracy? If it did that it would be complicit in the chaos that followed. 

Owen keeps coming back to the impact of any decision on how those who voted Brexit would feel. In this sense he is in the same spirit as John Harris’s article that I discussed here. It is an utterly defeatist argument: we must let people harm themselves because only then might they learn that they were mistaken in what they wanted. A much more progressive policy is to persuade people they are wrong.

If Labour did form the next government, as I very much hope it would, the consequences of leaving the Single Market would be on its watch. Would those who voted Leave forgive slow growth in their living standards as their own fault for wanting Brexit? Would they accept the implications of low immigration for the public finances as a price worth paying to control immigration. Of course not. Much of the media would argue that these problems were all down to the Labour government, not Brexit. A Labour government that presides over leaving the Single Market could be a one term government.

In an earlier post I talked about the logic of a triangulation strategy for Labour, but I said at the outset that I did not know if this what they were doing. As a result, there is currently a serious danger that Labour would squash any attempt from the Tory backbenches to hold a second referendum, or if they won the next election that they would leave the Single Market. Although everyone focuses on Corbyn, this is as much a problem with many Labour MPs in Leave voting areas. It is an area where we need the membership to influence Labour policy, as both Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Jones have always suggested they should.


  1. I am not as convinced as you are that Jones was a Remainer.

    He lists a series of articles where he argues he campaigned for Remain. Go read them. I don't see them as full throated defences of the EU.

    In any event, Corbyn has twice, once on national tv, stated that leaving the EU necessitates leaving the single market. It seems a bit odd to focus on Owen Jones, rather than on where Labour now is.

    1. The manifesto says the party seeks to "retain the benefits of" the single market so we will see if damage from leaving it can be made smaller

    2. Can one provide a 'full throat-ed defence of the EU' and still be taken seriously?

  2. Excellent points, as always...

    "Would Owen really argue that Labour should not support such a vote for the sake of Leave voters’ faith in democracy?"

    ... Also worth questioning why the Leave voters' faith in democracy should be so critical in this situation when the referendum itself has likely damaged the faith in democracy of many Remain voters...

    1. Why? Because it produced a decision you don't agree with?

  3. Further comment in It's Not Democracy, article by Richard Bird.

  4. “Would they accept the implications of low immigration for the public finances..” There’s a major flaw in nearly every study of immigration and “public finances”: authors fail to take into consideration that if the amount of infrastructure per head (that’s several tens of thousands of pounds worth) is to remain constant when each net immigrant arrives, taxpayers have to cough up large amounts to meet that bill.

    Doubtless immigrants pay their fair share by the time they retire, but that’s LONG AFTER they initially arrive.

    Plus there is no possibility nowadays of Brits enjoying the spacious houses and gardens that were created in the 1930s building boom around London, as a recent Shelter study explains. Can someone explain how living in a cramped house with little or no garden constitutes a standard of living increase?

    1. The amount of public infrastructure required, with either low or high immigration, should be thought of in per capita in terms.

      This falls with immigration, as immigrants typically are workers and not dependents.

      I would instead argue the major flaw is that the studies understate the benefits of immigration, as infrastructure spending per head may now fall. Taxpayers will have to cough up less rather than more.

      Housing is indeed an issue. But again nothing to do with immigrants.

    2. You may be right about infrastructure per head but surely not housing. If immigrants are more often workers and not dependents (I agree), then they would increase the share of one-person households, so that more housing is needed, and more homes per head, than if they had not arrived. I agree that immigration is only one factor in housing scarcity.

    3. "Housing is indeed an issue. But again nothing to do with immigrants."

      Indeed – over on Stumbling and Mumbling Ralph mentioned New Zealand (similar land area to Britain but only 5 million people) as his aspirational end-state for a post-Brexit Britain. I have a feeling he hasn't checked what Auckland house prices are at the moment!

  5. It seems, according to BBC Parliament Channel debate, that Will Straw was told by Tory central office that a poster of a tiny Boris Johnson being in the pocket of a giant Nigel Farage was pulled by the Remain campaign because Cameron expected to the win the referendum and did not want to upset Johnson and Gove as he put his press barons' cabinet back together.

    With 0.5% GDP growth this half of the year, over the next year and a half if the Eurozone starts to pick up in growth compared to the UK, this will make it even more difficult to resist a second referendum.

    And if Labour enfranchises the 16 and 17 year olds, coupled with the 18, and 19 year olds who did not get the vote in 2016, a vote in 2019 should be winnable.

  6. “If Labour did form the next government, as I very much hope it would, the consequences of leaving the Single Market would be on its watch. Would those who voted Leave forgive slow growth in their living standards as their own fault for wanting Brexit?”

    This is the crux I think – and it's why you’re wrong.

    Firstly - it’s stalled growth in living standards that have got us here in the first place. The distribution of the proceeds of the growth that we have managed to eek out while members has been so distorted that very few people were feeling the benefits anyway. To suggest that this would change if we clamber back on board is completely fanciful.

    Secondly, there’s no reason whatsoever why slow growth would necessarily follow leaving the single market - a nice hearty dose of PQE would see us right in the short to medium term. Then we could start to address many of the real barriers to sustainable trade that we face – poor infrastructure (especially digital), low productivity, grossly insufficient training, high housing costs, energy provision etc etc etc.

    Adrian D.

  7. This is a really interesting piece, so thank you for it, and an excellent companion piece to your previous one on Lexiters. It is really good that academics such as yourself are engaging in this way.

    On this piece itself, I think you underplay the politics and also what journalism has and is becoming. I know this is not your main point, but please indulge me. Media commentators these days are partisans in a way that previous generations were not. Yes, opinion was wild and boisterous but it is interesting that today's commentators actively ally themselves not to causes but to factions - and factions within parties.The line between commentator and propagandist is always a fine one, but it in 2017 some, including Owen, have clearly crossed it.

    Which is where this issue comes in. Single market membership has become the touchstone in Labour of whether you are pro or anti the leadership. This most salient and fundamental of issues has been reduced to factionalism. Owen, supporting one faction, has had not just to repudiate his opinions on the SM of the referendum campaign, but his opinions of just a few months ago (as the online furore of his deleted tweets calling on Labour to have a remain in the SM policy shows).

    The Tory divisions, based on appalling ideas as they are, are at least based on ideas, whereas Labour's are now based on which faction you support - which is tragic.

    It then seems odd that instead of dispassionately casting judgement on policy commentators such as Jones are seeking to take sides in the factional debate, and then advocate policies based on that alone.

    It would be amusing if I were not considering the impact on my country's prosperity, and what that means for my family.

    2017, hey? We're loving it.

  8. «It is an utterly defeatist argument: we must let people harm themselves because only then might they learn that they were mistaken in what they wanted. A much more progressive policy is to persuade people they are wrong.»

    There is a massive difference between “persuade people they are wrong” and nullifying their vote because the philosopher-kings "know" that the people are wrong.

    The main purpose of democracy is precisely so that voters “learn that they were mistaken in what they wanted”, that is holding voters accountable for the consequences of their votes by letting them suffer such consequences.

    Again, I think that continuing attempts to persuade the voters that they did make a mistake with the "Leave" vote are fine, but attempts to nullify the June 2016 referendum in Parliament or by other "philosopher-king" devices would prevent democracy from working, by preventing the majority of english voters from suffering the consequence of exit from the EU.

    Eventually if voters make too many mistakes they become poorer and their country may wane; history is full of peoples and countries that became weak and irrelevant and pretty much vanished because they made strategic mistakes. The important role of democracy is to ensure that this does not happen because of the mistakes of the elites, but because the majority of voters themselves made those mistakes.

    Naturally a committed "Leaver" will argue that exit from the EU won't make the UK poorer and lose even more sovereignty to the USA as their “vassal state”, but eventually the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

    1. The people were persuaded not by kings who were philosophers, but by kings who were right-wing billionaire newspaper owners.

  9. Owen is right (for once).

  10. SW-L;
    "... we must [not] let people harm themselves ...

    And you wonder why you can't see the disconnect between your own 'Remain' views and those who voted to 'Leave' ...

    1. What precisely do you mean?

    2. Being elitist clouds your judgment of 'non-elitist' views.
      Precise enough for you?

  11. Has anyone surveyed traditional Labour heartlands that voted Leave to see if sentiment has shifted? There is the point re 'the left behinds' that their situation is already so dire they are unlikely to be concerned regarding the economic chaos of Brexit. On the other hand, if, as seems the case, Corbyn's message 'for the many not the few' cut through, people who previously felt sidelined by globalisation, and voted Leave because - for once - their voice might matter, may feel acknowledged by Corbyn's politics and not require Brexit for validation. There were people who had have never voted before, or not voted for decades, who voted for Brexit and for Labour in the election.

    Many also voted Brexit because demographic change brought about by the influx of Eastern Europeans was too much, too quickly. Evidence indicates that over time people adjust to demographic change and, given the Brexit vote and weakened pound, UK is also (currently) not such an attractive prospect for EU nationals - so people may have stepped back from reacting to what, for some, felt like an invasion.

    I also expect Corbyn's team does their own polling/surveying and that positions taken re Brexit are not uninformed...

    1. It does look like Sunderland may be the Bregret capital of Britain...

      "Apart from Raymond and his friend, most people I speak to are not only pro-Labour, but pro-immigration – even the ones who voted Leave. As Rob points out, the referendum was a protest against austerity. 'There was, still is, a lot of unhappiness', he says. “There were many reasons, and one is that it was anti-establishment. There are a lot of people in the city who are having second thoughts. We did some Brexit interviews in Southwick and quite a few people mentioned to me feeling a bit conned by the NHS £350m offer for example."

  12. I can be unconcerned about people's willingness to harm themselves but the consequences of these decisions will also have huge harm for those that voted to remain.

    From time to time politics has to weigh the benefits of one group against the harm to another. We are in a different place where we are weighing up the right to self harm against those who chose not to have that harm imposed upon them.

  13. Good blog. Pro-leave constituents of Labour MPs (who, let's remember are on average in a majority) should pointedly ask them who they are representing - the 52%, or their constituents.

  14. If I respect a workmate I don't acquiesce in what I believe, and have publicly stated, to be a terrible mistake he is about to make. Much less do I pretend to suddenly agree with the reasoning behind the mistake. Such behaviour I reserve for decisions about which I care little, made by those for whom I care less, but from whom I might want a future favour.


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