Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday 24 June 2018

When two mass movements clash

Last week saw leading lights in one mass movement, the Labour party, attack elements of another mass movement, those who want to remain in the EU. What led to this attack seemed to be posters issued by an organisation called OFOC depicting John McDonnell in the pocket of arch Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg. My own view is that these poster were a waste of money and hardly worth bothering with. But leading lights in the Labour movement tried to suggest to grass roots Remain supporters that they are being used as a way to attack Corbyn, as here for example.

As it happens I have quite recently suggested that some Remain campaigners risk the danger that their message is sounding very similar to the numerous anti-Corbyn attacks you can find throughout the media. For example suggesting that the only thing in the way of stopping Brexit is Corbyn (ludicrous) and that therefore he has to go (won't happen). As the only chance of a vote on the final deal is if Labour supports it such a message is positively counterproductive.

However the attacks from Bastini, Mason and others took a different tack, listing in great detail how OFOC was connected to, and possibly funded by, certain Tory and LibDem figures. This was the basis of the ‘being used’ claim. There are two big problems here. First, Remain is a cross party movement. So what exactly is the big deal with establishing all these links? So what, you might say. Second, Remainers have every reason to be critical of Labour policy, which is now clearly not to stay in the EU. 

The days of triangulation are over. We now know that the Labour leadership wants a negotiated deal with the EU that has some safeguards on nationalisation etc, and for some MPs at least some limits to free movement. As the great majority of Labour members and voters support staying in the EU, this is a difficult position for the Labour leadership to take. Labour are therefore acutely vulnerable. Indeed as there is a chance that Labour might back a people's vote but May never will, it is sensible that Remainers now concentrate any pressure on the Labour leadership. 

Picking a fight with some Remainers by suggesting they are, knowingly or not, just an anti-Corbyn front because they attack Labour on Brexit seems to both miss the point and to be terrible politics. I guess it can be what happens when two mass movements with considerable overlap in terms of membership clash. Of course any Brexit negotiated by Corbyn would be less harmful than the Brexit May might be able to negotiate, and Labour still might vote against the final deal and support a referendum on it, but until Labour do start saying No Brexit is better than May’s Brexit Labour are vulnerable and have to accept that Remainers will try and put pressure on them.

All of which is of course a minor sideshow to what will be the main story of the next few months: will May be able to negotiate a deal with the EU? Labour are completely irrelevant in answering this question. The answer will depend on whether May will finally break with the Brexiters, and how much these Brexiters react to this rejection. The deal that will be done, which involves at a minimum being in the Customs Union and the Single Market for goods, is anathema to most of the Brexiters based on their past behaviour. That deal, as I have argued before, represents the almost complete failure of the Brexiter project.

The Brexiters have two choices. They can try and make it as hard as possible for May such that she fails to get a deal, and hope that the UK leaves with No Deal as a result. Although there is much you can criticise in May as a Prime Minister, her stubbornness probably means she will not allow her deal to be sabotaged in this way, but that will probably not stop the Brexiters trying. The second choice Brexiters have is to park their displeasure at the deal until we leave in 2019, and hope that they can achieve further breaks from Europe subsequently, perhaps by getting a Brexiter as Conservative party leader. The problem with this strategy is that time is not on their side: demographics, losing the Mail, and people seeing how the UK steadily falls behind the rest of the EU are just some of the reasons why.

There is no doubt that May will do what she can to get a deal, and I suspect the Brexiters will not have the support or the will to stop her once she stops appeasing them. Which leaves Labour in a dangerous position, where they may alienate Leavers by voting against the deal, and alienate Remainers for not supporting Remain. The days when they could keep both groups happy by triangulating, and almost win a general election, are over. They cannot be crazy enough to vote for or abstain on the final deal, because then they become complicit in all the economic harm that Brexit will do, as well as alienating the majority of its own members and voters. It would mean four years of Labour  losing Leave voters to the Conservatives (as the Brexit press would spin anything other than a vote for the deal as Labour opposing Brexit), and Remain voters to the LibDems or Greens.

One thing we have learnt in the last week is that most of the handful of Tory rebels will not have the courage to vote against any deal May makes. (No deal is another matter.) So Labour will lose the parliamentary vote on the final deal. Labour are not in government, and the deal is being done now, so what they would want to do in government is irrelevant. That means that they have little to lose by backing the popular people’s vote against May’s deal as well as voting against that deal. No Brexit is better than May’s Brexit. That way, they allow the two movements to march as one.

Postscript 27/06/18

Conversations with some Labour party activists both before and after this post suggest that Labour has to focus on winning over Leave voters in traditional Labour held constituencies, and so has to appear to back Brexit where it can. There is a danger that they are taking for granted many who voted for them in 2017 because they thought Labour would stop Brexit, and still do (See, for example, this poll in January 2018, where only 19% of Labour voters think Labour is pro-Brexit.) There is a danger that we are seeing a repeat of what happened over austerity in 2015: Labour taking for granted that anti-austerity voters would vote for them, and at the same time failing to win over pro-austerity voters with talk of being 'tough on the deficit'. Much the same happened with immigration.   


  1. To state the obvious, there are two reasons for thinking we should get ready for no deal; firstly, that we the best outcome is to leave with no deal, and secondly, that preparing for no deal is the best way to getting a good deal. Both those groups of people will behave identically until the deal is revealed. You may be surprised at how many you thought were in group 1 actually turn out to be in group 2.

    I would just add that those who say whatever we do will make no difference to the EU as we are either in the EU or just a third country need to familiarise themselves with Article 8 in the Lisbon Treaty which states "the Union may conclude specific agreements with the countries concerned" countries concerned being neighbouring ones, i.e. the UK.

  2. I found it easy to vote with Cameron and Osborne on the Referendum because I knew most Tory voters were going the other way, and I expected enough Labour voters to have realised this.

    They did not.

    It is time they are told that being socially conservative is the same as being Conservative.

  3. Good one!I tried to put some more meat on this argument here

  4. "No Brexit is better than May’s Brexit."

    The problem is that until there's a specific form to May's Brexit, making this claim becomes tantamount to openly declaring themselves as the party of Remain.

    Maybe that's a desirable eventual position, but it has to be advanced upon obliquely in order to take support with them. Yes, they may run out of time in doing this, but I don't see an alternative.

    Anything other than an absolutely resounding result in a Peoples Vote will feed a right-wing sense of resentment, and the UK will be back to a darker version of 2015.

    Yes, UKIP was a threat to the Tory party - but don't forget that even Labour felt they had to be seen to be a little bit racist in order to win an election.

  5. SWL could be underestimating the commitment and courage of Tory Remainers. Next month's vote on the CU is far more important than any shenanigans on the 'People's vote', which, in any case, could well generate more problems than it would solve, and is almost certain not to happen anyway.

    It is a bit like concentrating on Oxford Union politics in the bar rather than the latest cutting edge research on trade policy: the latter, sooner or later will have more impact on people's lives.

  6. "That means that they have little to lose by backing the popular people’s vote against May’s deal as well as voting against that deal"

    Maybe I misunderstand and you wording confused me. But it sounds like you think Labour should vote down a deal in the Commons even though "winning" this means a hard Brexit by default, because Article 50 was triggered. And that you think the parliamentary arithmetic will be safe. I think that's crazy!

    As for "picking a fight with some Remainers ... seems to both miss the point and to be terrible politics" I agree.

    However please consider that various Remainers like yourself have been committing the same error (and some have been knowingly smearing) with Leave by "establishing all these links" with Legatum, Russia, "the hard right" (in your terms), the press barons, UKIP, those who don't respect "pluralist democracy"(!), etc. The way to attack Leave was on the issues, without any trickery like the Treasury forecast, and not ad hominem. Most Leave voters don't want an ultra-Thatcherite Brexit, and they know they do not. Therefore, it preached to the converted and failed to convert Leavers.

  7. One thing we have learnt in the last week is that most of the handful of Tory rebels will not have the courage to vote against any deal May makes. (No deal is another matter.) So Labour will lose the parliamentary vote on the final deal. Labour are not in government, and the deal is being done now, so what they would want to do in government is irrelevant. That means that they have little to lose by backing the popular people’s vote against May’s deal as well as voting against that deal. No Brexit is better than May’s Brexit. That way, they allow the two movements to march as on

    The simple fact is that those MPs that are campaigning for staying in the EU use the EU debate to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and the reasons for that are obvious. They have stated in the words of Peter Mandelson that they will work tirelessly day and night to bring him down.

    So in other words they will jump on any bandwagon to achieve that end.

    This article about one of the leading OFOC people demonstrates the duplicity of these people:

    Videos are an important tool to expose the lies of people intent on misreprenting the facts. These people with leading connections with other organisations are serving a purpose over and above that they publicly declare.

    Simon you are a dedicated EU supporter and therefore paint a picture that ignores the Neo-Liberal agenda within the very structure of the EU. It was no accident that the EU carried out secret negotiations with the United States over the TTIP trade deal which would have enshrined in law the ability to sue any government that put up barriers to their ability to make profits.

    The EU is just another Neo-Liberal, free enterprise, free trade, freedom of movement of capital corporate organisation and works against the interests of its own people, just look at how it treated Greece and yet bails out the corrupt European Banks with unlimited QE.

    You have stated yourself, that the Labour Party are not negotiating Brexit, the Tories are, who with the help of the bought and sold DUP can overide any decision any opposition party chooses to make. That said Brexit is a Tory construct and those right wing Labour MPs and supporters that attack Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party only serve the interests of the Tories. Some MPs have openly declared that they are happier working with the Tories such Jess Philips, noting that there have also been secret talks with these so called rebels to form a centre party, which of course is an oxymoron for anther New Tory Party.

    Look at the riots in Paris, Jeremy Corbyn is not responsible for that, But European Neo-Liberal politicians are.

    1. The DUP are not bought and sold by the Tories over this; the DUP campaigned for Remain all by themselves, including buying print ads in London. Their 2017 manifesto also said they wanted Brexit to go ahead.

  8. Holding a referendum on the deal may be popular, but what are the options on the ballot paper? I think you're saying, Accept the deal, or, Stop Brexit. What if the question is Accept the deal, or, Hard Brexit? In which case if your side loses then we will crash out without a deal.

  9. I'm really not sure what you mean by all this. If no deal is a catastrophe then Labour shouldn't vote for it or give that impression.

    "No deal is better than a bad deal" does make sense as a negotiating position though. May might be pretending this, since she was a Remainer, to prevent the EU27 completely walking over her.


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