Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

New! Lecture on 23rd May at Bush House, 44-46 Aldwych on my book 'The Lies We Were Told' with discussion from Rachel Shabi and Aeron Davis. Book here.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Why are we in this political mess?


I am sick and tired of being told that the 2016 referendum gave the government a mandate to leave the EU. It did not. It did not because it did not specify a method of leaving. The Leave campaign was all over the place on how we would leave, and deliberately so. It maximised their vote. It was Cameron’s failure not to see that. He could so easily have made it a condition for holding a referendum that the Leave side put together a coherent, independently assessed and costed plan for leaving, but he didn’t. That, together with austerity, will be his legacy.

I heard a good comparison the other day. Some colleagues after work decide it would be great to go out together for a meal. They all agree enthusiastically. That is decided they say. But then someone asks where they should go to eat. One says definitely not Indian. Another says they are fed up with Italian food. And so on: whatever it is someone says they definitely don’t want to go there. But they all agree they must all eat together. They end up calling the whole thing off.

The lack of a specific plan agreed in the referendum would not have mattered if one of two conditions were true. The first is that everyone who voted to Leave preferred all forms of leaving to staying in the EU. That clearly is not true. The second was that the majority to leave was so large, and stayed large, such that whatever form was eventually chosen commanded a majority. In reality the majority to leave was small, and polls now show a much larger majority wanting to stay. As a result, the first referendum in itself demands a People's Vote.

The logic of this is clear. Once you add in the fact that more Leavers than Remainers are changing their mind and the case for a People’s Vote is overwhelming. More people don’t laugh when Brexiters say a People’s Vote would be undemocratic because the Brexiters and the Brexit press are shouting so loud people find it hard to think. What is happening in parliament reflects these divisions within the country. It is impossible to get a majority for any form of Brexit in parliament, just as there is no majority for any form of Brexit in the country.

Parliament does differ from sentiment in the country for one reason: MPs are clearly intimidated either by the referendum vote itself, the Brexit press or the Brexit majority in their constituency. This gave Theresa May an opportunity. If she had understood what the closeness of the result meant, she would see that at best there was only a mandate for the softest of Brexits. I think she could have got that through parliament, especially if she had held cross-party talks before invoking Article 50 to agree a plan. The Brexiters would have huffed and puffed, but May would have got a deal passed with Labour’s help.

We all know what she actually did. One consequence of that was both sides hardened their positions. A key mistake in a long litany of errors was to believe that ‘No Deal is better than a bad deal’ was a good bargaining ploy. The EU saw it was nonsense, but it gave Brexiters hope that they could actually get No Deal. That in turn led to two heavy defeats in parliament. Thanks to the Brexit press Project Fear applies to anything negative said about leaving the EU, so many voters think having a ‘clean break’ sounds like a good idea.

This hardening of positions means that the current negotiations are extremely dangerous for May and Labour. But May has nothing to lose except her legacy. Labour have everything to lose. Too many Lexiters within Labour have the attitude that Remainers have nowhere else to go. That was never true, as they could always not vote or not campaign. Alternatives have no increased with the creation of UKC and a Lib Dem party that is no longer a party of austerity. To throw away the next election for the sake of not having a People’s Vote does merit the use of the word betrayal. Betrayal not just of Remainers, but also of all those people that want or depend on Labour winning the next election.

12 comments:

  1. It should be crystal clear by now that the 2016 referendum was not fit for purpose.
    It should have been a vote to decide the UK's future relationship with the EU. Notwithstanding some 'bespoke' tinkering around the edges, there were/are five basic possibilities.

    1. Membership of the EU.
    2. Membership of EEC/EFTA (the 'Norway' option)
    3. A Customs union (the 'Turkey' option)
    4. A free trade deal (often described as 'Canada' - which took seven years to negotiate).
    5. No deal and WTO terms (itself almost certainly only a halfway house until one of the others is agreed).

    Instead of having a vote on these options, however, the UK only had a vote on the first one.
    This was ridiculous, as it tells us nothing. Everything that has happened since flows from this failure. Until it is corrected, the UK will never settle this issue.

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    Replies
    1. The middle 3 options are negotiating positions for the UK which the EU may not honour. If any of them won the referendum, and it was hard to implement and had Article 50 ticking away, I think you would dsay ppl didn't know what they were voting for!

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  2. typo: "Alternatives have no increased" probably should be:
    "Alternatives have now increased" (could also be "not increased" but it is unlikely).

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  3. Now it seems like many people prefer to leave with no deal according to what I see in various reporting. Is this the definition of 'In a pickle' as applied to UK politicians leaving as.

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  4. "I am sick and tired of being told that the 2016 referendum gave the government a mandate to leave the EU. It did not. It did not because it did not specify a method of leaving. The Leave campaign was all over the place on how"

    I am sick and tired of being told that the 2022 referendum gave the Scottish government a mandate to leave the UK. It did not. It did not because it did not specify a method of leaving. The Yes campaign was all over the place on how.

    I am sick and tired of being told that the 2040 referendum gave a mandate for a united Ireland and leaving the UK. It did not. It did not because it did not specify a method of leaving. The nationalist campaign was all over the place on how.

    But the default is to leave with no deal. But the default is to leave with no deal. But the default is to leave with no deal.

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  5. There is no political mess, but as always politics is messy.

    The House of Commons is working as well as can be expected given there is a hung parliament. There are few if any opinions on Brexit that are not expressed by at least one MP in parliament. Representative parliamentary democracy is a truly appalling system, but all the other systems are much worse.

    The media are not helping. Pack away the gazebos and stop chasing politicians around SW1. Get back in the studio and calm down.

    Some form of soft Brexit is now and always was the most likely outcome of the 2016 referendum. The future economic prosperity of the UK does not depend on Brexit. The UK government has all the levers of the economy under it's control already.

    More worrying than Brexit is the current overly tight fiscal stance of the UK treasury. UK growth is slowing in a world economy close to stall speed. A fiscal stimulus is required immediately.

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  6. "To throw away the next election for the sake of not having a People’s Vote"

    The problem here is that the options and conduct of any vote would be determined by MPs but many MPs are no longer representing the views of their constituents. There needs to be a General Election before there is any possibility of proceeding. The people are better informed now. Many MPs hid behind a manifesto which they had no intention of abiding by but electors now know how they voted in the indicative votes. The electorate should be given the chance to confirm or reject their MP.

    "More people don’t laugh when Brexiters say a People’s Vote would be undemocratic because the Brexiters and the Brexit press are shouting so loud people find it hard to think."

    The opinion expressed in previous blogs that a People's Vote should be between Remain and 'Brexit In Name Only' is both laughable and undemocratic. The original idea of a 'People's Vote' was to find out what people wanted. A confirmatory vote with restricted options does not do that. It is not a 'People's Vote'.

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  7. Betrayal, Traitors and tendentious arguments! Wow.

    Quick call a referendum I can win as Cameron said. It would hopefully discredit referendums forever but....

    Also to be slightly Bayesian staying and leaving has changed. A European parliament stuffed with fascists is likely to get worse. Treaties now will be subject to referendums and lose I assume and reform of the EU is only one way if they get it through. EU 'reform' last 20 years has not made it any more accountable and I doubt fanatics like Guy Verhofstadt are not representative of direction intended.

    Remain is not a one way street on nor a guarantee of stability. Remain camp seems to have wanted to win as much as some in No Deal camp at the risk of the latter (which might actually put us in a worse negotiating position so mad stupid are its adherents). Accepting all other things equal models suggest a shortfall in GDP over a long enough time frame. I still favour leaving the politically toxic world of actual fascists and crypto/quasi technocrats with even a bad deal.

    I don't want to support what happened in Greece and Cyprus and Italy in any way shape or form and certainly not for GDP differences spread over 12 years and expressed as a household cost/loss of income to sound significant.

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  8. Just to point out the obvious, it was Parliament that chose the question. So when MPs say that the result of the referendum was not clear, we should just pause and remember that they are admitting asking a question the answer to which they do not understand.

    And if the referendum did not give a mandate, then what exactly was the point of it? I'm pretty sure if I trawl the available footage and literature I will find lots and lots of people saying the referendum was a once in a generation referendum and whatever option the people chose would be implemented, and absolutely no-one anywhere saying the outcome of the referendum will be completely unclear and not constitute a mandate for anything.

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  9. What are the interests? What is behind the positions? The badly named "ERG" seems a combination of demagogues and rich people who want to avoid the tax haven policies of the EU--hence desperation. Maybe. DUP I can't fathom--what really is their endgame? Crashing out, May's deal, line in the sea--all this will accelerate motion towards a united Ireland. They seem best served staying in the EU. Corbyn seems delusional, or following Milne too closely, or both. "Regular" Tories are also mysterious--are they delusional, afraid, incompetent? What would they gain that makes them better off (except listening to some select corporate masters--could such a conspiracy theory really be true?).

    Historians will have a fun day with this one, if we make it that far.

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  10. In any TV/radio interview you will never hear a Conservative MP accuse the EU of being undemocratic. Being media savvy, they know that a professional interviewer will immediately come back at them with: But your government is in power with 3 million fewer votes than the Opposition parties

    The same MPs are however quite happy for their many friends in the Conservative press to encourage this belief. And the press has had a lot of success with this: it's almost an article of faith with Joe Leave that the EU is undemocratic. The Conservative press can say the things that Conservative MPs daren't say---and the MPs know that.

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  11. Why not just revoke Article 50, on the basis that Parliament has refused to agree to a framework that preserves the Good Friday Agreement? It's after all boneheaded to violate a peace treaty with a trade treaty.

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