If ‘Remain’ succeeds this month, the winners must define the victory. John McTernan and Miranda Green each give their take on how
If you are going to fight in a referendum, fight to win. The choices – if plebiscites are deployed properly – are definitional, sometimes, as with Brexit or Scottish independence, existential. You fight to win, and, in the words of Malcolm X, you win ‘by any means necessary’. There is no time for preciousness or nervousness – a victory by the other side is not just a wrong decision that is irreversible, defeat for your proposition means that what you think is right for your country is the road not taken. Throw everything at winning, but do not forget the day after.
Victory is not a moment, it is a process. After the result is declared the fight goes on. That was understood by both the Conservatives and the Scottish National party and in 2014 – the year of the independence referendum – they both had strategies for 19 September, the day after. The Conservatives successfully stoked up English nationalism with a call for ‘English votes for English laws’. The nationalists successfully made the referendum into a grievance – a sense of ‘we wuz robbed’ that turned the referendum into a constitutional cup final lost on penalties. Labour, in contrast, hit the ground dawdling – and paid the price, north and south of the border, in the general election.
This time it has to be different. This time Labour needs a plan for 24 June – and the days and months following. What is needed is straightforward to describe, harder to deliver. Or, in the words of Ronald Reagan, it is not easy but it is simple.
First, if ‘Remain’ wins – which looks highly likely, given current polling – Labour has to claim the victory. Of the two main parties, only the Labour party was united in its campaign for staying in the European Union. It is Labour’s network of councillors and activists who were the troops on the ground – they leafleted and canvassed, they knocked up on the day and drove ‘Remain’ voters to the polls. The Tories do not have a comparable field operation and they were and are divided on the issue of the EU. That Tory split will make the days following the referendum easier. David Cameron, in a desperate attempt to unite his party, will want to change the subject. Labour should do a victory lap.
Then, while celebrating, Labour should define the victory. And here it should take a lesson from Sadiq Khan’s actions after his election as mayor of London. Khan defined his win as a celebration of shared values – ones shared between Labour and Londoners, but not by the Tories. So, Alan Johnson – leader of the Labour In campaign – should celebrate the country’s endorsement of shared values. A win should be seen, and described as, showing support for the workplace rights and the equality legislation underpinned by the EU. It should be celebrated as a ringing endorsement for diversity and for the progressive values of an open society – one that has fair trade and fair immigration.
But there must be no letting up on the promotion of a reform programme for the EU. A win for ‘Remain’ is not an endorsement for the status quo, it is backing for a changing, reforming and improving EU. Labour needs to promote its EU reform agenda. This is a big space for a major renewal of social democratic thinking – there are certainly not going to be any competing views coming from a divided Tory party.
Labour must not, though, neglect the voters who supported Brexit. Many traditional Labour voters – both white working-class and BAME voters – have been attracted by the ‘Leave’ case. A progressive, patriotic politics is the way to consolidate those voters as Labour. A politics that acknowledges the pride people have in Britain as a country and what we stand for in the world. The desire to leave the EU has a strong progressive element which Labour must capture.
Most of all, victory for ‘Remain’ must be used by Labour – together with Khan’s win in London – as a template for winning in the future. The next big electoral prize for Labour is the mayoralty of Greater Manchester. It is no small prize: the economy there is larger than that of Wales. This should not be an electoral challenge for Labour, but it is an ideological one. What is the vision that both fulfils the rhetoric of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and harnesses both the disaffected white and BAME voters? What are the housing and health policies that deliver equalities and growth?
But, above all, 24 June should be a day of celebration. Not only will it be a loss for the intellectual right, it will be the first national vote that Labour has won for over a decade. That, in itself, will be worth a loud cheer.
John McTernan is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street
Voting in the European parliament elections rarely makes it to the top of the British electorate’s ‘to do’ list. Still less does the public generally notice much of the campaigns. But in 2014’s European election, a terrible moment during the television debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage seemed to crystallise, for many, how badly pro-Europeans were lagging behind public opinion on Britain’s place in the European Union.
In answer to a question about how the union would look in the future, time slowed to a crawl as a dazed Clegg said it would be pretty much as it is now.
After this year’s Brexit referendum, no one in politics will be able to pretend that the British public are content with the status quo, even if voters are prepared to put up with it – for now – when presented only with a nebulous and risky alternative.
The centre of gravity has moved, even on the centre-left and probably for all time, from a conviction that the United Kingdom should or could be ‘at the heart of Europe’ to a shared recognition that our history and temperament make Britons far less integrationist than the continental countries who have tasted the horror of neighbour invading neighbour.
The Liberal Democrat experience in that 2014 fight was that of a Europhile canary in an increasingly airless coal mine, testing to destruction the theories of those who at every successive moment of crisis recommend a full-throated effort to celebrate the EU, rather than the cautious sceptic-lite approach of the Stronger In campaign.
When you consider the ongoing perils member states face singly and as a union – the migration crisis, eurozone debt travails, a tortured ‘TTIP’ process – how can the UK, after the referendum, ensure it does not repeat the mistakes made in Scotland’s referendum, and win the war only to lose the peace?
There is no escaping the fact that David Cameron will be key. With 23 June behind him, he will have an opportunity to rebuild the UK’s reputation in Brussels and the European capitals, and to press on with a distinctly UK agenda in the run-up to the British presidency in 2017.
As Peter Spiegel, recently returned to London after several years as the Financial Times Brussels bureau chief, observes, nothing succeeds at EU gatherings like the aura of domestic political success. So Cameron will have a few months in which his standing is enhanced by having come through the Brexit test: ‘When Britain wants to play ball, the UK can mould the EU agenda,’ Spiegel told a business audience last month.
No 10 will be keen to move on the moment the referendum is over, and excise the word ‘Europe’ from the prime minister’s diary and speeches for the rest of the parliament – and Scotland shows how willing Cameron can be to use a win, even the next day, for a short-term tactical initiative that makes the long-term problem worse. In this case he may try buying off his headbangers again. But EU enthusiasts in the opposition parties will have to keep pressing for engagement – perhaps by reminding the Tory leadership that the best way not to put the country through another near-miss plebiscite is to make Britons feel the direction of travel for the EU is one our pragmatic trading nation can now help guide.
Moreover, the referendum will not have addressed the well of insecurity and fear that has fed anti-EU sentiment in this country. Worklessness, lack of skills and education, stagnant or low earnings and the sensation of being left behind in Cameron’s infamous ‘global race’, perhaps even the lack of a robust sense of English and British identity, confident enough not to feel threatened by pooling sovereignty with other nations and by immigration – these social afflictions stem from policy failures over decades.
Traditional Labour voters who now look to the United Kingdom Independence party (or shrug as polling day comes and goes) are right to feel angry and ignored.
The most honourable response of the centre-left parties would be to realise that, although the Brexit crisis has been of Tory making, the chronic conditions that have made it such a bitter battle demand action.
Pat McFadden told me last year in an interview for Newsweek that addressing the underlying problems that stoke concerns about immigration and globalisation was ‘the defining challenge for political leadership of our age.’
We had better try to meet it, or the next time a Conservative leader offers a referendum on the EU – a real and present danger after Cameron – we really will be pulling out.
Miranda Green is a journalist and former press secretary to Paddy Ashdown as leader of the Liberal Democrats
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.