EU referendum: Beyond liberal economics

The official campaigns from both sides of the EU referendum debate are both so exasperating I frequently find myself wishing I could vote against both of them.

Neither campaign deserves my vote, and yet, it is an historic question, which is bigger than both official campaigns. It is bigger than David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn; certainly bigger than Nigel Farage or George Galloway.

While the official campaign representatives haggle over how best to reduce immigration and cut benefits, the rest of the serious, complex issues that are affected by EU membership never seem to get a look in. It isn’t surprising; this EU referendum debate, and the reason we are having it in the first place, is all down to the fight in the UK between different types of conservative; between economic liberals and social conservatives. No wonder the spectrum of debate is narrow. 

Take Lord Stuart Rose’s comments to the parliamentary select committee last week. Lord Rose asserted that Brexit (specifically, an end to the ‘free movement of people’ between EU member states) would lead to fewer people on the Labour market, and, consequentially, higher wages. Will Straw, the Labour Executive Director of Britain Stronger In Europe campaign, was asked about this on the Daily Politics and replied that the evidence shows free movement of people is ‘good for the economy overall,’ while Conservative Danny Finkelstein said that higher wages aren’t always a good thing as they could increase unemployment. It’s not just the In campaign. Look at the way Boris Johnson, on the Andrew Marr Show, dismissed concerns about job losses as a result of Brexit, by saying that leaving will be good for the economy overall.

What if you simply want to know more about the impact of staying or leaving on your wages or on your job? You’d be forgiven for getting the distinct impression that this debate isn’t about you; that both sides consider you to be at best an annoying irrelevance.

These things are gold dust for the likes of Ukip, a party which loves to play the ‘anti-establishment’ card whenever it can. Without so much as having to lift a finger over workers rights or wages, Suzanne Evans, Louise Bours and Douglas Carswell get opportunity after opportunity to frame themselves as the only people in the room with any concern for low waged workers. (Or, I should say, for some low waged workers. They do not even pretend to care about all workers.)

With the arguments we keep hearing both for and against EU membership so rooted in classical liberal economics, it is unsurprising to see that Jeremy Corbyn flat out refuses to say he is “on the same side” of the debate as David Cameron. He is right, of course. He is on neither side in the fight between the two kinds of Tory. He is neither a classical liberal conservative nor a social conservative. His cautious, carefully-weighed answer to the question of which ‘side he is on’ may be intellectually honest, and to many it will be admirable, but unfortunately it leaves a gaping hole in the referendum debate which Alan Johnson cannot fill by himself. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party needs to be asking – and, ideally, answering – the question: what are the modern left-wing arguments for and against the EU project, and how do we weigh them up? 

The Labour party should not be scared of debating this openly. No-one can accuse them of ‘splits’ or ‘division’ when the Tories are practically plotting a leadership coup over the issue. And it’s not like the Labour party is taking the opportunity to criticise the Tories for being divided on Europe – they’ve had a bat and ball handed to them and they’re choosing not to even attempt to swing a hit; the least they could do is take the opportunity to work up a modern, social democratic vision of the EU while the government is busy fighting among themselves.

Besides, for all the critical talk of ‘splits’ in the Tory party over Europe, I find it rather refreshing to see politicians drop the ridiculous pretence for once that everyone in one party agrees on every single thing all the time; that they must all stick to the lines they are given, even if it doesn’t fly, even if it makes no earthly sense, even if everyone in the room knows full well that they do not believe it because they have said so in the past, on camera. 

And here lies one of the big risks for the In campaign: that the freedom to speak authentically puts the Brexit campaign at an advantage. Brexit is mostly made up of people who have spent years, decades, perhaps their whole political lives pondering the issue of the EU. While sometimes coming off as slightly weird and monomaniacal, it is evident from listening to these people that they care deeply about the subject, and know the arguments inside out. Michael Gove, Owen Patterson, Douglas Carswell, David Davis, John Redwood (although not, quite noticeably, Boris Johnson): these men give the distinct impression that there are very, very few questions about the EU that a journalist could throw at them which they haven’t spent hours considering for many hours over the course of their lives, while boiling an egg, waiting for petrol, sitting on the toilet, and basically any time their minds wander.

In contrast, many of those who are part of the In campaign are striving to stay on message, and repeat the approved lines. Many of them – not all, but many – appear as if they have not given the subject much profound or careful thought at all; in some cases because they never imagined Brexit to be on the cards in any serious way, and in some cases because they simply don’t see it as that important.

While sticking to a clear, agreed message might give the In campaign a more professional image, especially to the usual analysts, who tend to work in communications, media, or both, and therefore view everything through the lens of whether it looks like ‘good communications’ or not, we only have to look to the successes of people like Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump to see that this isn’t always a winning strategy these days. To many undecided voters, David Cameron and his colleagues risk sounding stilted, unenthused, arrogant, and – perhaps the biggest risk to the In campaign – elitist. The narrative that the ‘establishment’ wants us to stay in the EU and ‘the ordinary people’ want us to leave is helped further by stories about vital documents being withheld from pro-Brexit ministers or John Longworth being suspended from the British Chamber of Commerce over pro-Brexit comments. (Both these things may of course be entirely reasonable, but they feed into a perception about the fairness of the debate.)

And this is where Jeremy Corbyn’s voice is so sorely missed for many in the EU referendum debate – and where it is conspicuous by its absence. His ‘USP’ as we all know is his authenticity and his tendency to formulate policy positions on the basis of evidence, and by listening to the people affected, rather than choosing them as part of a communications strategy or ideological narrative. It is a strength, but it is also a great challenge to pursue intellectual honesty – and not just in politics. When you follow evidence and logic on complex issues you often end up with a conclusion that displeases those with much more power than yourself, or, a conclusion that does not fit under any labels, and it is therefore not saleable.

This is the problem with the EU debate. The right-wing case for the EU (that it facilitates globalisation in the modern world and is good for business in general) is saleable. The right-wing case against the EU (that it brings red tape and regulation, and allows too much immigration or the ‘wrong sort’ of immigration) is saleable. The left-wing case for leaving (that it is a “capitalist club,” which dilutes and overrides parliamentary sovereignty) is saleable. And yet, even though the EU is a social democratic project in so many ways – indeed, this is why so many right-wingers want out – it seems to be beyond the wit of the Labour party to articulate a saleable, authentic, progressive case for staying in the EU. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, with a large mandate, a philosophical thinker with an authentic voice who has credibility among left-wingers, seems the ideal person for the task. We may ask ourselves why he seems so cautious about stepping up to it? 

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