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? 

The Labour Party divide isn’t about power vs purity 

It puzzles me how such astute electioneering experts who pride themselves on their ability to reach out beyond their own ‘tribe’ can fail so spectacularly to understand that not everyone in their own party is motivated by the same things they are.
The Labour Party talkers have gone full panic mode this week, with arguments about the split between the “left” and the “right”, the “purists” and the “realists.”

But the split in Labour isn’t as simple as a split between left and right, and it certainly isn’t as simple as purists and realists; rather, it is a split between the motivations of those who think all social progress happens through a strong executive government, and those who see parliamentary democracy as only one tool of many for bringing about social progress.

Those in the “executive government is all” camp aren’t necessarily cynical bastards who think power is an end in itself (undoubtedly there are people like this on all sides of politics but that’s not who I’m writing about here). Many of these people are motivated by a desire to win elections because, in their world view, it is the only way social progress of whatever sort they seek can occur.

It is not, of course, a coincidence that there is a lot of overlap between people who take this world view and people who have a career in the world of politics, be it in parliament, or be it in journalism or election strategy.

Most political activists, on the other hand, believe that social progress happens through a variety of means. Parliamentary democracy might be one means of achieving change but legislation isn’t everything and the role of the executive within the legislative process certainly isn’t everything to this group. Many of these people support electoral reform in some way, wouldn’t mind seeing a proportional system with power-sharing and coalitions that hold each other to account rather than ‘strong government’ from one single party.

As far as the Labour leadership candidates are concerned, it might be wise for them to keep in mind that much of their party’s new intake consists of former Liberal Democrat members or voters, who are quite used to voting on the basis of wanting the makeup of parliament to be such that it represents their values rather than first and foremost expecting to form a strong executive government.

And many Labour members are also activists. Far from an insular, narcissistic ideological purity, activists tend to believe that changing attitudes, empowering communities, and actually making a positive impact in all sorts of practical ways, is as important, if not more important, than getting a Labour government. That’s not because they are too pure for power and prefer the self-indulgence of opposition, but rather, because they see evidence that plenty can be done with marches, strikes, community organising, volunteering in the local church or foodbank, giving talks in schools, validating and listening to marginalised people, consumer power, petitions, lobbying and, of course, by having the MPs you want in parliament to represent and vote against things or table EDMs or basically get things done for their constituents – all without necessarily being in government.

In other words, it is a split based on a disagreement about the best way to achieve practical change, not a split between those who want practical change and people who want an ideological circle jerk, as is repeatedly inferred by increasingly rude senior Labour figures, supposedly experts in this stuff, who, for all their pride in understanding Tory voters, don’t seem to have any understanding of their own.

I must admit I tend to fall into the second group. Most significant societal progress has not happened solely as a result of electing the right people to power and letting them get on with it. It is always, always, always driven by other types of activism. I don’t conclude from that, as some do, that parliamentary democracy is irrelevant. But it means when I vote, I am choosing people who I think will be most likely to be influenced by all the other forces driving that social progress; that they will represent their constituents rather than being bullied by whips even if it’s contrary to their constituents’ interests, raise important issues in parliament on our behalf, to do meaningful work in the constituency, to be thoughtful and evidence-based in their approach to getting things done, and be always focused on the impact a policy has on the public, not just its marketability.

What’s curious to me is that for all their talk of listening to people you disagree with and meeting people where their values already lie, people like Liz Kendall seem to have no clue whatsoever about how to connect with the people they need at this stage of their campaign – and that is Labour Party members.

As Chuka Umunna so wisely put it, “screaming at voters” doesn’t change their minds if what you’re screaming isn’t what they care about.

And asserting that you are popular and electable because, well, because you say so doesn’t make a convincing case. This is the crux of the problem. Jeremy Corbyn may of course be unelectable in a general election. But the problem is that in many people’s eyes, so are the other three.

Yes, it’s simplistic and false to say that the Labour Party lost the last election because it was not left-wing enough – but it is also simplistic and false to say that it lost simply for being too left-wing, and that all the party has to do to win next time is move a bit further to the right.

Everyone knows Ed Miliband wasn’t trusted on the economy. That isn’t the same as being left-wing. It is also about leadership skills and credibility; about a lack of original ideas and the absence of a positive narrative. Not being on the extreme left of the party is not the same as having these things. You have to have other qualities to offer as well as being comfortable moving to the right. For a start, you have to actually be good at campaigning, communicating, and persuading – and the first rule of being good at that, surely, is understanding how to speak to your current audience.

You’d think cold-headed strategists who believe the most important thing is to win would approach a Labour leadership contest by appealing to the Labour membership. In being utterly unable to do so, Kendall, Cooper, and Burnham demonstrate the vacuousness of their position – and the difference between themselves and the ultimate election-winner, Tony Blair. Just as his supporters will remind us that Tony Blair achieved some progressive things (a minimum wage, a fox-hunting ban, tax credits and the Human Rights Act, many of which, incidentally, are now seen as left-wing) but he had to win over middle-England first, I am inclined to remind them that he may have won over middle-England – but he won the Labour leadership first.

And so the party grandees are throwing a sulk and insulting the party members because these three are failing to do that. Because Jeremy Corbyn’s arguments are seen by some in the party as so “ridiculous” that they’ve forgotten to actually counter them.

If you want to make sure Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t get the leadership then you have to understand why people are supporting him. It’s amazing that anyone thinks “screaming” that he’s unelectable will work. It’s amazing that they don’t hear the double standards as they pompously lecture people on how they must never mention the racism and wider bigotry that lies behind Ukip’s appeal in case it alienates racists and bigots, while sneering at and insulting the people they disagree with every time they open their mouths.

Not everyone lives and dies for the cult of the Labour Party. Not even all Labour members, and certainly not your new, younger ones. Alistair Campbell apparently once said of the left-leaning voters who could abandon the party as it drove to the centre: “where can they go?” Well, nowadays, lots of places. Look at Scotland. The Labour Party is one of the parties in parliament; it is one tool in achieving social progress. But it is not the only one. If the Labour Party doesn’t want people like that to be members, then go ahead and chase them out calling them names, insulting their motives and, worst of all perhaps, sneering at young people for daring to take an interest in politics and say what they truly think.

But to then get on their high horses about how they’re so good at reaching out to new voters after doing that beggars belief. Each campaign for the party leadership is an audition in the candidates’ campaigning skills. It’s not just about left and right but the ability to persuade, negotiate – to lead. If Jeremy Corbyn is so bad at these things, and the other three are so much better, how come they are all so dismally failing to beat him?

What is the point of the Labour Party? 

What is the point of the Labour Party? It’s not the first time I’ve asked this. But maybe it will be the last. Maybe I’ll give up asking. Perhaps once they pick a leader this time they will make the answer clear and I won’t have to keep asking.

Right now they seem to be saying that the point of Labour is to get back into government. That sounds reasonable until you realise that’s where it stops. That’s the end in itself. The point of Labour is to give Labour’s top names a career and to win elections. But ask them why they want to be prime minister, the party strategists, the electoral ‘realists’ who do nothing but consume polling data and spit out clichéd inanities about aspiration while insisting they are in touch with ‘the public’, ask them what it is they want to do with their power, and they look at you blankly.

Liz Kendall wants to be leader because she wants the Labour Party to win elections. And then what? She’s often compared to Tony Blair but she has none of the vision, no overriding sense of how she wants to transform the country, that made people believe in Blair. Or, if she does, she hides it from Labour members during the leadership contest, which makes me a little nervous.

Yvette Cooper, according to one new MP, wants to be prime minister because she wants the economy to be strong and because she knows that the internet exists. A strong economy based on a digital revolution, which could be a joke policy from the Thick of It, except it’s too boring.

Andy Burnham, from what I can establish, thinks he’s the best candidate because he has friends, has a constituency that he goes back to sometimes, used to work at a publishing company and likes football.

And they wonder why Jeremy Corbyn is grabbing people’s imagination. At least he sounds as he has an idea or two in his head about what he actually thinks the country needs. At least he has a bit of passion, at least he trips over his words rather than reading them off a page without caring if they even make sense or directly contradict the logic of something else he’s said only moments ago.

It’s hard to expect people to take seriously the meaning of labels like hard left when the rest of the accepted narrative has moved so far to the right that Nigel Farage is in touch, George Osborne is a moderate man of the working people, putting up taxes for people in work on low pay is balanced, and suggesting that child poverty is bad or that sick people shouldn’t have even more money taken away from them, is all the stuff of the so-called looney left. It doesn’t matter that policies like working tax credits were the stuff of popular, centrist Blairism not so long ago.

And yet the left of the party, not the ones with the ever-changing principles and week-long memories, are the ones to get attacked for moral relativism.

It’s true that the Conservatives won the last election, and it’s true that there’s a lot of public hostility to various aspects of the welfare state. But the Conservatives did not, however much it seems to be the accepted popular narrative, win by some honking, stonking majority. They did better than everybody expected with their surprise victory, but it was still, compared with Blair, or Thatcher, by the skin of their teeth. And that’s without even beginning to consider the mess of the electoral system. The vast majority of people in the country did not vote Tory, and did not vote centre right.

The Tories won the election but that doesn’t mean democracy stops for five years. We don’t have an elected dictatorship, we have a parliamentary democracy. The Labour MPs elected to parliament have a job to do. They are paid to do it – and paid rather good money to do it. That job is holding the government to account, and representing their own constituents – not worrying about what floating voters in a handful of other marginal seats may or may not be concerned with in five years time. 

Let’s not forget that the party will oppose the government at the risk of losing the ‘centre ground’ when it suits them, of course; the link between the unions and the Labour Party is hammed up to be just as toxic as anti-benefit sentiments but the party speaks up against anti-union reforms because that could impact the party’s pockets, rather than just yours or mine.

Arguments about the actual impact of the Welfare Bill won’t matter to the party ‘realists’ of course – if they were going to be listen to those impacted by the cuts they would have done so by now – but there’s a cynical, political argument as well for not letting the centre be dragged any further to the right. How much further can this go? If cutting taxes for people in work has become some sort of extreme left wing socialism, then where will the centre ground be in five years? And Labour think they can win an election, on that ground, on the terms set by George Osborne, in five years time? By repeating patronising platitudes and hoping the SNP implode or that Scottish voters simply decide they rather like Liz Kendall and quite fancy another five years of cuts and privatisation, actually?

The Labour ‘realists’ keep going on about how Labour needs to stay as a party of government, not a party of protest. But Labour MPs are sitting in the House of Commons, paid by those taxpayers that the ‘realists’ keep pretending they care about. They have a choice. They can take a ‘tough decision’ and use their influence to hold the government to account, as they’re paid to do. Or they can sit on their hands and stick their fingers in their ears and refuse to oppose things that will cause actual harm just to make an abstract point. A point they will be hammered on anyway, because Labour will probably always be seen as the party of the welfare stare. Labour is the party of the welfare state. Or, rather, it was, once upon a time. If any of the leadership hopefuls really want Labour to be seen as a party of government, they should take a little bit less interest in the beauty pageant of leadership contests, or the faffing around with percentages in marginals to decide what position to take on any given day, and take a little bit more interest in showing they are actually up to the serious business of governing.

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