Brexiteers, or anybody with any lingering attachment to democracy, are likely to be offended by the Labour party’s latest Brexit policy. Labour will renegotiate their own deal with the EU, mostly because they don’t want to admit that the deal that the Tories have negotiated is actually fine with them, and they will then put it to a national referendum. This new deal will be essentially only a pretext for holding the referendum itself and, as such, flatly insincere. The only meaningful option on the ballot paper is meant to be remaining in the EU.
Logically, the choice in this referendum should be either leaving with Labour’s new deal or leaving with no deal, on WTO terms. Given that the electorate had taken a long, cool look at the EU in 2016 and decided that it simply wasn’t good enough, it needs to be explained quite why Remain is back, cheerfully unscathed. Indeed, there is something almost insolent about Labour’s feigned deafness to the voters’ original command to leave.
Moreover, an average of polls conducted between July and August had found that 38% of respondents favoured leaving with WTO terms as the deal. Labour’s referendum disenfranchises these voters from the outset. It will be the equivalent of holding a general election in which one of the country’s main political parties is legally prohibited from standing. It will be thus like a democratic event in a banana republic and, in the nation of Tom Paine and Emmeline Pankhurst, it will carry an especially unfamiliar malarial tang.
What will happen if there are more spoiled ballots than votes for either of the options on the ballot paper? Could Labour honestly follow through and base one of the most foundational aspects of our economy on such flimsy democratic legitimacy? Can our membership of the EU be built on such a transparently knavish manipulation of the voters in any case?
There is also something greatly questionable about Jeremy Corbyn’s resolve to remain “neutral” during this referendum. It is firstly that he isn’t being neutral – he is against no deal and in support of either of the other two comparatively synonymous alternatives. It is secondly that Brexit and Remain have traction with the public only as moral causes. Brexiteers such as myself believe that we are fighting for a genuine mass-participatory democracy. Remainers believe in pooling sovereignty and international cooperation. By not divulging his own priorities here, Corbyn is in danger of resembling a leader without any morality, a spectral technocratic phenomenon. It is a sinister place for a supposed socialist to end up at.
Still, Brexiteers might gain some unexpected encouragement from Labour’s manifesto “It’s Time For Real Change.” The only respect in which “It’s Time For Real Change” is not a Brexiteering document is in its actual Brexit policy. It otherwise portends such economic disruption and transformation that it is practically married to Brexit and living in conjugal bliss with it. The whole point of the EU is that it makes economic disruption literally illegal. Ideally for its supporters, the EU will keep Europe’s economies forever drowsily aligned and, in fact, ever more inescapably integrated.
Where lovers of the EU speak of reversing the last three years and returning to political normality, “It’s Time For Real Change” tells them that they are never going home again. Where Remainers squeak about the terrors of no deal and its disruption to the flow of trade, “It’s Time For Real Change” rejoices in a stupendous disruption to every region of the economy. Where those opposing no deal fervently chant the warnings and assessments of the IFS, the IFS has been first in the queue to condemn “It’s Time For Real Change.” Where Remainers want to double down on the status quo, Labour’s manifesto is called, “It’s Time For Real Change.”
Taxing second homes and private education will probably also hit the Remainer core hard.
“It’s Time For Real Change” is almost interpretable as the most audacious attempt on Labour’s part to hoodwink its own young, Remain-supporting, predominantly middle-class activists. Labour is committed to retaining the formal shell of the EU, either absolutely or partially, whilst otherwise scorning everything that this organisation stands for. If the UK dropped out of the EU without a deal whilst Labour’s manifesto was being implemented, the country would be so preoccupied that it most likely wouldn’t notice.
There appears to be a certain degree of cognitive dissonance involved in reconciling Labour’s nationalisations with membership of the EU. You will be no doubt familiar with those fantastic intellectual contortions that conclude with the guarantee that the EU will be somehow neutral or uninterested in the state takeover of private assets. Such analyses always conspicuously fail to cite any examples of successful nationalisation programmes under EU law. Sure, many European countries have already-nationalised industries under the EU’s state aid rules, but the point here, which Labour’s defenders wilfully evade, is that the EU’s legal protections to property mean that nationalisations cannot occur without full compensation. This “takes back control” of the price of any nationalisation away from a national government. Labour’s manifesto balance sheet omits the £196 billion that these nationalisations will allegedly cost.
Labour’s manifesto is pure popcorn – firstly because it is an exciting read and secondly because it is jumping everywhere all over the place with ideas. One minute it is restoring legal aid and the next it is building nuclear power stations and the next it is providing free dentistry and the next it is extending high speed rail to Scotland. Whatever you think of this, it is massively reinvigorating for politics and democratic engagement. The basis of this manifesto is that a national government can be empowered and imaginative, rather than merely a passive, conformist recipient of policies from the EU’s “top table.”
“It’s Time For Real Change” is not, though, a work of realism. Its fabulism might be only really explicable as evidence that Labour are in search of a coalition or minority government, in which they will have to trade away half of their manifesto with a more realistic party in order to be able to govern. Still, if they implemented only a tenth of this manifesto, they would be the most transformative government yet of this century.
As a Brexiteer, and a Lexiteer, I have been here undertaking some gymnastics of my own, in trying to locate a position in which a vote for Labour can be simultaneously a vote against the EU. But, somewhat to my amazement, my argument sticks together – surprisingly, it works! Of course, it is strengthened by the fact that the most pro-EU party in this election, the Liberal Democrats, have a characteristically unadventurous and technocratic manifesto. Most voters will only know of one Lib Dem policy – revoking Article 50. The Lib Dems also want to randomly legalise cannabis (but no other drugs), tax frequent flyers, and build a remarkably low number of new homes. This is a vision of the UK sleepily back in the EU, with the dangerous Brexiteering public docile or neutralised again. Or even stoned.
Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem leader, is meant to be the youthful, fresh-faced, centrist enfant terrible, to whom the nation will gratefully turn to renew its EU membership. It’s the umpteenth instance of political attempts to rescue the EU not setting any heather alight. Swinson is bombing on the doorstep, with half of polled voters now taking an unfavourable view of her.