Archive for the ‘Britain’ Category

My academic focus has switched from genocide to racism in contemporary politics. In this article just published on openDemocracy, based on research currently under review for academic publication, I discuss the weaponisation of immigration and race by Vote Leave in 2016 in the light of its Facebook ads, recently released.

 

(Vote Leave Facebook ad, fair use)

Boris Johnson’s weaponisation of the burqa came on the heels of new revelations about the propaganda strategy of the Vote Leave campaign which he fronted in the 2016 referendum. I argued here at the time that Vote Leave’s official television advertisement, the most high-profile item of Leave propaganda, was a skillful racist amalgam.

During the referendum, we knew that Vote Leave was sending a huge number of targeted social media messages. Its strategist Dominic Cummings now says there were 1.5 billion, with a large number directed at just 7 million voters in the final days of the campaign, but these were under the radar for pro-EU observers in 2016.

However, following the twin scandals around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ, and Vote Leave’s breaches of election spending laws, Facebook supplied Vote Leave’s advertisements to Westminster’s Media, Culture and Sport committee. It is now possible to see that the TV ad was the centrepiece of a vast multimedia effort centred on a nuanced orchestration of racism to swing the Brexit vote.

How racism in the Leave campaign has been misunderstood

This third scandal is possibly the most serious of all for British democracy, yet to appreciate it we must revise our ideas on the role of racism in Brexit. During and after the referendum, pro-EU politicians and commentators largely identified racism with the UKIP-linked Leave.EU, which was responsible for what became an emblematic moment, the unveiling by Nigel Farage – just after the assassination of the Labour MP Jo Cox – of the notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster which used a photograph of Syrian refugees to represent migration into Britain. Vote Leave distanced itself from the poster: the co-convenor of its campaign committee, Michael Gove (then as now a cabinet minister), said that he ‘shuddered’ when he saw it.

Moreover, Leave.EU attacked Vote Leave for giving insufficient priority to immigration and critics have largely taken their attacks at face value, accepting the idea that Leave.EU was racist, Vote Leave not. When a wave of physical and verbal aggression erupted, political blame focused on the secondary campaign fronted by Farage and funded by Arron Banks. Indeed Tim Shipman recounts that Leave.EU advertisements were ‘deliberately sent to supporters of the British National Party and Britain First’, the racist group to which Thomas Mair, Cox’s murderer, was linked because he cried ‘Britain first’ as he killed her (All Out War, p.408).

However the focus on Leave.EU, the extreme right and hate crimes misses the role of the campaign which was officially recognised by the Electoral Commission and led by Conservative ministers and Labour MPs: Vote Leave. In the biggest TV debate on 20 June 2016, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, accused Vote Leave leaders of ‘Project Hate’, a rare calling-out of their campaign at the time. We can now see how right he was.

How Vote Leave’s TV and Facebook propaganda combined

By then Vote Leave had shown its TV election broadcast repeatedly on different channels over four weeks, starting on 23 May. Beginning with lurid graphics representing the immigration threat of Turkey and Balkan countries joining the EU and the £350 million the UK allegedly paid the EU each week, it climaxed with split screen film showing (staying within the EU) a surly foreign man elbowing a tearful elderly white woman out of the queue in an Accident and Emergency department, while (leaving the EU) the woman is contentedly treated without having to wait. This film was on YouTube as recently as the spring of this year, but appears to have been removed since the scandals of the Vote Leave campaign were exposed. The importance of this broadcast is that it was shown, as law required, on all terrestrial public channels and therefore accessible to almost all the electorate, including older voters, a major target audience many of whom did not use social media.

(A still from Vote Leave’s TV ad. Fair use.)

The new information published by the DMCS committee shows how Facebook propaganda complemented this broadcast. While Vote Leave’s hundreds of Facebook advertisements included a wide range of issues, the largest cluster focused on immigration, Turkey and the linked £350 million claim, and widely re-used graphics and images from the broadcast in material posted to targeted subsets of users. Images of Johnson (the only featured politician) were used with apparently liberal, democratic slogans such as ‘I’m pro-immigration, but above all I’m pro controlled immigration. In the EU the system has spun out of control. Join Me, Vote Leave’, and ‘Immigration must be controlled by those who the public elected and not the EU! On the 23 June they will get their chance to take back control.’

However alongside these were lurid advertisements like: ‘5.23 MILLION MORE IMMIGRANTS ARE MOVING TO THE UK! GOOD NEWS???’ (the viewer was invited to press a ‘YES’ or ‘NO’ button, and presumably ‘no’ respondents were targeted with further advertisements reprising the theme in one of many variations now revealed) and ‘Reason No. 8’ to leave the EU, ‘‘To stop convicted criminals from countries like Latvia and Romania coming to the UK’ (the button was: ‘YES, I VOTE LEAVE’).

In this differentiated propaganda, on the one hand immigration was presented as an example of ‘taking back control’ with the abstract theme of excessive numbers of migrants, and on the other as the threat of large numbers of new migrants arriving from undesirable places like Turkey and the equally distant, barely known Balkan states of Serbia, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. Each of these countries featured separately in mutually reinforcing advertisements, which may well have been posted sequentially to susceptible Facebook users.

‘Abstract stuff’ and emotive propaganda

The combination of an emphasis on numbers with more emotive, targeted tropes is not new. In his notorious 1968 speech, Enoch Powell asserted: ‘numbers are of the essence: the significance and consequences of an alien element introduced into a country or population are profoundly different according to whether that element is 1 per cent or 10 per cent.’ Powell always claimed to be ignorant of the term ‘race’, and in remarks around the same time which seem prophetic of contemporary Europhobic concerns, even suggested around the same time that clusters of Italians or Germans in British cities would constitute the same sort of ‘alien’ presence as large numbers of blacks.

Nevertheless, just as Vote Leave named Turks, Albanians and others, Powell made it very clear that he was talking about ‘Negroes’, evoking the fate of the sole ‘white (a woman old-age pensioner)’, living in a street taken over by these ‘aliens’: ‘She is becoming afraid to go out. Windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letter-box. When she goes out to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies.’

The key here was that Powell needed to give the ‘abstract stuff’ about numbers, as the historian Randall Hansen calls it, human form to make it the emotional stuff of effective propaganda. It is difficult not to see Vote Leave’s broadcast with its focus on the plight of a vulnerable older white woman as homage to Powell’s exposition, and curious that Johnson, having notoriously also prattled about ‘piccaninnies’ and ‘watermelon smiles’, should now have referred to ‘letter-boxes’ in his attack on Muslim women. Whether or not they are consciously referencing Powell, they are following his playbook remarkably faithfully considering the changed circumstances.

Strategic role of immigration in Vote Leave’s campaign

More important than these historical parallels is the incontrovertible evidence that Vote Leave attached as much strategic importance to immigration politics as Leave.EU. Shipman demonstrates, using comprehensive interviews with leading participants, that the differences between the campaigns concerned strategy and timing rather than the principle of weaponising immigration. He shows that Cummings always understood that Leave could not win without making immigration a crucial plank, and that his aim was to establish Vote Leave’s respectable credentials by focusing on sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ before the official campaign, and then to introduce immigration in that final month as the killer argument which would concretise ‘control’ and widen Leave’s appeal.

Cummings himself writes: ‘Would we have won without immigration? No’, and confirms that the key argument was: ‘Vote Leave to take back control of immigration policy. If we stay there will be more new countries like Turkey joining and you won’t get a vote. Cameron says he wants to “pave the road” from Turkey to here. That’s dangerous. If we leave we can have democratic control and a system like Australia’s. It’s safer to take back control.’ He adds, ‘It is true that we did not do much on immigration before the 10 week official campaign. That is because … we did not need to. It was far more important to plant other seeds and recruit support that would have been put off if we had focused early on immigration. Immigration was a baseball bat that just needed picking up at the right time and in the right way.’

However this ‘stagist’ characterisation is only half the story. Vote Leave also had in effect a two-level campaign, in which often lurid propaganda, much of it undercover, ran alongside the campaign figureheads’ abstract arguments about sovereignty and global Britain in their televised speeches for respectable audiences, and too much media coverage took the latter as representative. Yet with Vote Leave’s mainstream credentials and more nuanced range of material, its emotive propaganda is likely to have had a wider influence on voters than Leave.EU’s.

The allegation of racism

As the debate on antisemitism has emphasised, racism does not necessarily involve expressing explicit hostility to specific groups or a desire to harm them. Often it is implicit in the imagery used and the ‘smell’ of a certain kind of propaganda, as Jewish groups sometimes put it. Moreover while some people are racists, in an existential sense, today’s politicians are more usually involved in exploiting (or condoning) policies, propaganda and images which create hostility towards groups in society for their electoral purposes. The British Social Attitudes survey shows a stubborn persistence of racial prejudice in about a quarter of the population, a sizeable reservoir of support for any campaign which is tempted. The Tories, advised by Lynton Crosby, had already dabbled with dog-whistle politics in their ill-fated London Mayoral campaign earlier in 2016.

Vote Leave’s leaders were doubtless not personally hostile to Turks or Albanians, let alone Europeans as a whole. Nor will they have wished to cause hate crimes, which in any case would have rebounded on their campaign (as they feared had happened when Jo Cox was murdered). Their promise that EU citizens’ rights would be unilaterally guaranteed might even have been honestly intended, although in that case one would have expected more protests when Theresa May unceremoniously ditched it (neither Johnson and other Leave cabinet ministers in her government, nor Vote Leave’s co-convenors, Gove and the Labour MP Gisela Stuart, stood up for their campaign’s commitment when the matter was voted on in Parliament).

The decision to attack mostly hypothetical migrants rather than existing residents from EU states (except in material like the Romanian/Latvian criminals ad) showed what Vote Leave was trying to achieve. It fed the trope of excessive numbers without directly targeting people in UK society, which respectable Leave voters might have been uncomfortable with; it also minimised the danger of a powerful backlash from EU citizens and Remain. It was a neat way of conjuring an imaginary threat of a massive new wave of immigration which would play into fears which had been fanned over the years by the tabloids, Migration Watch, the Tory right and UKIP.

However this was not just about numbers. The image of the tearful old woman, which could be picked up even with the sound off, was more powerful than any figures. The focus on Turkey and the Balkan countries played into racist stereotypes: the otherness of people from distant, poor (and in Turkey’s case) Muslim-majority countries hardly needed labouring. It implied hostility towards Turks and Albanians in the UK, who had already experienced racism. It also implied hostility towards more than three million EU citizens by creating a threat to their residence rights and exposing them to the ‘hostile environment’ which May had created for migrant.

When Brexit led, predictably, to a large spike in racist abuse and violence against Europeans and ethnic minorities, the leaders of Vote Leave as well as Leave.EU must have had a pretty good idea of where it came from. Yet as they survey the mess Brexit is making of our country, it seems the lesson they are learning is: more of the same. Johnson’s doubling down showed that his offensive comments on burqas were no casual mistake, and the abuse faced by ordinary Muslim women was priced into the tactic. We must fear that there is more to come.

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What do anti-Tory voters do where Conservatives have a more or less complete grip on all levels of government, despite only getting a minority of the votes? Where has Labour’s abandonment of its local voters – by failing to reform the electoral system, a failure that neither Corbyn nor Smith is really concerned about – left them? My account of the Devon situation is up on openDemocracy.

The Conservative hold on power in Britain is stronger than its majority of only 17 in the 650-seat House of Commons implies. Labour, the only alternative governing party, needs to gain around 100 seats even before the impact of the newly announced boundary changes is taken into account – or else forge an agreement with the Scottish National Party which looks no more possible than in 2015. As the Labour leadership contest draws to a close, the party’s road to power, whoever wins, is extremely difficult to forsee.

The Tory elective dictatorship rests on an almost complete dominance in southern England (outside large cities and university towns), which was also the principal area of support for Brexit. In the 2015 General Election, the Tores’ targeted wipeout of the Liberal Democrats across the South West delivered their unexpected majority. South and west of Bristol there is only one non-Tory MP (Labour’s Ben Bradshaw in Exeter). Even more than in the much-discussed case of Scotland under the SNP, the South West has become a virtual one-party state.

Some outside the region have speculated that a Liberal Democrat recovery might help enable a ‘progressive alliance’ as an alternative to Theresa May’s Tories. However a recovery to pre-2015 levels would not only be insufficient to offset Labour’s deficits in Scotland as elsewhere, but it ignores the extent to which the Tories have concentrated power to make it difficult for any opposition party to change the regional balance.

The situation in the region’s largest county, Devon, shows the depth of the problem. But at the same time, it is where local activists are devising new ways of doing politics that are challenging Tory control.

A microcosm of Tory power

The Tory monopoly in Devon is even more complete than in neighbouring Cornwall and Somerset. Conservatives have overwhelming control of local government (both unitary authorities, the County Council and almost all the districts). In the urban areas, the general election results were close and Labour (Plymouth, as well as Exeter where they recently consolidated their control of the City Council) and the Lib Dems (Torbay) remain in contention. But in the rural areas and small towns, the majority of the county, Tory dominance is almost absolute at every level – barring some town and parish councils where politics is less partisan.  

Some rural areas have never had a non-Tory MP. The Tories had six of the seven non-urban Devon seats even in 2010. At least one council, East Devon, has been Tory since it was created in 1973. In semi-rural Devon, even an unlikely Lib Dem revival would make little difference. How then can things ever change?

Minority rule

It is important to understand that Conservative rule is based neither on majority support or extensive party membership. In 2015, the party gained under 45 per cent of all votes. Even in the seven non-urban seats, the 2015 increase in Tory support brought them only up to a 49 per cent average; in the urban seats they squeaked in on the same 37 per cent that gave them their national majority. Yet the non-Conservative majority are virtually unrepresented.

The Tory party is hollowed out and probably has far fewer members than Labour. The party could only take Torbay and North Devon from the Lib Dems with the aid of the notorious ‘battle bus’ activists, whose costs their Torbay agent, Alison Hernandez – like many others – failed to declare. Even after Channel 4 broke the scandal in 2016, Hernandez was narrowly elected as Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner, but refused to stand aside as she was investigated (the case was transferred to another force and is still pending).

As ever where one-party rule is so entrenched, corruption is not far away. Revelations like those in 2013, when East Devon Tory councillor Graham Brown was forced to resign after telling a journalist he could obtain planning permission in return for cash, fuel widespread cynicism about local power which make the ruling party vulnerable.

The flexibility of local Tory MPs over Brexit – ‘pro-Remain’ Neil Parish MP, Chair of the parliamentary Environment committee, quickly backed Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom in quick succession for the leadership and now describes Brexit as a ‘glorious opportunity’ – is likely to create a new constituency for opposition.

Failure of the opposition parties

The situation in which non-Tory votes largely fail to count is also because Labour and even Lib Dem leaders have failed to reform the electoral system for Westminster and councils. Tony Blair’s government never held the referendum on Proportional Representation to which its 1997 manifesto committed it. Current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has never campaigned for PR during his 33 years in Parliament, and together with his rival Owen Smith continues to fudge the issue in recent responses to the Electoral Reform Society.

Nick Clegg abandoned the Lib Dems’ longstanding committment to PR to obtain office in 2010, settling for the promise of a referendum on the weaker Alternative Vote without even securing government support for change. In the South West, the Lib Dems’ collective political suicide through the Coalition has broken the residual credibility of the first-past-the-post system.

Failing services

Because Tory dominance is so extensive, the party has largely taken voters for granted. Devon is suffering sharply from the general underfunding, Balkanisation and creeping part-privatisation of public services. The NHS trust running the flagship Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital has been forced from a healthy surplus into deep deficit. The NEW Devon Clinical Commissioning Group, also in chronic deficit, tried to bar some patients from routine operations until obliged by public pressure to abandon its plans. Local Community Hospitals have lost beds and have been handed over to NHS Property Services, which can put up rents or, worse, sell off the sites.

Devon is a region of heavy immigration, mainly of retirees from other English regions (although with some international migrants, concentrated in its cities). As in the NHS, the gap between funding and need threatens adult social care. Child protection services are deemed inadequate. Since Tory Devon retains grammar schools, there are concerns about the effects of Theresa May’s proposed expansion of these schools on the excluded majority of children.

Phoney devolution

Devon Tories’ unaccountability is also evident in how they have embraced the half-baked, patchwork ‘devolution’ launched by George Osborne, which offers limited ‘additional’ money – while core government funding for local services is pared down or eliminated. Although Devon is a much larger and more populous county than neighbouring Cornwall which has a sole devolution deal, Devon is being forced into a merger with Somerset in a new brand, an affront to local identities, ‘Heart of the South West’.

The principal rationale for the linkage seems to be to create a larger base for the anachronistic and hyper-expensive Hinckley C nuclear project. Any benefits, if they materialise, will be overwhelmingly for the neighbouring county. The proposed devolution, with a hyper-aspirational prospectus which bears comparison to Vote Leave’s notorious offer, is being run through the Local Economic Partnership, dominated by unelected business leaders.

County election challenge

Devon County Council comes up for reelection in May 2017. In 2013, the Tories won 38 of the 62 seats on a mere 35 per cent of the vote. Under first past the post, the divided Lib Dems, Labour, Greens and Independents between them won only 20 seats for 41 per cent of the vote. (UKIP, which polled 23 per cent, won 4 seats.)

It is obvious that none of the three centre and left opposition parties can win a majority in 2017. The Lib Dems may keep some strongholds, but they are still picking themselves up from their 2015 battering, and elsewhere local activists are thin on the ground.

Despite a deep conflict between Bradshaw and pro-Corbyn Momentum activists, Labour will probably keep its Exeter seats, but is unlikely to win in the rural areas and small towns. Rural Labour parties have seen the Corbyn surge in membership but with modest benefits for local activism – a constituency party which has trebled its membership to 500 may still only get about 15 people to its meetings. Members vote for their preferred leader, but have too little scope to change things locally. Even if it advances, Labour is starting from a very low base, and the Greens are smaller.

New politics?

The 2015 elections saw important steps forward for a different kind of politics in semi-rural East Devon. From a standing start, Independent candidate Claire Wright leapfrogged UKIP, Labour and the Lib Dems to take second place in the East Devon parliamentary constituency of Hugo Swire, a ‘Cameron croney’ since knighted in his resignation honours. It was the only Independent second place anywhere in England, after a grassroots campaign typically ignored by the national press.

In parallel, the East Devon Alliance, formed in 2013 out of revulsion at the Brown case and East Devon’s pro-developer bias, put up over 30 district council candidates and succeeded, despite the simultaneous Tory general election victory, in taking ten seats from the Tories (this writer was an unsuccessful candidate). Independents led by EDA replaced the Lib Dems as the official opposition.

An investigative blog, East Devon Watch, has played an important informational role in the new politics, now matched by a South Devon Watch site. An Independent group successfully challenged for control of Buckfastleigh Town Council, in the Teinbridge district, at the same time as the better-known ‘flatpack democracy’ of Frome in Somerset. A loose Independent network is emerging across the South West, including Cornwall.

Although social media played an important part in these campaigns, many relied heavily on old-fashioned doorstep campaigning. A new campaign to influence the County Council elections, Devon United, is perhaps the first – certainly the most ambitious – initiative to be actually launched through social media. Its first meeting in October will be addressed by Paul Hilder, co-founder of OpenDemocracy.net and CrowdPac and former global campaigns director for Avaaz and Change.org.

I have written recently about the limitations of the national progressive crowdsourcing campaign organisation, 38 Degrees, during and after the Brexit vote. It remains to be seen what happens when crowdsourced politics meets local electioneering, and how the division of the anti-Tory vote will be overcome. But this initiative shows that the new politics is alive and kicking in a county where the old politics has so manifestly failed.

The progressive crowdsourcing campaign organisation 38 Degrees, which was neutral during the EU referendum, has been carrying out a consultation on to devise the terms of a ‘people-powered Brexit’ (or ‘DIY Brexit’). In a debate on openDemocracy with 38 Degrees’ David Babbs, I have criticised the group’s original neutrality, its quick switch to an embrace of Brexit, and its choice to exclude the most progressive option for Brexit (maintaining freedom of movement in Europe for British citizens and workers as well as for EU citizens in the UK) from the scope of its consultation.

David Babbs of 38 Degrees has replied admitting some failings, and I have come back both to acknowledge his engagement with my criticisms and to suggest that the flaws have deeper roots in the way 38 Degrees and crowdsourced politics in general works.

In my reply I welcomed the fact that 38 Degrees had sent out additional questions on its DIY Brexit plan, including about freedom of movement, partly in response to my criticisms. I now note that these are not included in the preliminary results of the consultation, suggesting that not enough members backed them – although the detailed voting results are not given.

UPDATE 4.11.16 – HOWEVER, 38 Degrees still do not include freedom of movement/membership of the Single Market in their DIY Brexit, and are now urging members to canvass their MPs for a flawed plan which excludes the most progressive options.

Meanwhile, I’ve come across this academic verdict which expands my analysis of how 38 Degrees’ core team leads: ‘The 38 Degrees central staff perform important filtering and gatekeeping roles, and their influence over the design of actions enables them to exercise significant power. … The central team uses its power to provide structure to the inchoate, individualised and often affective responses of the members to matters of public concern. Given the diversity of campaigns.’ (Andrew Chadwick and James Dennis, ‘Social Media, Professional Media and Mobilisation in Contemporary Britain: Explaining the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Citizens’ Movement 38 Degrees’Political Studies 2016, 1-19. DOI: 10.1177/0032321716631350)

Chadwick and Dennis quote Paolo Gerbaudo: ‘the essence of digitally mediated activism is “choreographical leadership”, which he says relies on “scene-setting” and “scripting” by “influential Facebook admins and activist tweeps”. They conclude: ’38 Degrees’ central staff might be seen as ‘choreographers’ who set the scene by organising and struc- turing action while trying to minimise their influence on the wills of individual members.’

Labour’s crisis has become existential. Jeremy Corbyn’s election last year galvanised an expanded membership to participate in the party’s affairs, but has had only a very modest wider impact. Although the sabotage of some on Labour’s right is partly to blame, Corbyn has not responded well to the huge challenges of leading the party. I see this failure as both political (his narrow leftist politics – conservative with a small ‘c’) and personal (that he is not really a leader has become obvious even to some of his friends).

Given the failure of the alternative candidates, I supported his election in 2015, but noted at the time that the only way he – or any other leader – could win would be to move out of Labour’s comfort zone. I have to say that Corbyn has dismally failed to do so, and his unwillingness to campaign in the media against Brexit confirmed my fear that he is incapable of facing up to the huge constitutional challenges which currently dominate UK politics. However many tens of thousands of new supporters he brings into the Labour Party, ‘workers’s rights’, however necessary in themselves, are no answer to these issues.

A month ago I published the article below on openDemocracy (which I failed to post on this blog at the time). I don’t have too much to add, except to note that that Theresa May, with her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and authoritarian instincts, has committed herself to the anti-immigration interpretation of the Brexit vote. As I warned in June, ‘the temptation to capitalise electorally on the xenophobia of the Leave campaign – rather as Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP capitalised on the rather different nationalism of the Scottish referendum – will be strong.’ The Tories really have little else to rely on, as their economic credibility is in shreds, and they need to win big before the full mess of Brexit is revealed.

This situation represents an extraordinary danger for Labour (and for the progressive side of British politics), as divided and incoherent it could collapse under a nationalist Tory tide.  But it is also an opportunity to revive its position, if (a) the party can hang together and (b) it can formulate a coherent response to Brexit, xenophobia and the free movement of labour. I have come to the conclusion that it can do neither under Corbyn.

As I argued after the 2015 election, Labour faces an almost impossible challenge under any leader, and Labour’s renewal must be about more than leadership. However the current choice matters. I am waiting to be convinced that Owen Smith can do better: his best stab so far seems to be here.

Labour must fight for our European rights

Neither Corbyn nor his opponents have got the response to the crisis right. 4 July 2016

 It is becoming clear that Labour faces a potentially fatal dilemma over its response to the Brexit vote, and above all to the question of the free movement of people across borders. The deadly standoff between Jeremy Corbyn and the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party is supposed to be about this issue, but sadly neither side offers a clear way forward.

Out of this hour of abject Tory failure will either come a prime minister who supports Brexit (Michael Gove or Andrea Leadsom) or more likely one who failed to campaign against it and opposes the European Convention on Human Rights (Theresa May). There is a huge opportunity for Labour if it does what oppositions should do: oppose.

The 48 per cent who voted to stay in the EU – more if we count disillusioned Leavers – are looking for leadership. The last thing they want is a precipitate triggering of Article 50, as Jeremy Corbyn suggested. They want Parliament to do its job and secure the best European relationship possible.

The free movement dilemma

Labour has to get free movement right or face probably critical losses among either Remainers or Leavers – or both.

If it does not accept the implication of Leave’s success that free movement should be restricted, at least in respect of incoming labour, Labour risks alienating the minority (37 per cent according to the Ashworth poll) of its current supporters who backed Brexit – as well as driving ex-Labour voters in its heartlands even more firmly towards UKIP.

However by failing to support free movement, Labour risks alienating the majority (63 per cent) of its current voting base and also the centrist voters – repelled by Tory irresponsibility over the referendum – who could give it the boost it needs to return it to power. A suddenly reinvigorated Liberal Democrats stand ready to siphon off Labour’s support in this direction.

Corbyn’s weak support for Remain

Corbyn failed during the campaign, letting down the very people who voted him in. My charge sheet would be as follows:

  1. He failed to articulate a broad internationalist case for the European Union, restricting his support mainly to the narrow ground of ‘workers’ rights’.
  2. He presented the threat in terms of how the Tories would take advantage of Brexit to get rid of EU-guaranteed rights like maternity leave, not in terms of the very clear and present threat of Brexit itself to the free movement of people – one of the most precious rights of all for UK workers, students, pensioners and others, as well as for other EU citizens.
  3. He failed to react strongly to the outrageous racism of the official Leave campaign as well as UKIP. Surely despite his ambivalence over the EU, he could have led on this.
  4. He avoided a prominent place in the TV coverage of the referendum, failing to get major interviews (except for a late one on Sky) or a role in one of the big debates. He simply did not lead in the mass media, which is where the crucial exchanges were happening, but preferred to speak to Labour rallies.
  5. After the results, he was too quick to accept Brexit and urge the triggering of Article 50, instead of pressing for time for Parliament to define what the UK needs to aim for in negotiations with the EU.

Corbyn’s grassroot supporters – the Labour members and supporters who voted him in – were strongly for Remain and many are genuinely disoriented by his failure. John McDonnell is widely perceived to have performed better, but his recent comment that free movement is over is also ringing alarm bells.

A general Labour failure

This may seem to offer the way forward for the ‘coup’ now being organised against Corbyn, but he has not been the only one to let Labour down. There were some stirring Labour performances, for example by Sadiq Khan and Frances O’Grady against Boris Johnson and co. on ITV. But Labour often came over weakly – as in the unconfident and uninspiring contribution of new leadership aspirant Angela Eagle – thereby allowing others to make a stronger case.

The Labour IN campaign was drab and directed too much at trade union activists, not the wider public. Deputy leader Tom Watson was virtually invisible. Former deputy leader Harriet Harman trailed David Cameron almost as closely as the unctuous Gisela Stuart trailed Boris Johnson, failing to make a strong independent case.

In a revealing moment, Harman joked with Cameron about Tory responsibility for the NHS crisis, instead of pressing the point home in a way that would have underlined the falsity of Leave’s claim to give £350 million a weak to the NHS.

Overall, Labour – Corbyn and others – may have made enough noise to reinforce the inclination of most existing Labour voters to back Remain. Certainly the fact that SNP voters split for Remain by an almost identical 64:36, despite a much more coherent campaign, suggests that Labour’s weakness did not lose a lot of votes.

However we shall never know whether a strong, assertive, united Labour campaign might have swung more voters Remain’s way.

The PLP appeases UKIP voters

Worst of all, in the aftermath of the vote, Labour politicians have fallen over themselves to imply that we need restrictions on migration, which would mean abandoning the free movement of people. It is supremely ironic that many Blairite and Brownite MPs, who criticise Corbyn for failing to reach out to the middle ground, seem mainly concerned with protecting the UKIP flank.

Leading figures across the board appear to be rushing to appease anti-migrant ex-Labour voters, but offer little to the upset, frustrated and angry 48 per cent. As anyone who has talked to Remainers knows, there are many who have previously voted Tory and Lib Dem who are desperate for leadership.

This is probably the first opportunity since Blair’s disastrous Iraq venture fractured Labour’s support for Labour to reconstruct the alliance of left and centre which Blairites reminisce about. Many Remainers are so eager for someone to rally around that any Labour leader – even Corbyn – who stepped up would command attention. It is incredible that Labour should hand this opportunity to the Lib Dems.

Putting a positive case to Leave voters

Labour does need, of course, to address its Leave voters and ex-voters, especially in the North, Midlands and Wales. But as the assassinated MP Jo Cox knew, it will not do this in a race to the bottom which UKIP will always win. Labour has a real UKIP problem, but it will deal with it by fighting UKIP, not following it.

Labour needs to show that it has real answers to Leavers’ concerns. It needs to say that migration is not a numbers game, but about real people with families. It needs to put forward  strong proposals for extra NHS, school, housing and other resources for communities most affected by immigration (Corbyn rightly made the point that the Tories had cut the special funding for these communities, but the case needs to be made strongly and positively).

Labour needs also to point out to non-racist Leavers, and even soft racists, the shocking racist abuse and violence that the Tory and UKIP Leave campaigns have created.

Solving the Labour crisis

It is clear that in our first-past-the post electoral system, Labour needs to remain a coalition of left and centre-left if it is to ever win an election again. A split would let the Tories off the serious hook on which they have impaled themselves and could wreck Labour for decades – or even for good.

It would be grossly irresponsible of either Corbyn and his supporters or the PLP majority not to look for genuine compromise, possibly along the lines of the deal apparently discussed last week. Labour’s leader cannot lose most of his MPs, but nor can the MPs afford to alienate the hundreds of thousands of new members and supporters who will be the key to Labour’s revival as a party.

The EU referendum and its aftermath has shown that Corbyn is a weak leader, but it has also shown much of the PLP in a poor light. Labour needs to find a way of moving on without splitting, so that it can defend all that is best in our European Union membership as a Conservative government with a very shaky majority begins to deal with the mess that its leaders – Cameron, Osborne, Johnson, Gove and May – have created.

My latest post on openDemocracy:  If the B in Brexit stands for Boris and his overweening ambition, the R is for Racism, the method through which Vote Leave aims to achieve the political upset of the century.

In ITV’s two-hour debate, Johnson waffled on about democracy and an ‘Australian-style points system’, his latest migration-management wheeze (courtesy, like so much else, of Nigel Farage).

But down in the engine room of Vote Leave, they are not bothered about debate. Earlier the same evening, they mounted another 5-minute broadcast that would have made Goebbels proud. An old British woman, in tears, was forced to wait in A&E while anonymous aliens edged ahead. A huge number of additional sundry foreigners, including 78 million Turks, were on their way. ‘NHS” flashed across the map of the UK.

Vote Leave’s propaganda comes from the same stable as that Tory classic from 1964, ‘If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour’. But this is the 21st Century, so Leave doesn’t racially insult Turks and Albanians. In any case, the audience, Sun and Star readers, don’t need that. As always with racism, a heavy hint is quite sufficient.

What is this nasty drivel doing on our public television? Vote Leave was made the official ‘Out’ campaign, elbowing out Farage, because mainstream Tories like Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and Johnson were in charge.

Now we know that why. UKIP would have been scared to go so low and dirty for fear of the backlash. But Vote Leave has cabinet backing: it can act with impunity.

Vote Leave is Vote Lie. And not just any old lie: a big racist one. If David Cameron had any principles, he’d tell the Brexit ministers to resign. If broadcasters didn’t fear the Brexiteers deciding their funding, they would surely protest. But Leave are going to get away with it.

Like Trump, Johnson has now alienated his party’s establishment, which is lining up to attack him. He can only come to power by stirring up base racism in the electorate – and in the ancient Tory membership who will choose our next ruler.

My article on openDemocracy two days ago.

Boris Johnson has achieved the remarkable feat of making David Cameron (‘PR Dave’) look principled. While Johnson’s ‘agonising’ Brexit choice – apparently after drafting two opposing articles for the Daily Telegraph – was transparently opportunist, Cameron’s ‘Remain’ looks like a strategic decision. Unlike Johnson’s, the prime minister’s deceitful hype surrounding the British ‘renegotiation’ was limited to the tactical.

With this knowledge, what should we make of the divide in the ruling Conservative party, and how will it be affected by the outcome of the 23 June referendum? Where could the referendum lead, not only for Britain and the EU, but for British politics in general? This article is an attempt to explore the challenge which faces all concerned with where the Tories’ division on Europe is leading them – and those they rule over.

Deep differences at the top?

Although Cameron and Johnson are antagonists, there is no ideological and strategic chasm between them. Both are culturally Europhile but politically soft-Eurosceptic. Johnson is no more a ‘swivel-eyed loon’ than Cameron is a EU enthusiast (his former spin-doctor Steve Hilton even claims that he was privately for leaving).

Cameron and Johnson share the general Tory scepticism towards progressive EU legislation and European justice, while recognising the economic advantages of the Single European Market and the free movement of labour. While only Johnson has actually opted for ‘out’, Cameron obviously wagered (when he promised a referendum) that, in the end, Britain could live with an exit.

The question is whether these shared commitments, underpinned by a common formation and deep class ties, will enable them to overcome the antagonisms of the campaign and cooperate in the aftermath of the vote. There are good reasons to think that they will have little alternative but to do so, to avoid a deep party split and a catastrophic, Tory-made crisis in the British economy.

Who would call the shots in a Brexit Tory government?

It is very clear that this will be needed if Brexit wins. Any majority for ‘Leave’ will probably be tiny. Domestic legitimacy will be small and international legitimacy minimal. Cameron and his putative successor, George Osborne, will have suffered a devastating political defeat. The stock market and the pound will suffer immediate hits. The Tories will be straining to avoid compounding the atmosphere of political and economic crisis with a full-scale party struggle.

It seems likely that in these circumstances even Johnson would see the need to maintain a veneer of leadership continuity and party unity. Cameron has signalled via the reliable Matthew d’Ancona that he really would stay on. It would probably suit Johnson to let the departing PM deal with the immediate fallout and steady the ship. In the meanwhile Johnson would be brought into one of the major offices of state (in which he has never served), a surer base from which to launch his leadership bid in due course.

From Cameron’s point of view, this outcome would avoid compounding the humiliation of defeat with his own abrupt removal from office and gain him credit for dealing with the national crisis. It might (just possibly) enable Osborne to rebuild his position for the leadership contest.

Moreover a narrow Brexit and the fact that Cameron and Johnson would probably have to hang together in the first stages point to a Norway-style solution. The hardcore Europhobes would get neither the deep separation nor the low migration that they crave.

… and with Bremain?

In the (currently more probable) event of a modest Remain win, Cameron and Johnson would probably still need to work together. To rebuild Tory unity, Cameron would need to be magnanimous to the Brexiteers, and Johnson is the only essential person in the thin Brexit leadership. Iain Duncan Smith has burned his bridges, and neither the quixotic Michael Gove nor the illiberal Chris Grayling, let alone Priti Patel, is a substantial enough figure to strongly represent the Leave side in a unity government.

Only in the event of a substantial Remain victory could Cameron exclude Johnson, but then he might well stoke civil war in the party and the latter’s victory in the leadership contest which is expected before 2020. It is always better to have your rival inside the tent, pissing out.

Cameron’s signals

Cameron may not be a real One Nation Tory, but his commitment to a single party is not in serious doubt. He and Osborne have also shown themselves astute in avoiding the Downing Street rivalries which bedevilled the Blair-Brown governments.

His decision to avoid any sort of TV debate with Johnson, and to have only indirect encounters with other Tory Brexiteers, is surely a signal of the importance he attaches to rebuilding party unity after the referendum campaign.

Johnson needs party unity …

While Johnson appears more singlemindedly egotistical, it is also in his interest to maintain the veneer of party unity and to rebuild it substantially after the referendum. His was, after all, a win-win choice, premised on the probability that Brexit was unlikely but that he who had nobly backed it would gain support among the ageing, xenophobic party selectorate.

In this context, being seen as a catalyst of party division is probably the main thing that could seriously damage Johnson’s chances. This would open the way if not to Osborne then to Theresa May, who has deftly qualified her ‘Remain’ stance with a call for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (membership in which is separate from the EU).

… and avoids commitments

This is doubtless why Johnson has avoided commitments on the key issues. Having toyed successively with a second referendum to ‘re-enter’ the EU and then with Norway and Canada scenarios, has not committed himself to any one model of the UK’s post-Brexit relationship. He has not protested at Gove’s proclamation that the UK will leave the Single Market, but he is hardly bound by his colleague’s opinion.

This is doubtless also why Johnson has criticised Cameron for making promises he couldn’t keep about migration, but has not made any promises himself. While UKIP’s Nigel Farage has talked of limiting immigration to 50,000 a year and Duncan Smith has resurrected the Government’s 100,000 target, Johnson has refused to acknowledge that an overall target is desirable, even if he has opined that the latter target ‘could’ be met.

The new Tory project

Obviously Brexit might well upset the best intentions of a Cameron-Johnson rapprochement. However in the event of a narrow Remain win (the current central projection), the Government will emphasise measures like the repeal of the Human Rights Act (announced in the Queen’s Speech) which will appeal to the frustrated Tory Right, even if they will not satisfy the hard-core Europhobes.

Let us not forget that apart from Europe, not only is the Tory leadership broadly united, but it has a radical project which commands wide support across the Brexit divide, even if a minority of nervous backbenchers have joined the Opposition in frustrating successive measures.

While Cameron’s style has been mostly more patrician than Margaret Thatcher’s, it has been evident, especially since his second victory a year ago, that his government involves a radical project which builds on hers and is arguably even more radical.

Often characterised as ‘shrinking’ the state and ‘privatising’ services, this project is actually more complex. While some areas of the state (welfare, social housing, local government) are being drastically shrunk, the wider project (affecting even areas like health and education where spending is maintained) is a partial decomposition of the state, allowing its creeping colonisation by private capital.

The ‘internal’ state

This approach is widely applied to what we may call the ‘internal’ state, i.e. state institutions which point inwards to the national society. Its most striking expression was the Lansley reorganisation of the National Health Service, which was broken up into a bewildering away of trusts, commissioning groups and property agencies that would relate to each other through an extended ‘internal market’ with enhanced opportunities for private health firms to enter.

Since their unexpected win in 2015, the Tories have lost little time in widely extending this approach to other areas. Building on New Labour’s initiative, the majority of secondary schools had already been made Academies under the Coalition, with local government control replaced by chains of schools under private trusts, and a new category of state-funded ‘free schools’ was created. Although the government has recently retreated on a proposal to extend ‘academisation’ to all the remaining secondaries and even to primary schools, a century and a half of democratic local control of schools has been deeply undermined.

Elected local government in England, of similar longevity, is also a target of ambitious change, involving patchwork ‘devolution’ to a motley array of combined local authorities through business-dominated ‘quangos’ called Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs). Each local consortium is offered enhanced control over a small portion of the rapidly diminishing central funding for local services. Unlike Scottish and Welsh devolution, no new institutions or democratic rights are proposed, except for requirements that most deals are accompanied by elected mayors for what are often incoherent amalgamations of local areas.

These and other changes, some of which were not in the Tory election manifesto, are being pursued through ruthless exploitation of Britain’s system of ‘elective dictatorship’ which has given Cameron an absolute majority for 37 per cent of the vote. In tandem, the Tories are aiming to reduce the numbers of MPs, in changes likely to benefit their party, while refusing to reform the larger and anachronistic House of Lords.

Brexit and the ‘external’ state

In many ways, Brexit is coherent with this project, extending these changes to the ‘external’ state, through which Britain is linked to the wider world. This is why it has such appeal in the Tory ranks. As Jeremy Corbyn suggested in a belated intervention, it would involve a ‘bonfire of rights’, abolishing a swathe of EU rules which protect workers, women and the environment.

There is no reason to believe that Cameron and Osborne would regret these changes any more than the Brexiteers. The Tory divide on Brexit is limited mainly to the Single Market, which the Government, most businesses, especially large and multinational, and even Johnson see as valuable for Britain’s economic success.

However the Prime Minister and Chancellor must also oppose Brexit because they are acutely aware of the general damage likely to British international standing. Brexit would not immediately affect Britain’s membership of NATO, its seat on the United Nations Security Council, or its role in the International Monetary Fund, but it would change its real position in all of these, with serious reputational consequences.

Virtually no European or world leader sees the point of the UK leaving the EU, and many fear its knock-on effects not only on the rest of the EU but on the world economy and global political stability. While Johnson can shrug off these issues (for the time being), they must clearly weigh with those who have to explain Brexit to their fellow leaders.

A new authoritarian populism?

Johnson is currently riding a pro-Brexit tide of nationalism and racism, even if he leaves UKIP to do the dirty work. Cameron and Osborne, on the other hand, believe they can batter it down with sufficiently powerful deployment of the state machine, international allies and mass media.

This is, in itself, a tactical difference. Cameron and Johnson are generally united in their exploitative attitude to racism. Both believe that they can switch on populist sentiment (last May stoking anti-Scottish fear in England, recently promoting Islamophobia in London) in pursuit of their electoral goals.

They may agree on one more near-future scenario. At some point afer the referendum, the Conservative Party will attempt to renew itself under a new leader. If there is a strong Remain win and either Osborne or May is able to block Johnson, the active mobilisation of Brexit’s racist nationalism may be left to a dissatisfied UKIP.

If Brexit wins or performs strongly, however, Johnson may well win the leadership. The temptation to capitalise electorally on the xenophobia of the Leave campaign – rather as Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP capitalised on the rather different nationalism of the Scottish referendum – will be strong.

This Tory Trump – not, pace Kenneth Clarke, a ‘nicer’ one but an English one – could offer Britain a new style of leadership, with indulgence from a sycophantic media. A folksy new ‘authoritarian populism’, 21st century in style but reminiscent of Thatcher’s, could extend Tory rule into a second decade, with a snap general election providing five more years’ legimatation for the whole package of unpopular policies. This is the big latent danger of the Brexit vote.

 

My new post on openDemocracy:

It is said that the Brexiteers have the identity side of the debate sown up. The British, or at least the English, do not feel European. We have our history as a proud, island people – they, on the Continent, have very different traditions. It is remarkable how this myth has taken root, although the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish so obviously share common linguistic, cultural and indeed political roots with other Europeans, and when the whole recorded history of our islands has been so bound up with the Continent. It is particularly outrageous since so many British people have given their lives over the last century, not so that we can retreat into Little England but so that Europe can be free and democratic.

Britain’s post-imperial delusions have been the main reason for blindness to this history. When the Common Market was first proposed, many on the left not only saw it as a capitalist club, but believed that Great Britain remained powerful enough to stand alone as a social democracy, or at least that the renovated Commonwealth could provide sufficient international support. The French president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, is generally credited with puncturing these illusions (which Thatcherism had already undermined) with his speech to the Trades Union Congress in 1988. However the ground had really been broken by the remarkable movement for European Nuclear Disarmament (END) which was launched in 1980, and above all in the speeches and writings of E.P. Thompson.

Edward Thompson was the great historian of the English working class and of those quintessentially English radical thinkers, William Morris and William Blake. He had famous spats with compatriots whom he saw as insufficiently attentive to ‘the peculiarities of the English’, and with a French philosopher whose grand theory seemed, to him, insufficiently grounded in the very English medium of empirical reality. And yet his political passion as a leader of END was not just to end the Cold War, or to remove nuclear weapons, but to unify Europe. Indeed he saw European unity, achieved through popular movements from below as well as through agreement between states, as the key to peace and disarmament.

Unlike some younger disarmers, Edward saw a direct link between Europe’s armed liberation from fascism in 1944-45 and the peaceful liberation from the Cold War blocs which END proposed. The first liberation was very personal to him, and not only because at the age of 20 he had fought through the Italian peninsula in the last year of the world war (he had very mixed feelings about the military experience, explored in his moving essay,‘The LIberation of Perugia’). More importantly, his elder brother Frank had been executed while fighting with Bulgarian resistance fighters in 1944, giving his life, as Edward saw it, for a free and democratic Europe.

In the early 1980s, Britons like other Europeans faced another existential threat, compared to which the worst failures of today’s EU bureaucracy pale into insignificance. ‘We Europeans are packed into this small continent,’ Edward noted, while the Warsaw Pact and NATO targeted multiple nuclear warheads at each and every city. (Some of the atmosphere of the time was conveyed in the recent TV drama, Deutschland 83.) Starting from a British base, Edward and his comrades pursued a single-minded strategy not just of linking the burgeoning West European peace movements with each other, but also of engaging these movements with the pressure for democracy in Eastern Europe. This goal set END apart from those in CND who saw removing nuclear weapons as the ultimate goal, and put it on a collision course with Stalinists who objected only to western nuclear systems.

It was a visionary strategy, set out in Thompson’s 1981 lecture, Beyond the Cold War. When first proposed, there were millions protesting NATO missiles on the streets of West European capitals, but apart from Solidarity in Poland (primarily a free trade union, and crushed by a military coup in late 1981), Eastern Europe had only small numbers of open dissidents. Many of them were suspicious of western peaceniks. Yet the end of the 1980s saw millions on the streets of Eastern European capitals, calling for democracy and bringing an end to the division of Europe in essentially the way that Edward and END foresaw. It helped, of course, that Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in the Soviet Union, and that he and Ronald Reagan began a rapprochement that was unimagineable in 1981, but both of these developments were partly enabled by the peace movements.

After the dramatic revolutions of 1989, not even Margaret Thatcher, and certainly not the British Labour Party, could withstand the European tide. The new Europe had many flaws – new nationalist parties replaced civil society movements in the east, the west helped foist privatisation on the former Communist countries, NATO expanded and increasingly alienated Russia, and a currency bloc was launched which could not withstand the full-blown financial crisis which spread from the United States in 2008. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, the European idea was strong. The German and French governments even stood out against George W. Bush’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Edward Thompson died in 1993, much exercised by the terrible new wars in the Balkans. The new Europe he envisaged was certainly much more than the EU of the national leaders and bureaucrats, of whose limitations Yugoslavia was an early indication. But their EU expansion was only possible because of how the popular movements ended the Cold War, very much as he had hoped and foreseen.

Doubtless Thompson, if he were alive today, would rail against the shameful failure of the EU to live up to its obligations to refugees and the vindictive policies of the Eurozone towards Greece. I am sure he would excoriate David Cameron for his abdication of Britain’s responsibility for Europe’s refugees, and I can imagine a withering dissection of the Prime Minister’s ‘renegotiation’ of migrant workers’ rights.

But Thompson’s vision leaves no room for Britain’s turning away from Europe to a fantasy mid-Atlantic or neo-Commonwealth position of the kind floated, typically unseriously, by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. The slogan of the progressive pro-EU campaign group, Another Europe is Possible, sums up what Edward was saying in the 1980s in his campaign against the Cold War division of the continent. We have to remain part of the European Union to make a better kind of Europe possible.