For the sake of Europe, the British Left and our futures – stop supporting the People’s Vote
I applied for pre-Settled Status yesterday. Naturally, I paid the sixty-five pound registration fee. I plan on spending a large portion of my life in the United Kingdom, so it just seemed like something, as a Dutch national, I had to do. However, in a typical expression of the current state of Britain, where two hours seems like a long time in politics, before the payment even came out of my account, Theresa May had announced the fee had been waived. This personally brought home more than anything, that any of the stability that has characterised British governance for decades, seems all but dissolved. However, in the Fortnite-esque free-for-all that is the House of Commons, the British Left seems to be destroying all their political capital and physical votes on agitating for a People’s Vote, leaving the arena for what type of Brexit will occur, firmly within the parameters of the Conservative Party. As left-wingers, supporters of a cosmopolitan, global Britain we must accept Brexit as a fait accomplis, butmake it (for lack of a better term), the softest Brexit achievable, with the single market, customs union and regulatory alignment.
A famous aphorism states that ‘generals always fight the last war’ and it seems that while the Tories never stopped fighting since Heath, always shifting their battle to the next arena, the Liberal Democrats and activist elements of Labour as well as the nationalist parties, are all distinctly fighting the war of Summer 2016. The key arguments made for a People’s Vote are certainly all valid, they’re just not the solution to the current conundrum. A referendum to confirm a major arrangement by the government, like an international treaty, is not just acceptable, it is often a norm in European politics. However, in the current parameters it just isn’t feasible and all the thousands of man-hours, cash and media time spent on it, should be used to pressure for a completely different policy. Every time a Lib-Dem goes on Andrew Marr, that is a wasted interview in the wider scheme of politics. First of all, there just isn’t enough time to organise a referendum before Britain leaves in March. Secondly, seventy-five percent of the current government would resign, half the Conservative Party would defect and Theresa May might as well put herself up to become President of the European Commission, if she were to decide to have said referendum under her current authority. Thus, for this to even become within the range of possibility, Labour or a Lib-Lab-SNP pact would have to win a general election, which unless the DUP suddenly loses all sense of realpolitik, will not happen until 2021. Even if all these freak occurrences happened, the People’s Vote has become so totally enmeshed with the ‘Remain’ side of the debate, by successful rightist propagandising, that it would totally lack democratic legitimacy, would suffer from mass boycotts and likely see a UKIP-style party undoubtedly gain in popularity.
Therefore, a People’s Vote is unfeasible and far more importantly, a total waste of political capital. The British Left needs to throw itself into the Brexit arena, not pussyfoot around between a second vote, a general election or maybe a customs union. Thesewasted energies means that even after losing colossally in the House, Theresa May is still looking to get through her deal by winning over the right of her own party and the DUP. As centrists and leftists, we must recognise that this is the worst possible scenario. We must make the case for a ‘soft’ Brexit in which environmental protections, consumer standards, data protection and workers rights, which have been won in a progressive European sphere, stay in place. The true fear should not be regarding a nebulous Brexit itself, but of the Thatcherite Singaporean fever dream, turning the UK into a huge tax haven, espoused by MPs like Liam Fox and David Davis. I genuinely fear that May will be able to push through a modified deal, by promising the Brexiteers something like that after 2021, as Matthew Parris recently warned in The Spectator. The worst thing is, this would be completely in her right to do and it would be the Left’s fault for completely abdicating political responsibility. Of course, the original referendum lacked in many respects, with the franchise at eighteen years, the already exclusive British registration system and low turnout among younger voters, but none of this would change for a second referendum, as the same people are still in power.
The centrists and left-wing parties need to reach out right now to the Government, providing her with the votes to get a deal through, as long as she extends Article 50 and negotiates a closer arrangement (something like Norway) with the European Union. This would mean dropping off May’s red lines, but in all honesty, Corbyn holds the leverage in this situation. He needs to play hard politics and force May to the center on her Brexit deal. If she fails to listen, he will have the biggest argument to embarrass the Tories with and could utilise it all the way until the next general election. If she does listen, then Britain will have inbuilt protections against the Rees-Moggian vision of post-Brexit Britain, the left will have notched a key political victory and be much stronger going into the next general election. Beyond the political implications, a successful soft Brexit would not isolate Britain, keep it closely linked to the progressive legislation emanating from Europe, while returning sovereignty back to Parliament (as the last few months have distinctly proven). Of course, this is not ideal and I’m the last person that wants to see Britain leave the EU, but this is genuinely the best that can be achieved right now and the alternative, continuously agitating for a People’s Vote and forcing May to negotiate with her own right-wing, will only scupper any dream of a humanitarian, progressive Brexit.