The referendum is over. The people have spoken. Democracy is flawed. Many elections go “wrong”, and it does not hold up to demand a rerun because we did not like the result.. And now we have a number of Leave voters similarly saying “Oops”. That happens. It has happened before. Back in 2015, Lewes lost its best ever MP, Norman Baker. I am not often stunned, but I was stunned in the days after by the number of Green and Labour acquaintances of mine who had lent Norman their votes before but withheld them on this occasion, and afterwards said, “Oops, didn't mean that to happen”.
It might be possible to avoid leaving the EU. Various scenarios have been proposed. I find none of them convincing.
The Boris option – renegotiate from a position of strength – a non starter. Boris Johnson appears lost in a storm of his own making. It might be possible for him as the poster boy of the Leave movement to do some very subtle manoeuvring to get us into a position of an acceptable way to stay in the EU – but this demands a level of capacity which he does not reach. He has demonstrated himself to be a very clever, and extremely ambitious man, but sadly mediocre when it comes to political delivery.
It has been suggested that Labour might challenge Corbyn and elect an effective pro European leader, and that a new Tory PM might take the country to an election, and that Labour might win convincingly and take that as a verdict on the referendum. Apart from all the “mights”, that would require Labour to get its act together and there is no sign of that.
It is possible that reaction may come from the people. The Leave campaign was based entirely on lies. They lied on an industrial scale as they have already admitted. There is a moral case for rerunning the referendum. But there is no political case, at least not yet. The petition for another referendum is growing fast – of itself that is meaningless. But the number of Leave voters who are beginning to realise that they were conned is growing. There will be more, particularly as they absorb the fact that that the entire Leave case was based on lies. If enough Leave voters made their disillusionment clear, it might trigger a change of feeling. But again that is an extraordinarily long shot.
To be frank, Remain did not deserve to win on the basis of its campaign. In future years dictionaries under “lacklustre” will say “See 2016 Remain campaign”. There was some passionate and effective local campaigning by different groups, but the overall campaign somehow managed to saddle itself as its figurehead with David Cameron, a man incapable of passion on any topic. And as Juncker is reported to have said, if you rubbish the EU from Monday to Saturday, people are not going to believe you when you turn up on Sunday and say it's great. I don't blame Cameron for that actually, he is what he is, a man with no political anchor except a belief in privilege. But people who did, and do, believe in the European project should never have allowed him to be at the front of the campaign.
And further, I have to say I was not impressed with the LibDem campaign. Again, good in parts, but I feel badly let down by the hierarchy both nationally and locally. With apologies to any individuals involved. We are supposed to be good at campaigning – it's what we do. But we did not manage it on this occasion.
I take account of the fact that the media ignored us. That is not our fault. They were not interested in anything – anything – we had to say. They focussed only on blue on blue infighting. They amplified Cameron's misreading in using the referendum to try to heal internal Tory divisions. They helped him fail. That's not our fault, but we could still have done better than we did.
So what now. Well, I accept the result. But not the argument. And for me, the issue is that the EU was never the problem. Whether we are in or out, that will not change. The problem is a lump of English people, voters, who feel disenfranchised. They feel they have no voice, and they feel their identity is threatened. Our failure as LibDems to address this feeling is a problem. We have allowed the elites of the political, financial and media classes to deflect soundly based working class anger on to the EU and on to immigrants.
We have to engage with the causes of working class resentment. And to do that, we can leave behind both the EU and immigration. The key problem for all of us is that misnamed thing, neoliberalism, together with the establishment and the new global elite. (Glenn Greenwald says all this a lot better and in more detail than I can here.)
The LibDems are by definition anti establishment. I will leave for another day the question of what counts as the establishment, but suffice for these purposes to say that the establishment includes both Boris Johnson and, very definitely, Nigel Farage. (Michael Gove, I'm not so sure about; I'm not sure that the establishment knows what to do with him.)
Our entire economic and political system in this globalised world is designed to keep the working classes adrift on a sea of uncertainty. I am afraid to say that the unreconstructed economic liberal wing of this party aid and abet that system. (I am all for free trade that benefits citizens. I am not for things like TTIP that pass for free trade but actually continue to benefit corporations and the elite.)*
They feel their identity is under threat. It is. I think they divide into two types – those who are defending privilege, who believe that somehow their interests should take precedence over other people's. I have no truck with them, and they will most likely remain our political opponents. Another block are genuinely ill at ease, puzzled by a world of increasing uncertainty, which their education and their lives have not prepared them for. We should be speaking to these people, we should be working for them and against the elite, and we have failed to do so with sufficient consistency and clarity. I have a few ideas and no doubt others will supply many more.
- everybody capable of work deserves a decent job and a decent pay rate. That they do not get them is because of the inequality in the system, whereby our national elite cream off all the surplus, and our politicians enable them to do so. In short, bankers and billionaires – regardless of whether we are in or out of the EU. I think there is fertile ground for promoting responsible redistribution of the profits earned by the work put in by everybody with a job. As well as everybody out of a job, because that becomes part of our security. We should be much more upfront about the fact that the profits earned by people's hard work are automatically redistributed from working people into executive salaries and corporate profits, and they can be redistributed back. It is not a “burden” on rich people, it is fairness in action. In particular we should create much more effective regional strategies that enable job creation in the places that most need them. We can most effectively start with the areas that voted most strongly for Brexit.
- we should be saying loud and clear we have had enough of austerity, both the Tories' austerity and Labour's austerity. All austerity has ever done is take money out of the pockets of ordinary decent people and stuff it into the pockets of bankers and billionaires. I am not scapegoating bankers and billionaires (though they deserve it). I am just responding to the way the system we have works – it siphons money up. Our job is to siphon it back down.
- everybody deserves a decent and affordable house. We have done quite well with this message but we need to do more, much more. In particular all LibDem controlled councils should stretch every sinew to create affordable housing by every means possible.
- we are proud of being a British party. We are proud of our identity as English (in my case) and British. Nothing will ever take that away from us. I know this is problematic for some of us, but it is possible to have a liberal approach to promoting a more secure national identity (as opposed to nationalism). This is something I think we need to say much, much more clearly. There is nothing wrong with us using the Union Flag (as long as it exists) and the flag of St George. We can be liberal and patriotic; we can be liberal and proud of it. We can be proud of being who we are without pretending that we are better than everybody else – and we should be.
- and we are clear, as Tim Farron has now said, that it is best for Britain to remain in the EU. We are democrats and we respect the result of the referendum. But people are already changing their minds, in large numbers. We will give them the opportunity to vote for that change of mind at the next election.
*all comments will be accepted. I expect rampant commentary from TTIP ultras, which I will probably ignore because there is no point arguing with them (a bit like some Brexiters), but please comment on the other stuff as well.