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Labour should be careful what it wishes for

Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

March 5, 2019   4 mins

“In South America they’d call this a coup d’état.”

“But no firing squad. No torture or retribution. No bloodshed. A very British coup, wouldn’t you say?”

So ran an exchange between firebrand socialist prime minister Harry Perkins and his nemesis, the scheming head of MI5, Sir Percy Browne, in the gripping climax to the TV adaptation of Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup. Man-of-the-people Perkins was ‘a bad dream’ to Sir Percy and his establishment friends. So they conspired to bring him down by falsely implicating him in a financial scandal.

Is it over-egging things to suggest there are parallels between the former Left-wing MP Mullin’s novel and attempts today to sabotage the result of the EU referendum? Perhaps. But the clash between the wishes of the people in voting for radical change and the determination of the ruling class to prevent it is very much of the same theme.

The irresistible force of the popular vote has run up against the seemingly immovable object of the massed ranks of the establishment. And, like in Mullin’s thriller, the latter has plotted and connived, sometimes brazenly, often stealthily, to subvert the democratic will.

Amid the tumult and the shouting, it’s worth taking a step back to reflect on the course of events. In 2015, five in six MPs voted to hold a referendum on membership of the EU. Then, a year later, in the biggest democratic exercise ever witnessed in our nation’s history, more than 33 million people went to the polls and a majority voted for secession. They didn’t vote to leave only with a divorce agreement that the EU was willing to approve. No, the question on the ballot paper was simple: remain or leave.

MPs subsequently voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50 to enshrine in law the UK’s departure from the EU on 29 March 2019. No caveats, no conditions – we were heading out, deal or no deal.

But, as time has elapsed, the early consensus among the establishment that the will of the people was sacred and must be respected has crumbled. And in its place we have seen a growing resistance, a feature of which has been the deployment of the most crude and paternalistic arguments in an effort to justify the attempt to debase our democracy.

As if that were not bad enough, the post-referendum debate among Westminster politicians and the commentariat has missed the mark spectacularly by focusing almost exclusively on the dry, technical issues of Brexit: the Single Market and Customs Union, the Irish border backstop, and so on.

These things are important of course, but no-one in power has yet bothered to initiate a serious discussion about what drove so many of their fellow citizens to vote Leave in the first place – defining issues such as community, identity, democracy and belonging.

People voted Leave in such large numbers because they felt the political class in this country had stopped listening to them. And in the almost three years since, that political class has done everything in its power to prove them right. Little wonder that minds haven’t been changed and the polls are broadly mirroring what they were doing in the run-up to the referendum.

So here we stand: a government desperately trying to flog a deal that falls short of a genuine Brexit and threatening a delay to the whole project if it isn’t accepted; an opposition apparently bent on committing electoral suicide by demanding we vote again; and a wider establishment – including civil servants and business chiefs – doing its damnedest to ensure the thing doesn’t happen at all.

Oh, and into the fray has now come a sour band of recalcitrants in the form of the so-called Independent Group, determined, apparently, to ‘change politics’ while actually fighting tooth and nail to preserve the status quo.

These people aren’t the future. Far from being motivated by a craving for political change, they are in fact contemptuous of those who have disrupted the prevailing order. It will come as a nasty shock when they eventually discover, as they surely will, that their desire to return to the narrow and elitist liberal centrist orthodoxy that created such disaffection and discontent in our society in the first place, is shared by few beyond their own bubble.

For Labour, which has responded by changing its position on a ‘People’s Vote’, this could prove a seminal moment. Not only does its call for a fresh referendum constitute a clear breach of its previous commitments to honour the 2016 result, it also defies all political logic.

Its slow haemorrhaging of support across its once-loyal working-class heartlands over recent years, as well as the reality that those heartlands voted decisively for Brexit and would be repelled still more by any suggestion of a re-run of the vote, ought to have been enough to persuade it not to alienate its core vote any further. But apparently not. The party of workers is now preparing to traverse the country telling workers they got it wrong. It should come as no surprise that the first survey of the public’s reaction to Labour’s latest position shows working-class voters opposed to the party’s new position.

In choosing to pitch to its largely middle-class, urban, pro-EU membership rather than its traditional base, Labour has blundered badly. Its message to seventeen million people is: ‘Your Leave vote is no longer safe with us.’ The party may well pay a heavy price for prioritising Hampstead over Hartlepool. It wouldn’t be undeserved.

Labour folk supporting the idea of a second referendum should be careful what they wish for. What do they envisage would happen if Labour came to power under Corbyn? There is every likelihood that the formidable apparatus of the establishment, big business and the media included, will be turned against an incoming Corbyn government, just as it was against the fictional Harry Perkins administration.

Capital flight, a run on sterling, disinvestment, threatened relocation of business – all of these things may confront them. In some quarters this would no doubt lead to demands for another general election on the grounds that ‘People didn’t know what they were voting for,’ that ‘The facts have changed,’ and ‘Nobody voted to be poorer’. What then? Consistency would dictate that Labour concede to these demands. Democracy would dictate it resist them.

We often forget that democracy was extended fully to the working-class in Britain fewer than a hundred years ago. Some among today’s elite would appear to regret it ever happened. But they subvert the popular will at their peril.

It may seem that, while the political class postures and preens, the pliable and subservient masses are still going about their daily business in their normal, quiet way, disinclined to question the judgement of their ‘betters’. But it would be unwise to mistake this silence for acquiescence. For as the gilet jaunes have shown across the Channel, if you chip away enough at people’s faith in the democratic process and their ability to hold their political leaders to account, then from behind that silence a mighty roar will eventually emerge.

Paul Embery is a firefighter, trade union activist, pro-Brexit campaigner and ‘Blue Labour’ thinker


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