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Brexit is a mess, but the problem isn't our leaders

The referendum itself was almost designed to deliver bad government.

A common refrain as the Brexit crisis unfolds is that not only is the United Kingdom’s Brexit process in a fine mess, it was one that Theresa May’s government got itself into. Government incompetence got us to today, with little progress, and a worryingly high chance a disorderly jettisoning from the European Union.

Labour - and in particular Keir Starmer - naturally adopt this posture, understandably seeking to maximise political capital from the debacle.  But other disinterested commentators join in.  It hardly seems right to single anyone out, as this is a common refrain, but David Allen Green’s blog and columns adopt the view constantly that this was a process that could have been done well with the right degree of administrative acumen.

What those who push this view downplay is that the most important difficulty all along has been how to reconcile the competing desires of the different factions either in favour of Brexit all along, or now seeking to make the best of it.  They think of the government (and the Opposition) as single, strategizing entities, and deduce from the chaos that they must be bungling.  The reality is that we have two debates, not a government and an opposition.

The irreconcilability within government ranks was almost inevitable given the design of the referendum question, which did not specify anything about what the UK should leave to.  No doubt without this ambiguity, there would have been less support for Leave, since as it was a very broad church could be united.  So we can say that the very fact we are embarked on Brexit at all means it was highly likely to be warfare afterwards. 

Key amongst the congregation of the Leave Church were:  ‘liberal leavers’ who wanted to leave the single market and create open borders and free trade with the rest of the world;  liberal leavers who wished to stay in the single market and retain symbolic control over sovereignty, accepting that for now this was the freest trading circumstance possible;  those who wanted to de-globalise, intervene more in industry, reduce migration, ‘take back control’.  And perhaps other factions with darker motives, too.

It is not incompetence to have failed to reconcile these inconsistent viewpoints.  What has to happen to move forward is that all but one of the factions has to submit, or be forced to in favour of a winner.   It is fairer to suggest that it was bad politics to end up without the political power simply to ignore or squash those factions except for your own, as Theresa May has done. 

But even this could be excused to some extent.  She picked the kind of Brexit that seemed to command a majority of her party, hoped to extend that majority to be able to dispense with the ex-Remainers, and lost ground because key swathes of tactical voters did not like it.  May is not able to send one faction packing because the nation is also undecided on the post Brexit future.

Part of the difficulty is that there is a degree of binariness foisted on the UK by the incentives facing the European Union itself.  Without this, it would be easier to sit Brexiters and Remainers down to do a bit of old fashioned horse-trading.

For the EU, Brexit is part of an existential crisis.  Existential because of a list of other threats:  the Mediterranean refugee crisis, albeit now abated;  an unfriendly and protectionist United States;  an unfriendly and meddling Russia;  populist governments in Poland and Hungary;  a financially unstable Italy;  not entirely vanquished populist movements in Holland, Spain, Greece, Italy and France. 

These issues raise the stakes for the EU.  Presenting the UK with a neat set of options all the way from the status quo to a Hard Brexit, with varying degrees of regulatory alignment, trade openness, and migration is not possible.   Many of the possibilities, like trading under existing terms but without freedom of movement, or applying the single market to some sectors and not others, can’t be offered for fear of sparking a desire on the part of other members to renegotiate their own relationship with the EU.  So the EU has tried to present us with a harsh sounding In-or-Out choice.

This confronts the UK cabinet with options that are very far apart, and so neither side relishes what would amount to a capitulation and won’t give in until the last possible moment. 

Appeals to competence and ‘leadership’ (Nick Macpherson, former Treasury Permanent Secretary chose that word) are sentimental and unrealistic.  As though charisma and get-go could dissolve fundamental ideological disagreements.  

One genuine question of competence is the worry that not everyone who matters in the argument understands what is and is not feasible given the EU’s predicament.  Or has an even approximately sensible notion of the costs and benefits attached to the different options.

Some of the public statements by the participants suggest that their understanding of these things is wanting.  There are countless examples of the Brexit Ultras saying things that imply they want their ‘cake and eat it’;  meaning they want their regulatory divergence [sovereignty cake] and frictionless trade [the eating it] at the same time.  There are fewer, but still worryingly frequent interventions by others from that constituency seeming to welcome the most disorderly, abrupt and Hardest Brexit.

Taken at face value, these interventions are daft.  But seen as a part of a fight to the death with Remainers, it is more explicable.

Perhaps those speeches are the result of the same kind of diabolical calculation made by Dr Strangeglove of the Kubrick film by the same name, whose seemingly crazy sabre rattling with nuclear weapons was designed to make the Soviets back down.  They could be aimed at provoking the following calculation in the minds of the moderates:  ‘They really believe this cake and eat it stuff, don’t they, despite evidence to the contrary?  So they are not going to back down.  And if we are to avoid the disaster of disunity in the negotiations, or have a chance of picking up the pieces at some point, perhaps we should back down now and let the other lot take a run at it.’

But what about Article 50, goes the main accusation from those who feel this is all about competence.  How could you start the two year clock ticking to either a hasty withdrawal agreement or bust without having figured out what you want?  How could Labour whip its MPs to support that?  Isn’t that reckless? 

Well, once again you have to drop the idea that either side consists of single thinking units in control of all their own moving parts.  If this is a game of chicken between starkly opposing factions, more time is not productive, since neither will back down anyway until the last possible moment. 

The chaos of Brexit is not primarily matter of administrative missteps.  It is inherent in the ambiguity of the Leave vote;  the radically divergent and conflicting visions for Britain’s future outside the EU; and the incentive the EU has to preserve itself by offering us binary choices, which make Leaving for others look very bad.

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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.