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Would Remain win a second referendum?

The ground has shifted, but who that favours is less clear.

Danny Finkelstein writes persuasively in his Times column that it would not be straightforward for Remain to win a second Referendum.  That is presumably one of the reasons – though there may be others – why Nigel Farage fuelled discussion of one recently.

Danny is sceptical of Remainers’ chances on three counts.  First, unlike in the first referendum, the status quo would not look as certain relative to what was then a multitude of possibilities for leaving.  Second, the stamp of approval of the government might reassure potential Leave voters. Third, Leavers would be wary of a second referendum that was an establishment plot to avoid doing what they were told the first time.

There are other factors at work too.

The status quo of membership will look different. David Cameron’s negotiated proposals to modify freedom of movement within the EU are off the table, and would probably not make it back on. There have been noises, which might soon translate into policy action, in the direction of Euro area fiscal integration, made by both Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Free of the threat of a UK veto, discussion of the idea of a common EU defence force has intensified. These debates can be used by Leave to caricature continued EU membership as being too close to a more powerful vortex of ‘ever closer political union’ which will inevitably suck the United Kingdom in.

The ambiguity around Leave that helped unite it during the first referendum will be gone, dissolved in the face of a definite proposal. As well as causing some former Leave voters – perhaps disappointed at not retaining single market membership – to back Remain, it will complicate campaigning, to put it mildly. 

The Brexit factions in both Ukip and the Conservative Party are in open warfare about what kind of Brexit to go for. It is hard to imagine any of them giving up as any particular choice in the spectrum from Brexit In Name Only to an immediate walking away disappoints someone. The fight is aggravated by the fact that the EU’s negotiating stance – indeed how it sees its own incentives to stop the union from being unravelled – means that there are only a few options, far apart from each other, on the table. The Brexit factions can’t pick their own compromise degree of distance from the EU.  A campaign more openly at war with itself might do less well.

Ukip has since imploded, sapped by the departure of their charismatic leader Nigel Farage, a loss of purpose, and an accumulation of damaging coverage of in-fighting and scandal.

In 2016 Leave harvested some votes that were about kicking the incumbent government, rather than explicitly about leaving the EU.  In theory, those who vote this way would be there for Remain’s taking, assuming that the government backs the deal it gets with the EU.  This would be helped by Labour turning the vote into one on government competence and Toryism (‘Tory Brexit’).

That said, Labour might struggle to campaign convincingly for Remain itself, if the other box on the ballot paper is precisely that.  Although the tactical break away from Hard Brexit in 2017 is something Labour will want to keep hold of,  the party has said many negative things about membership since 2016 that could be used against it. Notably on freedom of movement, and what it thinks are barriers to nationalisation and industrial policy. 

By the time a second referendum were held, many facts on the ground would be different. Turkey can no longer be plausibly said to be joining the EU in the near future. So some of those posters will not work this time. The migrant crisis has dried up. The Greek crisis is under control and less fresh in the memory. The grisly march of time will have replaced older voters –disproportionately Leavers – with younger ones. And polls have shifted in favour of Remain, albeit not by much.

A second referendum seems politically unlikely. But these ambiguities about who would win, encouraging many on both sides to think that they can, will be something that makes one more likely to happen than otherwise. 

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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.