If we want to win the next referendum, we’ll need a better campaign than the last one

We need to be honest, both with ourselves as politicians, and with the electorate.

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For those, like me, who believe that the time has come for a referendum on either leaving the European Union on the terms of Theresa May’s deal, or staying in the EU after all, we have a difficult question to answer: what goes on the side of our bus?

The 2016 campaign was marked not just by alleged malpractice by the various Leave campaigns, but by an exceptionally poor campaign on the Remain side. Apparently tone deaf to the risks of being an “establishment” campaign, we paraded businessmen who turned out to be incapable of sticking to the message, endorsers of whom no one had heard, senior politicians who were busily dismantling the social security system, and a threatening message of economic doom. This is not intended as individual criticism of those who organised and worked on the campaign: we all got it badly wrong, but now we must face up to the challenge ahead if we succeed in securing a referendum in the weeks and months to come. 

So how do we prevent history repeating itself, following Karl Marx’s formula, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce? In my view, the tragedy in 2016 was that the Remain side “learnt” two lessons from the 2014 Scottish Referendum that I am unconvinced were correct. The first was that you win a constitutional referendum through simple economic fear – rather than a message of hope. The second was the belief that the reason the Scottish referendum was so much closer than expected was that Labour got tarred with a Tory brush for being part of the same campaign as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and therefore we should keep our distance from the main Remain campaign. 

The first mistake meant that the Remain campaign fought a dreary campaign of numbers and people prophesying doom, against a coruscating campaign by the Leave side. The second mistake meant that regardless of what Labour actually thought, we were neither seen nor heard in making our case, to the point where Labour voters often didn’t know where we stood. My view, having been up to Scotland several times to campaign in the run-up to the referendum, is that from an initial low base of support for independence the SNP did incredibly well and the lessons to be learnt for the European Referendum might have been better taken from their near-success rather than from our near-failure. There are more subtleties to the study of campaigns than “who won?”, even if there are worse places to start.

But angry as it made me then and still makes me now, it is raking over old coals. Similarly, excellent, necessary and welcome as it is, the work of Carole Cadwalladr will switch few votes by itself, for no one likes accepting that they were lied to, or that they were manipulated. Instead we need strong positive messages that go beyond the risk of economic self-immolation. We need to be able not merely to point to the long years of economic decline and political self-harm that would follow from leaving the European Union, but also to the positive reasons why we should be part of the European Union, of what it means to live in a stable Europe, a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic continent under the rule of law, and what it could mean for our future if we get that right.

Again, we got that wrong in the last referendum. A fortnight before the referendum was regarded by some as a good time to start a discussion about what might be desirable as changes to the rules around freedom of movement, even though it was perfectly apparent that a Remain vote would offer very limited ability to achieve the full range of what they were seeking. Regardless of whether they were right on the technical policy points, it is still unclear to me why we started a debate among ourselves, at such a late stage, whose only effect was to lend force and salience to the anti-immigration arguments of the Vote Leave campaign.

I am wary of repeating past mistakes. But it’s not just that: if we can’t – or won’t – make the case for the right to work and live across the European Union, then we won’t win either. How can we possibly think it consistent to argue for the importance of the movement of goods or capital yet cast doubt on the value of such freedoms for workers, for the people we represent? We know, as a matter of empirical fact, that free movement has made our country and our people richer. We know, too, that the rest of Europe values it deeply. Let us not pretend to our supporters either that ending free movement is desirable, or that even if it were, it is a realistic option we have within the European Union. Both are false. It is knowing the truth that sets us free. And it is telling the truth that makes us socialists rather than populists.

For all the dodgy claims, and for all the vile politics and unattractive personalities of the Leave side in 2016, we have to accept they ran an outstanding set of campaigns. We all remember the bus with the nonsense about the NHS. We all remember the slogan “Take Back Control”: simple, emotive, forceful, victorious. Who remembers “Britain is stronger, safer and better off in Europe”? I certainly didn’t – I had to google it. Bearing in mind the money and polling resources available to the Remain campaign, the mind boggles at the weakness of the alternative slogans that they must have tested and rejected before arriving at that. And being told that the Erasmus scheme for students, or the abolition of data roaming charges were major achievements of the European Union: I hardly need say more. Of course these things are positive, but they do not speak to the people who needed persuading. A catalogue of such supposed triumphs may work well in more prosperous areas, or university towns full of young people. In a seat like mine, where for many of my constituents a foreign holiday is a luxury they can ill afford, and where too few young people go to university at all, these sorts of claims were not so much irrelevant as a way of rubbing salt into sore wounds. I want all my constituents to feel that “elsewhere in Europe” is somewhere they might realistically go for a holiday, end up working, or where their kids might get a university education. But the challenge is make them seem imaginable for everyone in our country, not merely to welcome its ever growing convenience for the rich.

Because the tragedy was that we found ourselves enlisted as cheerleaders for a status quo, small-c conservative vision, this time narrowly transactional rather than effectively emotive. But even when more effective, the message is empty of hope and vision: “vote to keep what you have, be afraid of change.” It is the same sort of miserable idea that flares up in the Labour Party like recurrent sciatica: that the dream we should place in front of the electorate is not of a better future but instead of an imagined past. Within our party this usually comes as calls for Labour to talk more about our history (or particular parts of our history), about family (or particular conceptions of family), about tradition (or particular traditions), about identity (usually white, always male, and usually blue-collar), and about the nation (usually just England). This is the politics of regarding the famous 1970s Hovis advert as a contemporary party political broadcast: idealising a world of burning coal, backbreaking manual labour, and few women in the workplace. One of the many things the politics of the 1997-2010 era taught me was that voters do not need to think our values are completely identical to theirs, to be convinced that ours is nonetheless the right party to lead Britain.

Perhaps my deep aversion to these forms of socially conservative social democracy, for which many in our movement seem to harbour a deep longing, comes from my suspicion that for people like me it would have been a social, cultural, and economic prison. My grandparents were immigrants. My mother brought me up alone. Against the odds, a wonderful local school and a supportive family helped me secure a place at Oxford. I wanted an education, not just as an end in itself, but to open up new opportunities. Today, like every parent, I want my two children — and every child — to have the best chances the world can offer. I believe firmly that both romanticising our past and campaigning for the current settlement are mistakes. Neither approach is either a route to victory or a plan for a better future for our country. Our offer for the people of Britain needs to be a lot more than the stale promise of a better yesterday. We must believe, and be seen to believe, that our best days are yet to come, that we can build a better society in the future than any we have managed before.

The late Tony Judt famously spoke of the “social democracy of fear”, of the need for social democrats “to speak more assertively of past gains”. But if that approach ever worked, then it only worked for social democrats when there weren’t more exciting or more appealing alternatives. People do want their fears allayed, but they also want the hope of progress. Populists on both left and right now present electors with a promise of a brighter future, however questionable the means of its delivery. The Remain campaign last time, with its message of “here are all these things you might lose” went up against a populist campaign about elites, power, and the not always welcome consequences of a world made small by technology. We all know what happened, and I’m keen we don’t do it again. The admission by the Treasury that all forms of Brexit will leave us worse off should not tempt us into a rerun of the 2016 campaign but with new, improved and more frightening economic projections. Instead we need a social democracy of hope, and if there is a referendum, as I very much hope, we need to start thinking very fast about the messages we will use in our communities this time round.

In reality, there is a lot we can say about the Europe we’ve built, and the Europe that a Labour government can help build in the future. We should be proud that alongside our sister parties across Europe we have built societies where people have paid leave, proper healthcare, and rights at work. Getting today’s giant companies — Facebook, Google, and plenty others besides — to pay proper taxes on the profits they make in our country is going to be all but impossible except through European co-operation, and is only just beginning to happen. We should be proud of how the EU, and Britain’s determination to expand it, has been a powerful force for freedom and justice, spreading not just prosperity but democracy and human rights to millions of people in central Europe in my lifetime. We should be clear that in a world of Chinese and Russian aggression and of US unreliability and instability, a democratic community of half a billion people is a safe and lucky place to be. There is so much wrong in our country today, and although almost all of it will be made worse by leaving the European Union, we should think of how in each case Europe can be part of the answer, rather than the absence of Europe merely being another problem.

To those who say that a referendum would sow division, and isn’t what my constituents voted for, I say three things. Firstly, I share the anger of many people in my community about the unequal nature of our society and the problems we see around us. But we are unlikely to have the time, money or energy to tackle child poverty, the crisis in adult social care, or exploitative employment practices, as Brexit drags on for the next decade or longer. There is no immediate prospect of a time “after Brexit”, when our relations with Europe are stable and final, when Westminster and Whitehall are focused on the serious domestic issues we face. Secondly, my constituents have every right to look at what’s on offer and decide if they want to press ahead: that’s hardly an affront to democracy. Thirdly, we must not conflate the rise of the far right with the decent people who voted Leave in 2016. I know what the far right looks like: they’re already organising protests against me, and I won’t be intimidated. I believe in standing up to fascism, not running away from it.

Which makes me anxious not only about what we put on the bus, but what we believe and what we fight for. Like almost everyone on the British left, I hoped Hillary Clinton would win the last US presidential election. But I found myself disagreeing profoundly with her recent suggestion that what European social democrats need to do, if we want to return to winning elections, is to send a message that Europe can take no more refugees, and look to curtail immigration, as ways to address the legitimate grievances of the people we seek to represent. First of all, the reason public services are failing and breaking under the strain at the moment is not because of immigration. It is the result of political decisions about taxation and the level of public spending. Pretending that GP services in Sunderland are overstretched because the overall number of people in Britain has gone up is fundamentally dishonest. The truth is that together with the demographic change of an ageing population, primary care is underfunded, training has been under-resourced, and there has been inadequate strategic planning of what services there are. Secondly, allowing the notion to gain credence that this is the result of allowing people to come and work here isn’t just dishonest: it is unhelpful. We need proper planning by government of all our public services and proper funding for them too. The stronger economic growth that immigration gives us should be invested back in the public realm, in the schools, children’s centres and libraries that people in an advanced society need, not frittered away in lower taxes for the super-rich, loopholes left open for the profits of multinationals, or ludicrous vanity bridges.

And perhaps most importantly, that dishonesty about what causes strains on public services represents a fundamental loss of courage among too many on the centre-left. By telling people that changes in the quality of public services are caused by more people arriving, rather than by government decisions, we diminish our ability to point to the power of government to achieve change. A society where the most important structural lever to achieve social change is agreed to be the level of immigration, is a society which has given up on the state’s other levers for change. We must not do that. We must continue to emphasise the good that comes from redistributive taxation, the social value of universal public services as part of a strategy for equality, the importance of training and education as a way of improving our lives, our prospects, and our economy. To be complicit in pretending that the cause of poverty and inequality is immigration is a fundamental retreat from the successes of social democracy. Telling the people we represent things we neither believe ourselves nor believe to be true is the high road to disaster. We should have no part in it.

Which brings us back to Europe. We all want a world where the benefits of automation mean more interesting work for everyone, not mass unemployment; a world where your chances are not about your parents and school but about your willingness to learn and work; a world where having children doesn’t bankrupt you and their education doesn’t bankrupt them; a world where food is safe, lives are healthy, and old age is without fear. All of that is much easier to pursue and achieve within the EU, as its third most populous country, rather than outside. Of course, being in the EU doesn’t make the NHS possible by itself, but it makes it easier, and safer from predatory US corporations. And yes the NHS was there before 1973: but let’s not forget that the for-profit US healthcare market largely wasn’t. Nor does being in the EU make our food better by itself, but it makes it easier to keep welfare and hygiene standards high, and to keep pesticides that harm our wildlife out of our fields. And being in the EU doesn’t make our society equal or the welfare state perfect; but it is only on that scale that big companies can be taxed properly to fund all that, without hiding their profits elsewhere. European law is the basis for parental leave entitlements, paid holiday, and workforce consultation requirements that many Tories have long been all too keen to ditch. It is surely possible to weave from all that a slogan more emotive, more future-facing, more powerful than the concentrated banality that “Britain is stronger, safer and better off in Europe”.

For all that our European partners think, probably rightly, that as a culture we obsess about the Second World War, there’s one lesson from just before that time which we should never forget. Peace and prosperity on our continent is precious and worth defending. When things are wrong in Europe, they can go very wrong indeed, and it is wise to get involved in sorting them sooner rather than later. Ultimately, to turn away from a challenge – because it’s hard, or difficult, or costly, or because it’s not immediately clear how to achieve success – isn't very British. Instead we should stay, and work for a better Britain in a better Europe.

Bridget Phillipson is Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South.