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27 November 2017

Remainers can stop Brexit – but the wrong people are leading the campaign

The economic liberals who lost the EU referendum are still at the helm. 

By Michael Chessum

This was the month when the cost of Brexit became tangible. As the Chancellor announced a slowdown in economic growth, the Resolution Foundation predicted that Britain is now set to experience the biggest fall in living standards since records began in the 1950s. Having stood beside a bus proclaiming £350m a week for the NHS, Boris Johnson and other pro-Leave Tories voted for a budget that set aside £3bn for Brexit, with more to come, while granting the NHS less than half of what it needs, according to the boss of NHS England.

As the economy tanks and the negotiations get messier, public support for remaining in the EU should rise. Add to that the demography of the referendum – the fact that older Leave voters will be dying while younger Remain voters will be coming of age – and the unbreakable consensus that Brexit must happen ought to become brittle. But the attempt to stop Brexit faces a serious problem. Its main narratives, and its visible political leadership, are, for now, utterly incapable of turning the tide.

For a class of political insiders, the fresh economic crisis, fall in living standards and loss of workers’ rights can easily be linked to Brexit. But in reality and on the ground, they are experienced as part of something much bigger. For someone who has experienced the collapse of industry, neoliberal deregulation and years of grinding austerity, the effects of Brexit will just be the latest episode of pointless cruelty inflicted on lives and communities by the political elite.

The current face of the pro-Remain movement is incapable of understanding, let alone articulating, that story. The mass base of the continuing anti-Brexit movement has focussed on mobilising its core supporters, draped in EU flags.  The intellectual leadership of the old official Remain campaign – drawn from the very same political elite which pushed neo-liberal economics when in government – fills the BBC’s sofas with a range of Blairite spokespeople from central casting.

The democratic case for a fresh referendum on the terms of the deal is overwhelming, with neither the deal nor the government likely to command popular support by March 2019. But this alliance of centrist politicians and pundits and un-self-aware Europhiles is in danger of squandering what ought to be an open goal. What they offer is a replay of a referendum that has already been lost, with the same high-handed warnings about economic chaos and the same lack of understanding.

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To reverse Brexit, the flag-wavers and bigwigs must step back to make way for an anti-establishment crusade. With crucial rights being jettisoned, and unprecedented powers being handed to the executive in the EU Withdrawal Bill, Brexit is rapidly being exposed as an ideological project of the Tory right. The plan is, as was made clear in the referendum, to cut “red tape” – in other words to deregulate the economy and scrap rights and protections. Attacking migrant rights, the government will make many workers more precarious and less likely to organise.

We must redraw the dividing lines of British politics – away from Leave and Remain, and towards what kind of society we want to build. The last referendum wasn’t about the EU, and the next one won’t be either. A self-consciously radical domestic policy must be articulated by the same people who articulate the case against Brexit. Social housing, a dramatically higher minimum wage, boosting trade union rights, and taxing the rich to fund public services must be directly counterposed to the narrative that blames immigrants for a very real crisis of living standards.

None of this means that the left can get away with ignoring the Brexit debate, or fudging the question forever. If the Tories are able to complete Brexit, Labour will inherit a phenomenally difficult economic situation, and will spend years unpicking and reversing the deregulatory and authoritarian elements of the Tories’ agenda – if they manage to do so at all. Remaining in the EU is Jeremy Corbyn’s best hope of being able to implement a radical programme, at least for now.

On every level, Brexit is the failure of the entire political establishment. The whole political establishment backed an economic consensus that ripped apart lives and communities. The same class of people, working in lock-step with the right-wing tabloid press, were quite happy to demonise migrants and foreigners for the effects their own failings and subservience to a dogma of privatisation.  

Now, the most extreme part of the establishment is driving ordinary people’s living standards off a cliff yet again, so that it can pursue an agenda of economic deregulation and imperial nostalgia. They can be stopped – but only with a campaign that comes explicitly from the left, and which names its enemy. Much of that enemy voted Remain last time around. 

Michael Chessum was a full-time organiser for Another Europe is Possible, the left-wing Remain campaign, during the EU referendum.