After the Brexit vote we have to expect the unexpected

Mike Haynes reflects on the results of last week’s EU referendum

Photos taken at the stand off on the Thames prior to the EU referendum vote

Photos taken at the stand off on the Thames prior to the EU referendum vote

Do you have a clue where we are going and what position to take?

Did you see it coming? The imploding Labour Party? This is the world of the unknown unknowns. The Brexit vote has ripped up their rule book. It is having the same effect across the left. Just as in 1989, when the walls came down, we have to expect the unexpected.

The idea that after the Bexit vote the left could sink its differences come together on a common programme to defend migrants and oppose racism was always false because the Brexit vote was not the end. It is the beginning of the crisis. Unless we sort them out, the left’s differences over in/out/abstain will continue to bedevil our reactions to all the big issues that are coming.

1. Do we want a second referendum?

What is our attitude to this? Some are claiming that the people have spoken and we have to accept their decision. This is stupid in principle. A sovereign people can change its mind whenever it wants. That is why Farage said he would not accept a close verdict against him. That is why Sturgeon will probably go, and has the right to go, for a second referendum. If you will allow a quotation from Renan, ‘The existence of a nation is ( pardon the metaphor ) a daily plebiscite, as the existence of the individual is a perpetual affirmation of life.’

It is also what a growing number of people want. That is why some three million have signed a petition for it and more will. At the moment they are part of the shocked Remain vote, but this may come to involve sections of the outs, as some realise that they have been lied to and they will directly lose. So, for example, it is perfectly conceivable that part of the Welsh out vote may be changing its mind already. In fact, for reasons I explain later, I think that movements on the out side will benefit the right. But we still have to deal with the mood which is leading to the call for a second referendum.

Plus the logic of events could force a second referendum and make the issue of our position more than that of a reaction to a mood. Second referendums have happened in EU history before. In the UK there is a more specific issue. Everyone is now realising that no one has a clue what kind of out they voted for or how it is proposed to get there. The significance of this cannot be stressed enough. The Brexit referendum was a vote against something. It was not a vote for anything. That is why there almost certainly will have to be an election sooner rather than later. But it may also put a second referendum on the table so are we for against the call for it?

2. Brexit and the election issue

The idea is that the out faction of the Tories now create a government. They have no mandate for this because they have not put a programme ‘before the people’. They will have to devise the out policy. But on the out side they have no mandate to do this either. Brexit was a popular front of outers. In fact it was two campaigns and two popular fronts of outers. So what gives one group within one campaign the right to decide the out destination and out means? Logically this could be solved by a coalition out government/ party from Johnson to Gove to Farage to Gisela Stuart and Kate Hoey who come together to agree a common out. But I can’t see this happening. Yet with no electoral mandate and a divided parliament it is difficult to see how any policy could be got through because it will be so contentious.

So the bigger issue is what form of out do a section of the out choose for us? This is not entirely in their hands. We don’t know what the EU will let them have and neither does the rest of the EU. The Commission talks tough but the decision is not in their hands either. Merkel is softer, I suspect, because she recognises the fluidity of the situation and probably wants the contradictions to be brought home, hoping the UK will eventually stay.

But the bigger issue is that the pro Brexit faction is now splitting. Cynics are probably right that Johnson/Gove never wanted to win. But they initially have to carry the can. What they seem to want to look for is an ‘in/out’ version – that’s the one where we stay as close as possible without the political say. Remainers might go for this as the least worse option. It certainly will not satisfy the UKIP tendency of the outs.

So there will be an election. Indeed that is what we are all calling for. But Europe will probably still be the major issue with all the parties likely to be divided on both issues of principle and practical policies. Ironically the ‘in/out’ position is likely to be just as constraining in terms of reversing austerity as the full in position. So where does the left stand in an election on this – are we for an even clearer outer-out, an in/out or a stay because we got it wrong? Which brings us to UKIP.

3. The danger of a greater shift to the right

Farage has got less of a look in the aftermath of the Brexit victory. But this was in an important sense his victory. He will certainly see it this way. It is his ‘Battle for Britian’, his finest hour, the vindication of his personal fight over the past twenty years. But he is sufficiently astute to recognise too that the real war is just starting.

If you are at the top of UKP what will you be thinking once your victory hang-over has worn off? I would thinking – now it begins. Those who say that Johnson/Gove lied are exactly right. They never really wanted out. They never really wanted to deliver the anti-immigrant policy we want. We are the true outers. They want to betray us and they want to betray you, the ordinary Out voter. They are just another set of the elite that has let you down.

In any election UKIP will be positioning itself both in policy and constituency terms around an even more hostile anti-immigrant stance because they will see this as the test of how serious you are about out. Whatever the street momentum- and hats off to those organising pro migrants demonstrations – the electoral momentum is with them.

We have no idea how this might play. Nor is there any reason for the mood of the street to match the electoral outcome. With the UK electoral system as crazy as it is it could produce an voting swing to the right but allow Labour or a coalition to creep in with a lowest share of the vote because the right are split. What then? That would be a different kind of nightmare.

4. Where are we?

Frankly the left is stuck, pretty clueless and with limited traction in the debate. This is why there is so much agonising over what the vote means – if we were inside a movement we would know. What is certainly irresponsible is for either side to invoke a superior class essence to either the Brexit or the Remain vote because the vote split classes in quite contradictory ways. It is no less irresponsible to evoke a permanency to the result that is not inherent in it or the situation.

The paradox of the situation – and it is far from specific to the UK – is that objectively class has become more important in peoples’ lives but movements that have traditionally articulated class perspective and legitimized a class language are weaker than ever. It is this that creates the space for populism and populist parties which try to mobilise real grievances in what tend to be reactionary ways. Whether a left party or populist alliance can arise to challenge this as in Spain is an open question. It may be a result of labour splits. Who knows. But even if it does the issue of Europe will still be on the table for it.

I don’t have any easy solutions but a little bit more realism about where we are would not go amiss. On that part of the left from which I come from we used to be against those who fantasised that they spoke on behalf of a mass movement that was just around the corner. We prided ourselves on our grasp of where we, and the movement, really were. We recalled an exchange in Shakespeare’s Henry IV:

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

I wish I could see them coming. I can’t. But I looked up the passage and it continues in an interesting way:

Glendower: Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command
The devil
Hotspur: And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil—
By telling the truth. Tell truth and shame the devil.

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