So what do we know, two weeks on, two weeks after the people spoke, shouted, swore and howled. We know much more than we did before. Pent up feelings have come out – nasty nationalistic, racist ones – and tolerant, compassionate ones. The political parties have been stress tested as never before. The last fortnight has told us a lot about people – and about politics.
Here is what we know about people. We know that 52% of the voters rejected the version of reality offered by business leaders, defence chiefs and scientists and believed the version offered by the propagandists – the Daily Mail, the Sun, Johnson, Farrage and Gove. The research shows they were more likely to be Conservatives, to live in the Midlands and North, to be older, to be poorer and not have degrees. Those of us who were out on the street campaigning know they range from thoughtful types who think the EU is bit too powerful to full-on racists. A lot of them are boiling with anger at ‘that lot’ – the privileged, the establishment, that Branson who lives in the Caribbean, that Carney who’s Canadian, that rich Gary Lineker etc. In hindsight that’s why the more the experts recommended ‘in’, the more the 52% said ‘out then’.
We also know there is a 48% chunk of the British public who wanted to stay in the EU, despite all the propaganda. They’re also a mixture. Some are Tories, but most are likely to be Labour, LibDem, Green and SNP. They are more likely to be graduates, professionals, richer and younger. The IN campaign provided an unprecedented rallying point for those who support international collaboration, oppose racism and believe the EU is on balance a good thing. The 48% have remained vocal and to a degree connected – marching for Europe and sharing their outrage and solidarity on social media.
The great divide
In other words the referendum has revealed a fractured country where the 48% and the 52% inhabit different worlds. On the night after the referendum I joined some of the 48% to drown our sorrows over a few bottles of wine in a pub. For many of the 52% that’s not an option. Between us, we probably spent a typical family’s weekly food budget. Talk of a classless society is baloney. The gulf between managers and workers may have closed but another has opened between graduates and non-graduates, those who move, socially and geographically, and those who don’t, those with careers and those with zero-hours contracts, those who get on and those who get by.
I respect people who want a second vote, or want Parliament to over-rule the result on the grounds that the referendum is non-binding or that people were misinformed. But personally I feel it would be wrong to suppress the verdict of the 52%. It would legitimise the paranoia that anti-EU propagandists trade on and provide the perfect excuse to depict Brussels and the establishment as riding rough-shod over ordinary people. Now we’ve let everyone have their say, the 48% need to regroup and create a movement that speaks more clearly for progressive politics. Then that movement needs to find ways to reach out across the gulf, overcome the propaganda machines and win over a decisive chunk of the 52% through compelling advocacy of progressive, collaborative politics. We need a proper fix, not a quick fix. Then perhaps we can have another referendum.
Handstands and the splits
But not now. Because if you look at what the last fortnight has told us about politics, the 48% are in no fit state to win anything. The 52% – plus the 15% Tory remainers – have clear political representatives. They have UKIP and the Tories. At first sight the Tories appear to be in a mess, but they remain capable of doing handstands and the splits simultaneously to retain power. Having dragged the country out of the EU as a result of their intermittent civil war, with about 60% of them voting leave, they are now about to unite around a new leader – with the favourite being someone who voted remain. You couldn’t make it up. But it’s not crazy. It’s chilling evidence of the cynicism that has kept the Tory machine in power for 52 out of the 71 years since 1945. For many at the top of the Tory party, the referendum was promised simply to win the 2015 UK election – and now Westminster in 2020 is all that matters. Stuff Europe.
Left of centre – political rubble
So what stands against that formidable Tory machine? Who stands for the 48% (minus the Tory remainers)? If you’re in Scotland, you are spoilt for choice. South of the border, OMG. The 48% are politically homeless. Lib Dems can claim to represent much of what they stand for ideologically – being pro-EU, open-minded on immigration, liberal etc. But in practical terms, they don’t have 48% of anything – they have 1% of the MPs – and 8% of the vote – compared to 23% in 2010. Why? Research suggests that many voters did not forgive the party for going into power with the Conservatives in 2010 after saying a vote for them was a vote to keep the Tories out. And by the way, 30% of today’s Lib Dem voters voted leave – showing that many LibDem voters – often acquired through localised ‘pavement politics’ – don’t share their leaders’ ideals. This is not the basis of a coherent mass movement for the 48%.
But it’s a whole lot better than the fiasco that Labour has become by allowing its membership – which elects its leader – to be captured by the hard left. Around 100,000 people have joined in the past two weeks – the same number as joined immediately before Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory last year. The suspicion is that these new members are from far left, Momentum type groups, recruited to re-elect Corbyn if there is a fresh leadership election. Unless thousands of moderate Labour voters can be recruited as activists – something of a contradiction in terms – by the Saving Labour group and others, we’re looking at a perpetually hard left party. Labour is no longer a mass political movement of organised labour so much as a narrow protest movement of organised agitation. The Corbynite members come from a different political world to the MPs and to most Labour voters. It’s an ignominious fate for a party that has been thrashing around since ‘Labour’ became a misnomer in the 1970s and 1980s when its traditional base of industrial workers shrank. Since then, it’s either veered to the right, as under Blair, or left as now. It has served its purpose and may be in its death throes.
The upshot is that no-one really represents the bulk of the 48% and there is little hope of either LibDems or Labour being able to do so. Nonetheless tribal instincts survive in both camps. Having belonged to both parties over the past decade, on 24 June I got emails from Tim Farron asking me to join the LibDems and from Corbyn saying – and I am not making this up – “Ours is the only party that can meet the challenge we now face.”
A new home
Come on. We can do better than this. Take a look at 48% group on Facebook and you see an entity that is a whole lot more coherent and contemporary than the parties that purport to represent it. For a start, the parties should not be splitting the progressive vote. This is too important. It’s time for moderate, progressive people in Labour to realise their party is over; for those in the LibDems to realise theirs is too tarnished; and for the Greens to realise theirs is too small. The 48% deserve a single, better, home. Something new needs to be built from the left of centre’s current political rubble. And it won’t happen if someone simply hoists up a new flag and says “over here, join me” – creating yet another Monty Python style splittist faction. This demands humility. It means laying down flags and coming together without anyone thinking they know best and have the answer. And that’s a difficult ask for all those ABC2 graduate managerial types who are so used to controlling things. This kind of process is already being talked about by LibDems such as Vince Cable, who wrote: “What is needed is something which reaches beyond the tribe and doesn’t rely on conventional party politics within the existing structures.”
The 48% group hits the right tone by simply demanding its voice is heard. If people talk, anything could happen. It might start with progressive politicians from across the left of centre plus some supporters of the Remain campaign just rehearsing potential strategies. If Corbyn is unopposed or re-elected, moderate Labour politicians need to accept that time is up on the party they knew and something new is needed – probably a new party – which merges with or forms a partnership with the LibDems. It wouldn’t be a re-run of the 1980s SDP because it will represent a far larger proportion of Labour MPs and Labour voters. But the realignment could take many forms. It might mean an electoral pact so the opposition to the Tories is not split in each constituency in 2020. It might be a new party formed by the majority of Labour parliamentarians and LibDems. It might be an alliance that allows everyone to retain their heritage party allegiance while being part of a broader movement for change. It needs to evolve through a broad-based, intelligent conversation with prejudices and banners left at the door. Whatever it is, the key is to provide a single force to represent progressive politics and defeat Conservatism. Most of all, it needs strong, principled, compelling leaders.
What do we do – us 48%-ers? I suggest we simply do everything we can to keep the flame alive and keep the conversation going. Join Facebook groups, join the Labour, LibDem or Green parties – not because any of them has the answer but to argue from within for their reconstitution as something more relevant to forward-thinking people in the 21st century. Whatever happens, my hope is that we will do this properly – do it slowly, do it well, do it right. Give the 48% a voice, provide a clear vision, turn them into 58% or 68% and lead Britain back to being the compassionate, collaborative and competitive country it ought to be. Churchill said that a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity and the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. The left now faces a huge difficulty – but it’s also one hell of an opportunity.