Be in no doubt. Vote Leave are going to win this referendum.
A little over 20 years ago, in Politics A-Level class at school, I remember arguing passionately that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) must be held. Only a referendum, I reasoned, would educate the public on the costs and benefits of being part of the EU; and only a referendum would finally give the electorate a voice on the rapidly changing nature of the Union, denied them for so long.
In the two decades since, those in favour of British membership have had opportunity after opportunity to explain what the advantages were, and trust the public in the process. They failed: mirroring the highhanded, craven attitudes of technocratic elites in Brussels in so doing. The constant refusal to allow the people to decide allowed the whole question of the EU to fester at the heart of political discourse, playing into the hands of its many opponents; and on June 23, just seventeen days from now, those opponents will finally prove victorious.
Last year, as opinion poll after opinion poll suggested that the General Election was locked in stalemate, it never made sense to me. David Cameron was twenty points or more ahead of Ed Miliband in the approval ratings; the Conservatives a similar margin in front of Labour on economic competence. Labour would inevitably hemorrhage support to UKIP thanks to their wanton failure to even support an EU referendum taking place; they had failed miserably to challenge the false Tory narrative on Labour’s ‘responsibility’ for the 2008 crash; and the post-Scottish referendum rise of the SNP, and its impact on England’s collective political consciousness, would do the rest.
Objectively speaking, no factors at all pointed to a Labour victory, or even a Labour-led minority government or coalition. This time around? Now almost no factors point towards Britain staying in the EU. If some polls still suggest a Remain victory, they are wrong.
The polling companies, indeed, endured such a collective nightmare last year that they are palpably floundering around, trying to cover all bases. This time, one has to sympathise with them — for this referendum has no modern day precedent. No member state has ever left the EU before; and the usual approach of reassigning ‘Don’t Knows’ to the party supported previously cannot apply here. The huge disparity between online and telephone polls only added to the confusion of pollsters: who are still searching for the right methodology even now.
Yet since YouGov revealed that phone polls were surveying too high a proportion of graduates, there has been a palpable shift overall towards Leave. The polling companies, even allowing for Opinium’s decision to re-weight their data over the weekend, are beginning to get it right… or at least, more right than hitherto.
I’m no psephologist. I’m merely a political junkie. So how can I assert this with such confidence? How, for that matter, can I argue against the betting markets — still strongly Remain overall — and Matt Singh, doyen of electoral forecasters, who made his deserved reputation through his and Number Cruncher Politics’ brilliant performance at the general election? My reasons are simple.
1.Last year’s election was a battle between Cameron — scarcely a beloved figure, but generally considered a competent one — and Miliband: who the public just did not view as competent. All Cameron had to do was be better than his opponent. But this time? With such a small majority in the House of Commons, and given his announcement that he’ll be standing down before the next election, Cameron’s authority is ebbing away: not merely over his party, but the electorate too. As Prime Ministers go, he’s a lame duck.
2. Who is most people’s idea of his likely successor? Boris Johnson, the most popular politician in the UK. The moment that Johnson announced for Leave, this spelled disaster for Cameron and Remain: who suddenly could no longer count on bringing undecideds and Tory moderates with them. Worse: Johnson and Michael Gove would ensure that the Leave campaign was not hijacked by the electorally toxic Nigel Farage. The latter has nonetheless made a series of spectacularly stupid comments; but the presence of the sober Gove and popular Johnson means that little or no damage has been done. Not yet, at least.
3. Thus Vote Leave have been able to combine a patriotic message appealing to voters’ hearts with one focused on their heads too. The article I wrote for Open Democracy last year set out scores of arguments which the Brexit camp could make: most of these have been taken up, and nobody has done so more effectively than the brilliant Daniel Hannan, whose perorations recall British statesmen of the increasingly distant past; and who crucially, has an optimistic, even idealistic view of Britain’s future which chimes in with a world in which voters are thirsting for real change.
4. Remain, on the other hand? Negative. Scaremongering. Appealing to voters’ fears, not their hopes. In tone, Remain have sounded exactly like those Brussels bureaucrats towards whom voters across Europe, never mind the UK, feel such disdain. While there is no doubt that, as an absolute bare minimum, a Leave vote will entail some period of economic uncertainty, it is a chronic blunder to tell British voters — who live in the world’s fifth largest economy, and maybe its number one protagonist of soft power — that war, famine and pestilence will result from Brexit. Not least because so many undecideds or among those leaning towards Leave have actually done rather well for themselves over the last 20 or 30 years.
5. Why have Remain been so negative? Very simply, they have come up against the exact same barrier which stopped so many British governments (notably Tony Blair’s Labour administration) from calling a referendum in the first place. It’s perfectly possible to make a series of dry, technocratic arguments explaining why EU membership is a good thing — but it’s close to impossible to do so via the kind of simple, emotive language required in contemporary election campaigns.
If you don’t believe me, try it yourself. Come up with five clear, positive reasons why staying in the EU is demonstrably in Britain’s interests. Believe me, you’ll struggle. Advocates have been failing to do so for over a generation now.
6. Even Remain have had to acknowledge how many problems the EU clearly has. Cameron did so again during his appearance on SKY News last week. But this simply muddies the waters: “If the EU has so many issues”, voters are bound to ask, “which have only grown throughout our membership, why should we stay?”
Compounding this has been Cameron’s charade of renegotiation, which scarcely a soul can have taken seriously: most of the ‘concessions’ he achieved were already in place beforehand. How can he have stood before the British people, as he did at the general election, and insist he’d recommend a ‘Leave’ vote if serious concessions were not forthcoming; achieve next to none of these, then invoke the shadows of doom if the referendum results in Brexit? It just isn’t credible.
7. In keeping with their state since the general election, Labour’s role in the campaign has been an unmitigated fiasco. Under a leader who many suspect favours Brexit in any case, and terrified of appearing alongside pro-EU Conservatives, Labour have shrunk before our eyes: practically to vanishing point. The entire campaign has become a battle between the two wings of the Tory Party; instead of a positive one explaining how the EU can be reformed for everyone’s benefit.
This was a generational opportunity for the British left to come together, stand up for workers’ rights and against deregulation, and exploit how unpopular Tory ideas are among so many. It’s failed. In fact, it’s barely even tried. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party isn’t so much waving as drowning: it cannot get its message (whatever that might be) across, it cannot speak for the needs and desires of ordinary people, and is rapidly becoming a total irrelevance. Alarmingly, that’s very likely to remain the case under another leader too.
8. Last year, a hugely controversial move to individual voter registration removed almost 800,000 from the electoral roll. Most of these voters are young: much more likely to support Remain. To be sure, the Remain campaign have made huge efforts to publicise the need to register ahead of the vote — but some voters won’t have been reached by this, others will still be unaware of their removal from the roll.
This is especially likely among what we might term the ‘soft progressive’ vote: whose poor levels of turnout meant that Labour did far worse last year, and the Liberal Democrats far worse in 2010, than the polls had suggested. To an extent, the problem even ate into the YES vote at the Scottish referendum: where the ultimate ten-point margin was beyond that predicted by any poll just before referendum day, and where turnout in strongly YES areas like Dundee or Glasgow was well below that in NO areas.
At this referendum, as in Scotland in 2014 and on May 7 last year, which group of voters are most likely to turn out? The old. Which group are least likely to turn out? The young.
More than that: the sheer lily-livered weakness of Remain’s argument means that psychologically, those who want change are that much more likely to make their electoral voices heard: which is why UKIP, for example, performed so much better at the European elections in 2014 than the general election a year later.
Remain’s argument has been nothing like clear or passionate enough to engage those whose support it desperately needs. The opposite has applied with Leave. The results of this are inevitable.
9. On top of this, Cameron’s government voted down a measure to allow the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds; while expatriates (most of whom, comfortably well off, predominantly older, are that much more likely to support Leave) are granted the franchise. Both this and the electoral registration changes would only make sense had Cameron led the Leave campaign; but that he’s allowed it to happen despite placing his entire political legacy on a Remain vote is extraordinary, and amounts to an unfathomable level of carelessness from someone whose instincts were hitherto so sure-footed.
10. Last year, when social media was agog regarding the most lurid allegations in Lord Ashcroft’s biography of the Prime Minister, I set out why most commentators had entirely missed the point. Cameron’s alleged exploits with the infamous pig’s head were irrelevant; the mounting antipathy of the right wing press, anything but.
Ever since Rupert Murdoch bought The Times and The Sunday Times in 1981, his newspapers have never backed the losing horse at an important British election. Not once. Undoubtedly, The Sun’s vitriolic treatment of Miliband did much to create his hapless public image; so cynical was it, indeed, that it actually backed the SNP (against Labour) north of the border, the Tories (against Labour) south of it.
Much of the anti-EU debate of the last 20 years has been led by the right wing press — which has never displayed such disdain for facts and objective argument as it does now. The mounting corporatism of the media is the reason for that: but regardless, this is the opportunity which right wing magnates and oligarchs have been waiting for.
On that basis, it should scarcely be a surprise that so much of the debate has turned towards immigration in recent days; and as Leave’s ultimate vote winner, that pattern will only intensify between now and June 23. It is impossible for Remain to counter the argument that Britain can only control its borders outside the EU: which is why Cameron’s concessions had to include one on freedom of movement. They did not.
This means that he and Remain are doomed. It also means that Murdoch, who Cameron’s government went after during the Leveson inquiry, and Ashcroft, denied an important post in government by the Prime Minister, are about to enjoy the ultimate revenge.
Think what you will about what this says on the state of British politics and the media in 2016. Undoubtedly, the mainstream media enjoy alarming levels of power without responsibility; the continued primacy of patronage at Westminster is wholly at odds with any kind of meritocratic society; and both elements help generate a dumbed down political discourse which is high on sensationalism, low on facts, and does not represent the wishes or needs of the people.
Be all that as it may. The point is this: mounting numbers of people across the Western world no longer believe that the system delivers for them. The middle class continues to be hollowed out; jobs become ever more insecure; homes ever more out of reach. The next generation will be poorer than its predecessors.
Hence the rise of various forms of populism, both extreme and more moderate, whether through the guise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US; Podemos in Spain; Syriza in Greece; the SNP in Scotland; Marine Le Pen in France; Norbert Hofer in Austria; or Farage and UKIP in England. The political establishment does not know how to respond to this — and as long as globalisation continues to shift power, wealth and jobs towards the east, the centre will not be able to hold much longer.
In Europe, social democratic parties were first to suffer the consequences. But now, Cameron himself is discovering that the Blairite liberal centre no longer speaks for the majority, or anything resembling a majority. In the wake of the most disproportionate electoral outcome in modern British history, the fabled ‘centre ground’ has practically ceased to exist; and is about to count the unsuspecting Prime Minister among its mounting number of victims.
Against such a backdrop, ‘more of the same’, as presented by Remain, is no offer at all. Indeed, the only way Remain can possibly rescue itself now is for a last ditch offer, which takes Britain out of freedom of movement, to be made: recalling how The Vow turned the short term tide in Scotland. But in practice, the precedent this would set must make EU leaders highly unlikely to offer it; and if it was, given it would confirm the extent to which Cameron has been playing them for fools, the response of the British electorate would be one of apoplexy. In other words, it almost certainly would not work.
No doubt, many of Leave’s arguments are overly simplistic. A good number, as exposed by Faisal Islam in his interview with Gove last week, not only don’t stand up to scrutiny, but amount to examples of ‘post-truth politics’. No doubt, too, that Britain regaining control of its borders wouldn’t make the remotest difference to the express train of globalisation and its many dreadful consequences. The drawbridge cannot just be pulled up.
But even through the bizarre guise of dyed-in-the-wool Tories comically fulminating against fat cat bankers when it happens to suit their case for once, Leave have tapped into a desire for change which Remain appear oblivious to. Their campaign has been vastly more effective and imaginative; they deserve to win.
And on June 23, probably by a wider margin than most anticipate, win they assuredly will.