It is nearly three years now since that fateful referendum but the wounds it opened up on the left are still festering. Indeed it seems that some horrible sort of political septicaemia may be setting in.
I know many people who are principled, intelligent socialists and feminists who are equally appalled by the damage that has been done to our welfare state under the coalition and Tory governments, by the rise of racism, by the devastation caused in Africa and the Middle East by cynical warmongering, by the speed with which inequalities are growing… I could go on. Yet there they sit, in two camps, hands over eyes and ears, demonising each other. The chasm that currently separates them is the question of a second referendum.
In one camp are those who saw the Brexit vote as an authentic expression of the rage of working class people at their abandonment by the political class. For them, many close to the anti-war movement and the Corbynite left of the labour party, who have been on the receiving end of some nasty attacks by Blairites, anybody who disagrees with them is an apologist for neoliberalism. The 6 million people who signed the petition for the revocation of Article 50 and the million who marched in London for a ‘people’s vote’ are all dismissed in the same breath as Bairites; the European Commission is categorised as simply and unproblematically neoliberal and, so, by association, are any socialist members of the European Parliament or social democrats from other European countries. The people have spoken, we should leave Europe and move on to a socialist future and any further discussion is a distraction.
In the opposite camp are those, many of them working class, especially in multicultural cities like London and Manchester, and many who joined the labour party in 2016 and 2017 to support Corbyn against his attackers, who see anybody who voted for Brexit as either ignorant or racist or both. Just as they are demonised by Lexiteers as neoliberals or deluded followers of Blairites, so they demonise Brexiteers as deluded followers of Farage and his ilk. And they often seem equally incapable of listening. Many are very angry at the position the Labour Party took in the last general election. They felt obliged to vote Labour – indeed passionately wanted to – but also felt betrayed that their desire to stay in Europe was unrepresented by the leadership. ‘What could I do? I’m a socialist. I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the Lib Dems’ was a common complaint. As May’s Brexit negotiations have unravelled and the lies told by Farage and Johnson in the last referendum campaign become apparent, their feeling that it was all a terrible mistake becomes stronger and stronger. They may not like the leadership of the People’s Vote campaign but who else is there to represent them?
Despite the delicate tightrope the labour leadership has been walking, positions seem to have hardened further now. People who have voted labour in every general election they can remember are saying sorrowfully that they cannot do so again if the party does not support another referendum.(I heard on the news this morning that Labour’s leaflets for the European election campaign may be being rewritten to address this, but for those who think the ‘the people have spoken’ this will no doubt be seen as a climb-down).
What can be done? I may be being very naive here, and I certainly do not have access to the kind of polling information that would make it possible to predict the likely outcome, but it seems to me that the question of the referendum has to be opened up into something that is less binary. Although, as readers of my earlier blog post on referendums will know, I am pretty sceptical about referendums, I am starting to think that one way forward might be to have a referendum which, instead of offering a simple yes/no choice offers instead a choice of, say, four options. These could be: leave with no deal, the May deal, the proposed Corbyn deal and remain. The exhaustive transferrable vote could then be used for people to give their first, second and third options. There is a precedent for the transferable vote in this country, after all. It is used in European elections (although in a form that favours the two main parties).
Such a solution would help address the concerns of those who think that the ‘people have spoken’. Even if you believe that the British people are in favour of Brexit, it is still legitimate to allow them to choose what sort of Brexit they want – something that was not addressed at all in 2016. It should also satisfy those who want a people’s vote and those who think it important to hear the views of people who were too young to vote last time round. It could be run on a free vote principle, enabling different factions in different parties to campaign for different options. It would even allow Corbyn to remain on the fence, if that’s where he feels he needs to be. Could it be a way to start bringing socialists together again?
As I said earlier, I have no idea what the outcome might be but even if it produced one that I would personally be saddened by (I do not want to rehearse the arguments here but I have been writing on and off about this since before the last referendum here, here, here, here , here, here, and here) it might nevertheless start to heal some of those wounds on the left. These are dark times, though there are also glimmers of hope. Those of us who want to see a fairer, brighter more equal future really MUST start working together. Please, sisters and brothers, try to find a way a way to recover the kind of mutual respect and attentive listening that we need to move forward together.