By Clive, an investment technology professional and Japanophile
How did what started out as a niche, narrow and oft derided political question come to dominate a country’s policy making mainstream? And can those who wish for policy change on political left – for so long condemned to be just so many strategising Cinderellas – learn a trick or two from the campaign which shifted an entire national political narrative?
In this article we will describe what has produced a successful campaign to bring about a policy change. In this case it is to force a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and potentially Britain’s ultimate withdrawal from the Union.
We do not necessarily make any claims about the appropriateness, ethicality or factual accuracy of the components which have made up the campaign. We merely state that they have proven to work. It remains an open question for those of us on the left who wish to see a similar advancement in our policy agenda whether we would consider adopting these techniques. It is certainly arguable that the movement to have Britain leave the EU has been, on occasions, at best sometimes disingenuous and sometimes downright dishonest. Few would claim that it has unstintingly held onto the moral high ground.
But by, as a worst outcome, achieving a referendum and potentially, to state the best outcome for the movement, achieving Britain’s exit from the EU, the campaign has brought about the policy objectives it is espousing. It is harsh – but true – to say that it has achieved what left-of-centre political movements have fairly consistently failed to do so far.
Do the ends justify the means? Would the anti-neoliberal movement, seemingly forever to be consigned to the margins, rather be right than successful? Or is it possible to be both? This article documents some of the more obvious lessons from the “Brexit” campaign.
Lesson 1: Single Issues Are Rarely, if Ever, Single Issues
Readers are probably aware that Britain will hold a referendum on June 23 to decide whether or not to exit the EU. Superficially, this would seem to be a dry, limited and almost academic concern. It barely registers in the lists of British voters’ stated important issues.
The key to generating interest in the issue of Britain’s membership of, or exit from, the EU, has been in using the country’s membership of the EU as a proxy issue which can be stretched to spoof pretty much any other. Immigration, the economy, welfare or housing would remain issues – issues for which voters would expect political parties to have policy solutions for – even if the EU had never existed.
But the lesson from the British EU exit campaign is that, whatever the problem is, the key is to try to get voters to think it’s the EU that caused it. And that leaving the EU will fix it.
The campaign to leave the EU has associated many different issues with one single issue, that of EU membership. This would suggest that for the left, rather than referencing a single narrow issue (for example, trade deals such as the TPP, political funding, corporation tax avoidance, different models for healthcare), when a narrow issue is identified it should ideally always be referenced back to a larger but much more nebulous concept.
“Inequality” or Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) would fit this role as both have the required dog whistle quality about them. But there are others. The point is to pick something and stick to it.
Lesson 2: Subvert Existing Power Structures for Your Own Ends
Campaigners for a British EU exit have demonstrated a good understanding of the British Conservative Party’s internal politics. They have also ruthlessly exploited it for their own ends. Around half of Conservative Party MPs are elected by constituencies (the vast majority in England) which routinely give a 60-80% share of the vote to the Conservative Party candidate. These are the so-called “safe seats”.
These safe Conservative seats have a very active local party membership who, let’s just say tend to have very conservative ideas.
The local party members get to pick their candidates. So they tend to pick candidates who reflect their views. In this way, what should have been a niche side issue (for most people) got to wreak civil war in the Conservative Party. This has rumbled on for 20 years or more. Battle fatigue has set in and the only way to finally resolve it one way or the other is a referendum.
To give an example, this constituency is fairly typical of the kind where the Conservative Party MP backs a British exit from the EU and the campaigns they associate themselves with in order to please local party activists. It is useful to note the symbiotic relationship between the mass media and the local Conservative MPs. The corporate media gets legitimacy added to stories they run on hot-button issues like immigration or pork barrel government spending. The local MP gets publicity. Party activists (local associations) get some proof their influence matters.
It is interesting to now note that the Conservative Party’s leadership is seeking to change the balance of power within the party be reining in the “local associations” which were in the vanguard of the EU scepticism. But this can easily be seen as weakness rather than strength. Firstly, there are no guarantees that larger regional organisations rather than smaller local organisations would be any less susceptible to being subverted. Secondly, it is a scorched earth strategy. The local associations in the Conservative Party are essential for organising ground campaigns in both national and county elections and regional organisational structures will inevitable loose essential local knowledge – knowledge which often extends down to the level of individual streets.
The British EU exit campaigners have shown that, to them, it had become necessary to destroy the town (the town here being Conservative Party) to save it. Is the left willing to seize control of mainstream parties – such as the U.S. Democratic Party – and take it to the edge of, if not destruction, then at least the significant collateral damage which would be caused by dissent (voters say they do not like disunited parties) to get what it wants?
Lesson 3: Be Pragmatic
According to Hollywood legend, Joan Crawford who, perhaps to our modern sensibilities would be classed as a “victim of” rather than an “active participant”, in the notorious Casting Couch system, was auditioning for a director of a movie she wanted the lead role in. When upon leaving the director’s office she discovered that it wasn’t the director with whom she’d just “auditioned” who was going to direct the movie, but another, entirely different director, the ever-practical Joan promptly put her clothes back on and sashayed down the corridor to the other director’s office and “auditioned” for the part there too.
It was under a Conservative administration that Britain joined the (as it was then) EEC, which later became today’s EU.
It would have perhaps been understandable, then, if Conservative voters generally – and party activists in particular – who identified strongly with the issue of Britain’s EU membership to have demonstrated their resentment by “abandoning those who abandoned us”. But this simply did not happen en masse. Rather, from the previous section above “Subvert Existing Power Structures for Your Own Ends”, many Conservative Party members lobbied at a local level to change national party policy.
Some Conservative Party supporters did defect and many former Conservative voters switched allegiance to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) which promised to leave the EU. However, the UKIP membership and the people who voted for it were not exclusively ex-Conservatives. UKIP also drew on support from ex-Labour and ex-Liberal Democratic party supporters. During elections, voters from all party allegiances who wanted a British exit from the EU would then vote for UKIP on a “temporary” basis.
The approach to this so-called tactical voting was modified in marginal constituencies. By being willing to vote for any candidate which supported leaving the EU, or as an alternative voting for another party’s candidate who would defeat any pro-EU Conservative Party candidate, campaigners for a British exit ensured that there were more Conservative Party candidates standing who themselves supported the policy of withdrawing from the EU.
This went on to create a positive feedback loop. The more support which was available from voters to candidates who were at least amenable to considering a review of Britain’s membership of the EU, the more impetus was created in Conservative Party local activists to ensure that the party’s local associations fielded candidates who were sympathetic to the British EU exit argument.
British EU exit campaigners have proven that, to achieve policy change, party loyalties must be fungible but issue loyalties must be immutable. A lot of British EU exit supporters’ noses had to be held for what turned out to be a long, long time. But this voting pragmatism was essential in forcing a change in Conservative Party policy regarding EU membership.
Is the left willing to, like Joan Crawford, “degrade” itself to get what it wants? Would normally Democratic voters vote Republican in order to send a message to a hopelessly neoliberally-inclined Democrat candidate?
Lesson 4: Do Not Get Drawn in to Specifics but Offer a Vague Vision
While the British EU exit campaigners put out various messages of what they are “against” (EU legislation, the free movement of people in the EU, a move to a political union and so on) the exit supporters do not rely solely on negative campaigning. What is usually touted as a means of resolving the negative consequences of EU membership is restoring British “sovereignty”.
“Sovereignty” is used as a rug under which all difficult to resolve questions can be swept. When presented with an issue, such as the appropriate level of immigration, protectionism for key industries such as farming, steel production, power generation etc. or how to regulate the financial services industry, then the exit campaigners can always evade having to provide a specific answer. Rather, instead, Brexit campaigners say that once “sovereignty” is “returned” to Britain, these problems can be resolved “by the British people”. Indeed, they can. But that is not the same thing as saying these problems are easily resolved, or that the possible resolutions come with consequence-free choices available.
So another lesson from the British EU exit campaign is that, whatever the problem is, to try to get voters to think that “sovereignty” is the solution and that “sovereignty” is incomparable with continued EU membership. “Sovereignty” is rarely defined and if it is defined at all, it is only a hazy one-size-fits-all definition.
The “remain in” campaign can only try to big-up the hardly inspiring reality of remaining a member of the EU. How can it compete with the “out” campaigners who are selling a dream of an “independent” Britain which, if it ever existed at all, is gone for good and isn’t coming back? Dreams are more appealing to voters than realities.
Can – and should – the left, like the British EU exit campaign does, sell a convincing-sounding dream even if that dream is largely an illusion?
Lesson 5: Be Persistent
While Britain has a long history of incipient Euroscepticism, initial attempts to muster serious organised political opposition met with risible results, despite some big-money backing. In 1997, only 3% of the electorate supported parliamentary candidates belonging to a British EU exit party. It took over 20 years for a British exit campaign to achieve entry to the political mainstream and possess enough popular support to force the Conservative Party to adopt a policy of offering an “in or out referendum”.
The difficulties facing the political left to roll back neoliberalism are arguably greater than those which faced the movement wishing Britain to leave the EU.
If we assume the tide against neoliberalism only started to turn mid-way through U.S. President Obama’s first term in office (to pick a reasonably justifiable timeframe given the absence of any particular watershed event) then the left is barely 5 to 6 years into a campaign which can be expected to be of similar – or even lengthier – duration to that which the British EU exit campaign waged. Subjectively, the battle to restore the political left to, as a minimum, a position which it last held in the pre-Regan era seems to be in approximately the same place that the Brexit campaign was in the early 1990’s.
This means there is quite possibly another 15 to 20 years to go. Does the left really have the stomach for that sort of fight?