Britain’s EU Referendum – Lessons in Successful Trench Warfare

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?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. dutch

    This article has missed the main reason why the Brexit referendum has reached the point of being a toss up. That reason is UKIP leader Nigel Farage, Farage, a member of the EU Parliament has been conducting a 20+ year grassroots campaign to leave the EU. Farage is a charismatic public speaker, who has become a media star in the UK. Just go to YouTube and look at his hundreds of public speeches, debates, interviews, townhall meetings, etc, where he hammers the EU. Farage has been the masterful general of the leave the EU campaign. Any discussion of this issue has to start with him. He started the war, and he might well win it.

    1. Clive

      UKIP’s role is way overstated. Are you forgetting that despite UKIP’s so-called advance, the Tories won an overall majority and are the current administration ? The fact that the Tories themselves decided to hold the referendum shows that it was pressure from within the Conservative party itself that led to the policy. Now, UKIP did have a part to play, as I explained in the piece. But the change of policy was not purely down to UKIP and Farage as you seem to be suggesting.

      1. cassandra

        But Cameron was forced to promise the referendum by the UKIP threat, at least in good part. Farage has used his position as a member of the EU Parliament to publicize the absurdity of the EU policies, and predict their disastrous effects. Brexit is a possibility because it has been demonstrated, by Farage and others, that nobody is minding the store, and that it would be wise for British citizens to take matters in hand before having to suffer further damage. A similar situation is happening in the USA and elsewhere. There’s a widespread need for a better class of oligarchs.
        (BTW, my comment below indicates agreement with dutch).

        1. Clive

          For UKIP to be able to claim to have single-handedly brought about the referendum on EU membership, it would have needed 20 to 30 MPs and a post-election parliamentary balance leaving no party able to form a majority government (thereby allowing UKIP to exert its demand for a referendum on the party with which it was willing to support in a coalition government).

          This did not happen.

          The decision to hold a referendum and make the offer of a referendum an election promise was made by the Conservative Party of its own volition. It did so for the reasons I explained — a well organised and persistent campaign within and by members of the Conservative Party itself.

          Now, there is a case to made that the presence of UKIP aided and abetted members of Conservative Local Associations in bringing pressure on their candidate to be Eurosceptic. It certainly didn’t hurt to have the threat of UKIP there. But it bolstered a faction in Conservative Party internecine warfare, it did not present a serious election threat to safe Conservative parliamentary seats.

          And even if UKIP had gained 20 to 30 seats in parliament all at the expense of the Conservatives (which was their best-case scenario) then coalition government could still have been formed from a combination of Tory, Liberal Democrat and the DUP MPs. It is absolutely inconceivable that Labour under Miliband would have allied themselves to UKIP — the SNP would have offered more MPs and a far closer match politically.

          So UKIP were a factor, but to claim that the referendum is all down to UKIP and Farage is counterfactual.

          1. cassandra

            The disagreement seems to be about which is THE party responsible for the Brexit referendum. Posed this way, there’s no answer, since many factions (including George Galloway!) now have a role in it. But some nuance is possible.

            Farage has had outsize influence on British politics far beyond UKIP’s Parliamentary numbers. In describing the history of the Brexit referendum, the Economist writes “…his (Cameron’s) Eurosceptic backbenchers, scared witless by the rise of Nigel Farage’s virulently anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), have constantly hassled him to adopt a tougher line with Brussels.” (

            Farage represents a seed about which widespread Euro-sceptic discontent crystallized from numerous sources. Indeed, the recently established Grassroots Out organization was formed to mitigate internecine strife in the Brexit movement, and to provide a comfortable umbrella under which all pro-Brexit elements can unite (Galloway’s influence is yet to be assessed.) Significantly, GO’s origins were regarded as primarily driven by Farage and significantly funded by UKIP, even though its founding members do represent Labor, and, yes, some Conservatives. But once again, Farage’s role was key.

            The important point here, though, is to highlight the critical role that one individual had/has on the a political movement. Your observation that Brexit represents a confluence of related issues is spot-on, but it did take a special individual, in the right place and time, to provide the impetus. Yes, there must be a political milieu in need of reform for a mass movement to arise, but somewhere the political talent must be found to assemble all the shards into an effective whole. The success of FDR, and the failure of Occupy, further illustrate this relation.

        1. Clive

          Wrong. The Conservative majority is 12

          And let’s take your figure of 100 Tory MPs wanting to leave the EU (which is probably right, even a bit of an understatement). In terms of the parliamentary results (in the link) who would they gang up with ? Let’s do the math:

          Labour ? — that wouldn’t work even if Labour was willing to cut off its nose to spite its face by backing a referendum because any combinations of the Liberal Democrats, the SNP or the DUP voting against it (all of these parties are moderately or vehemently pro-EU) would give the Conservative Party a majority

          SNP ? — not enough numbers, even if they were willing to look incredibly stupid (and the SNP are canny political operators who would not alienate their core pro-EU supporters just for some political gamesmanship that would make them look shabby and cheap — something they have invested huge political capital in trying to avoid by demonstrating they can consistently act like a proper grown-up party)

          Liberal Democrats ? — about as pro-EU as they come and so few in numbers as to be irrelevant. Also file under “committing political suicide” (even more than they already have).

          No, there was nothing which made the Conservative Party hold the referendum other than a desire (this was pretty sensible) to end decades of infighting once and for all. This is the point I was making — how a small, motivated and vociferous campaign can be successful in dragging the Overton Window to places which it previously seemed very unlikely to be able to move it to.

    2. cassandra

      I wholeheartedly agree. The reason that a Brexit referendum has even come up is due to Farage’s tireless persistence, combined with enormous oratorical talent that stands him head and shoulders over his opposition and denigrators. And of course, the issues he raises are real ones that are usually brushed aside as politically incorrect. He is therefore taken seriously despite the long-term propaganda effort to castigate him and his party. He has shattered the talking point machinery the oligarchs customarily use for control.
      This phenomenon is not readily duplicated, but the way Farage brought his issues to the fore bears examination, and perhaps that sincerest form of flattery, imitation.
      Whether one fully agrees with his platform or not, great respect is due.

  2. Tim

    There are huge amounts of similarities between British Eurosceptics and Quebec Nationalists. One difference is Quebec Nationalists despite Pierre Karl Peladeau don’t have the financial backing of the British Eurosceptics.

  3. ambrit

    Mr. Clive;
    The American Right took the long time frame attitude and has delivered to its’ constituents. I would posit that the Religious Right got the ball rolling, and has shown a consistency and focus worthy of emulation by the Left. I meet no one, especially here in the American Deep South who takes Leftist politics as a ‘Holy Crusade.’ Given the prominence of the ‘Wealth Elites’ in the support of Rightist causes, I find it curious that the American Left hasn’t promoted a full on Demonization of those ‘Wealth Elites.’ As the saying (sort of) goes: “Faint heart ner won a Coup.”
    The other glaring deficiency I see is that of co-operative political organization by the Left parties in America. The Rightists have the American Chamber of Commerce, and various “Think Tanks” to organize and promote their agendas. What of a similar reputation and strength do the Leftists have? I’m speaking of umbrella organizations here, not individual parties.
    Clive is correct in his assertion that avoiding specifics is a key to success. A United Front can advocate for all of the individual ’causes’ without bogging down in internal power struggles for primacy.
    Basically, what the Right has done in the last three or four decades has worked. No amount of moral wrangling will change that fact. Clive is correct, find out what works and get to it.

    1. TomD

      There are various “leftist” think tanks, but they’re not very leftist, and they’re not well funded. Billionaires like the right a lot more.

    2. Uahsenaa

      Actual leftists (i.e. not the right-wing caricature of the Dem party) talk about capitalism and its effects all the time, the problem is the c-word is something Team Blue has no real intestinal fortitude for critiquing, in part, because their politicians have been so completely bought out by corporate interests.

      The other issue is that if the Dems put forth any serious effort toward state races, in particular state legislatures and governorships, they could probably take over the Midwest, which has never been solidly blue or red, within ten or so years. These in turn control the gerrymandering, so they could quite easily create an electoral map that heavily favors Team Blue, since, after all, this is precisely what the Republicans have done. But leaders in the Democratic party snobbishly look down their noses at the so-called flyover states and have little interested in getting their hands dirty with state and local politics.

  4. Steve H.

    – Would normally Democratic voters vote Republican in order to send a message to a hopelessly neoliberally-inclined Democrat candidate?

    I notice Corbyn wasn’t mentioned. I don’t know how relevant he is in the Brexit situation. He’s extremely relevant to Sanders getting the nomination, which would preclude the quoted question. Any thoughts on that?

    1. Clive

      Corbyn is very interesting. I read into his almost total silence on the subject of the EU membership referendum (such public comments as their have been are just tepid reiterations of the Labour party line about wishing the UK to remain in the EU but said with such lack of enthusiasm it is palpable) that he really doesn’t give two hoots about whether the vote ends up being a “yes” or a “no”.

      He has previously been seen as a Eurosceptic. Prior to the referendum, he “clarified” his position to something a little more pro-EU. But again, hardly a ringing endorsement to have the UK remain a member of the Union. Note, in particular, his comments on the Greek angle.

      Why not then just come out and say that he thinks that Britain should exit? My suspicion is that he is a canny politician and sees little benefit in joining the exit camp formally. It will not change voter’s intentions to any material degree. It will lead to yet another front he’d have to open with the hopelessly dyed-in-the-wool Blairite faction in the Labour party. And it isn’t like even if Britain exits the EU that would suddenly unlock a whole lot of new methods to reduce inequality and increase working class share of the pie. Best, then, to just view it as a non-issue and save bandwidth for meatier things.

      Corbyn’s approach to a Brexit has surprised me and I’m quite impressed with the subtly of it. Not quite Obama’s 11-dimentional chess games, but pretty savvy and calculating — in my not especially humble opinion.

      1. wendy davis

        from his twit account, unless he’s changed his mind, of course:


        Cameron’s deal is the wrong one: but Britain must stay in | My article in today’s Observer
        1:46 AM – 21 Feb 2016

          1. wendy davis

            Dunno what ‘panto’ is, Clive, but it all beats me. It just seems that not all those for #Brexit can be nationalists, especially given the ubiquitous warnings from ‘bidness’, including Moody’s downgrade, etc., and the ‘Putin wants a #Brexit to kill the EU project’ (simply silly, imo).

            But loads of folks seem jazzed that Varoufakis has been ‘advising’ Corbyn. I’d seen Yani’s list of presenters and the first big DiEM do, and poked around as to who some of them were. This is the version from wsws, and it makes sense to me, given his relationships w/ hedge-funders and all.

              1. ChrisPacific

                Generally it includes at least one scene where an actor plays dumb in order to wind up the audience (of mostly young children).

          2. ambrit

            Great Googly Moogly! That piece of “journalism” from the Telegraph is a straight out hatchet job on Corbyn. If only American media could learn those techniques…uh, wait now. Now that I look closely at it…

            1. Clive

              Yeah, the Torygraph — the Torygraph of all things — concern trolling Corbyn. Even the author struggled to keep a straight face all the way through.

              1. wendy davis

                Thanks for the ‘panto’ link, and I ♥ Torygraph, although the Guardian has some pretty scurrilous and biased coverage itself.

      2. Uahsenaa

        Well, he also has Gordon Brown’s example to work with, who campaigned vigorously for the No side during the Scottish independence referendum, which played a big part in the SNP taking nearly every Labour seat in Scotland when it became clear not a single one of the government’s promises would come to fruition.

        I see no real downside to his taking a “let the people decide” approach to the whole matter. It plays well to his image, richly deserved, of being fundamentally devoted to democratic principles, while letting him still personally oppose exit. It’s a win/win.

    2. diptherio

      A friend was telling me yesterday that politics came up at one of the local poker games the other night, which rarely happens. Somebody declared his intention to vote for Trump. Somebody else implored him to vote for anyone but Trump. The first guy responded that he’d vote for Bernie, if he could, but no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks was he going to vote for Hillary.

      Anecdote isn’t data, of course…

    3. Ed

      “I notice Corbyn wasn’t mentioned. ”

      I got halfway through the article when I noticed this pretty enormous blindspot, at which point I stopped reading.

      Cobyn and Labour are potentially very relevant to this referendum. There has been only one political major party in the UK who has campaigned, since the country joined the EC, in a general election on withdrawing from the EC. This party was not the Conservative Party. Until the 1980s, it was Labour that opposed the precursor to the European Union and the Tories who were enthusiastic. Even after the 1980s, Labour tied the Major government in knots over ratificaiton of Maastricht, and it was a Labour government that preserved the pound.

      The defections to UKIP in the last election actually tended to come more from voters that had the profile of potential Labour voters than Tory voters. I think coming out in favor of exiting would pay dividends to the party strategically and maybe even tactically, and would be completely consistent with the party’s historical positions on the issue. If Corbyn has kept silent, I suspect its for internal reasons to prevent a coup or a split by the Blairite faction.

      1. Clive

        You said it there yourself Ed:

        Until the 1980s, it was Labour that opposed the precursor to the European Union (…)

        So for a generation or almost two (I was 10 years old in 1980, therefore this sort of timeframe constitutes almost my entire living memory), Labour has not been espousing any sort of policy for leaving the EU (or EEC). None whatsoever. Show me a single Labour Party manifesto since about 1980 which had any reference to any sort of anti-EU membership policy. It does not exist.

        The Maastricht Treaty “opposition” (it was simply not worthy of that name) was nothing more than parliamentary procedural tactics aimed at weakening the Major administration’s wafer-thin majority. You can’t blame them for trying, but in no way was it emblematic of any sort of serious Euroscepticism policy. And Tony Blair (and his predecessor as Labour leader, John Smith) were ardent pro-EU stalwarts.

        And as for Neil Kinnock, if we want to go back that far, he and his wife became EU Commissioners and Euro MPs, for cryin’ out loud.

        Sorry, but Labour has got about a watertight a history of being pro-EU as it is possible to have.

        1. Christopher D. Rogers

          Clive Sir,

          As someone five years older than yourself who has worked closely with Stuart Holland, who happens to be a close friend of Yanis Varoufakis, and formerly both a senior advisor to the Jacques Delors EU Presidency and a key negotiator for Harold Wilson’s negotiations concerning the UK’s entry into the EEC in the late 60’s, I think you’ll find that the Labour Party on the whole, until the accent of Delors was very much against the EEC/EU. Indeed, it was not until the Delors Presidency that opinion changed within Labour because of the ‘social’ aspect Delors embraced, an aspect that has been totally dropped by the present EU President incumbent and both his predecessors.

          Indeed, given the Commission’s embrace of TTIP and its actions in Ukraine its fair to say the EU is but a mirror image of the USA as far as being infected by neoliberalism and neoconservativism is concerned. Its also highly undemocratic and authoritarian, as Prof. Varoufakis himself found out, as have Ireland, Italy, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal.

          Now, and whilst Varoufakis is a founder of Diem25, Mr. Holland at least prefers the ideas that Labour had for Western Europe after WWII and is very much now in the ‘out’ camp, as I am myself.

          As for Kinnock, perhaps one of the greatest turncoats ever to had led the Labour Party, someone who in the late 70’s had a reputation similar to Corbyn as an MP – always revolting – who sold his political beliefs out for coin. Indeed, as my folks live quite close to the Kinnock’s, I can attest they go to great lengths to hide their wealth, particularly given Blaenau Gwent is one of the poorest regions of the UK.

          In a nutshell, Labour embraced a ‘social European construct’, as I did myself, that is traditional Labour and not New Labour which both Kinnock and Blair ushered in, which as we know is very much a neoliberal cabal, particularly within Westminster. It was not always the case, but profound change was seen coming in the late 80’s and is cited as one reason Mr. Holland gave up his Vauxhall seat to go and advise Delors in Brussels.

          In a nutshell, being anti-neoliberal EU does not make one anti-European, quite the reverse in fact because the EU needs a good kick up the backside and a ‘No’ vote in the UK may provide this, that or an existential threat to the Euro, which again seems in crisis given current events in Greece once again.

            1. Christopher D. Rogers


              The article written by Ulrich Rippert for WSWS is pure propaganda and the author has little idea of what he’s actually spinning. During the Greek negotiations with the Troika I had decent feedback of actual events via Stuart Holland and Prof. Varoufakis was actually negotiating with his hands tied behind his back, given the fact that both he and his German counterpart shared one opinion, namely Greece should exit the Euro and both were over ruled by their respective party leaders.

              As for Diem25, however laudable and ambitious its aims, I’m firmly of the opinion that the EU is incapable of meaningful change – a fact shared by Mr. Holland – and as such, i shall be voting for the UK to exit the neoliberal cabal. I do so with a heavy heart, but the EU’s dictatorial ways since the Euro crisis and its embrace of TTIP leave me with little option if I’m to uphold my own political principals. As for the leader of the UK’s Labour Party, Mr. Corbyn, I think he’s basically caught by the curlies as we say in the UK because most of his Cabinet and the PLP are pro-EU, hence he cannot really speak his mind given the negativity already associated with his views on Tridents replacement and the sex trade – a look at the UK papers trying to stir ferment and a leadership challenge by Dan Jarvis says it all.

              Essentially, Corbyn would have been better advised to keep quiet of defence issues – an open goal for Labour – and concentrated more on his Parties line with regards EU membership given an ‘out vote’ may well have resulted in meaningful change being embraced by the EU if an actual existential threat to its existence became a reality, which a UK vote to leave certainly would financially at least.

              Anyone who calls themselves a European left-winger needs to recall Delor’s social Europe – an idea embraced by many – and not the neoliberal EU that we have today. One look at Juncker and his background should be enough to put any left-winger off voting to remain in this rotting edifice – its support for TTIP being the final straw as far as this commentator is concerned.

              1. Yves Smith Post author

                It is difficult to take anything you say seriously based on the assertion in your first paragraph. Varoufakis never favored an exit from the Euro. And I’ve learned the hard way never to rely on single sources, ever, unless they also provide documentary evidence. People who say they heard something can have been told only part or can simply have been lied to.

                1. wendy davis

                  If I remember correctly, Yves, I believed that in the past you’d weighed in heavily against Yani’s Plan B parallel banking system to essentially ‘exit the Euro’, not the EU itself, yes? I have no idea if it were a feint, or a more serious pre-plan, but that’s all I remember about the occasional Marxist and radical almost-proposals, though Varoufakis denied even that much.

                2. Christopher D. Rogers


                  The little snippet you disagree with came from Stuart Holland, who’s knowledge of what was going on during the Feb-June timeline last year was greater than yours or mine. I do not question Mr. Holland’s opinion on the subject matter given he’s a trusted source who’s own opinions are public on the issues. But the fact remains a Plan B existed but was not worked through in any detail whatsoever. Other snippets remain private, but its interesting to note Varoufakis is pushing Diem25 at a time the UK is having a somewhat biased dialogue about its membership of the EU.

                  As with Wendy, I’ll be voting for the UK to leave based on the Troika’s undertakings since the Euro crisis and elevation of Juncker to Commission President. And in that referendum I do have a vote and will exercise it – just a shame so many rightwing Tories are associated with the ‘Out’ camp, which from the Left should actually be the ‘reformists’ camp.

                  1. Yves Smith Post author

                    1. Plan B was examined only very late in the game and so casually as to not be serious.

                    2. As I said, single sources are not reliable, particularly one so dependent on Varoufakis, who himself has not been a reliable reporter about his actions during the negotiations. The one way in which Varoufakis has been consistent is in his economic positions, and he has said, frequently and in detail, that for Greece to leave the Eurozone would be disastrous for Greece and the Eurozone. He may very well have indulged the discussion with Schauble in an effort to find common ground which was sorely wanting between the two of them. But that is not at all the same as being prepared to advocate the idea.

              2. wendy davis

                I didn’t quite agree with the little I thought I’d known about the negotiations and timeline, and I can’t possibly know if Yanis had said that business about the first referendum. But what I did guess was correct was that the named guests and their CVs indicated who they were, and what their agendas are.

                If I were in the UK, I’d vote #Brexit myself.

  5. TomD

    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?

    Isn’t the downside of this, the dream fails to materialize and you disenchant voters? They then reverse course quickly.

    To use an example (and I’m too young to have been alive for these events so feel to push back if I’m getting them wrong), LBJ in the 60s passed a number of welfare programs to build what he called a “Great Society”. Then in the 70s during the economic downturn, people didn’t feel as though they were living in a great society and were willing to hear those high pitched frequencies of the Reagan dog whistles about welfare queens and strapping young bucks on foodstamps. So they were happy to vote in a president who was willing to overturn much of what had been done.

    1. Clive

      The right / neoliberal consensus gets away, frequently, with “the reason you are still scrabbling around in the dirt, whoring for quarters is because we’re not implementing free market solutions, deficit reduction, low taxes, deregulation (you name it). If only we could have a unfettered approach we’d be fine”. I for one see no reason why the left can’t adopt the same messaging “there’s still too much inequality, that’s why it hasn’t worked yet”.

      Whether is it the correct thing to do, that is less certain. It does, of course, stink a little. But this sort of optics has been shown to work for the right, I can’t think why it wouldn’t work for the left, should the left choose to adopt it.

  6. Matthew Saroff

    The problem is that increasingly the EU is an anti-democratic institution.

    The assumption from the beginning was that the overwhelming majority of the EU population would support greater integration, even if the benefits were nebulous, and the costs visible.

    Following the TCE referendum defeats in 2005, which were in large part due to the perceived undemocratic nature of the EU bureaucracy, the wonks who were running the show doubled down on making the EU a less democratic institution, because they believed that the ordinary people simply ……… did ……… not ……… get ……… it.

    These actions strengthened the hands of the Euroskeptics, which in turn led to more anti-democratic actions by Brussels.

    Rinse, lather, repeat.

    Until the EU is forced to be more democratic, it will continue making things worse, and support will continue to flag.

    1. Clive

      Yes, this is spot-on:

      The problem is that increasingly the EU is an anti-democratic institution.

      This is why the left is so conflicted on the subject of Europe. The EU is running that classic neoliberal play of being uber-liberal on social issues, ruthlessly hard line on economic ones. It is a great, habitual and systematic failing of the left that it lets itself (usually) get hoodwinked in this way.

      The mask is beginning to slip, but the left is being way-yyy to slow on the uptake.

      1. paul

        The Delors ‘social europe’ looks like it was a bait and switch operation to neuter left opposition by suggesting some bulwark against thatcherism. It seemed to work and vanished in the mist after its work was done.

        This has left opposition parties, such as the infuriatingly cautious SNP, declaring their continuing belief in the EEC’s importance in worker’s protections.
        I can only assume that Nicola Sturgeon has not visited Greece,Portugal,Italy or Germany recently.

        Austerity is the point of its politics, not some magical purgative.

        I’m not sure the left can learn much from the brexit forces’ rise as they have always been seen as an acceptable safety valve (they seem to be safely into ‘values’ rather than issues more germane to the commonwealth) and have consequently had a favourable tailwind from the media.
        Lord Macalpine’s footsie with the referendum party in the 90’s suggest the pro and anti eu right were not so far apart.

        I’ll be voting out,we can always rejoin when it’s all working properly.

        Not that I think it will make much difference to the UK’s direction. The current government’s aims are perfectly in sync with flexian uberflunky Peter Sutherland’s vision of a denationalised continent; populated by precarious economic nomads,presided over by an immoveable oligarchy and administered by a pampered,patronage driven ‘technocracy’.

      2. Some Guy

        “The EU is running that classic neoliberal play of being uber-liberal on social issues, ruthlessly hard line on economic ones.”

        Being uber-liberal on social issues *is* being hard line on economic issues – that is what people don’t get. Social issues are economic issues.

  7. flora

    Thanks for this post. This line caught my attention:

    “British EU exit campaigners have proven that, to achieve policy change, party loyalties must be fungible but issue loyalties must be immutable. ”


  8. washunate

    Great read Clive. For some time now, this has been the political question in the US context. Will the Democratic party be reclaimed or abandoned?

    Clearly people are unhappy since party identification with the Democrats has been falling for half a century, but our two-party system here entrenches establishment thinking quite strongly. Plus, since in the US the problem is primarily in the authoritarian intellectual class, the educated busybody technocrats, the warmongers and fearmongers, the go alongs to get alongs, it’s unclear what vision might unite people at this juncture from the historical Democratic base. Inequality is good for most Democrats in positions of influence and authority today. A lot of the prosecutors and mayors and judges and police chiefs and pension managers and prison officials and econ profs and legal profs and hospital administrators and university administrators and on and on in our system are educated Democrats.

    Even MMTers, trying to carve out a philosophy distinct from the fascist wing of the party, can’t come to consensus on key foundational principles like how the wages and working conditions of JG programs should relate to the wages and working conditions of other public jobs. And when challenged to explain the value judgment, the principle, behind work requirements, the crutch of neoliberal victim-bashing emerges in the form of justifications like training and skills and GDP and so forth.

    1. Uahsenaa

      At the risk of waxing philosophical, I have a suspicion that, especially among economists, there is a tendency to think of jobs/work as a simple quantum, as ledger marks, they’re either there or they aren’t. The goal, something about which both orthodox and heterodox economists seem to agree, is to make the job number as large as possible: the much vaunted virtue of “full employment.” But little thought is put into what kind of work that should be or why people are being given 15 tokens an hour to do it. No economist, it seems, wants to do the heavy lifting of asking 1) what kind of work needs to be done and 2) whether we ought to be remunerating those forms of work that don’t seem to be tied to an apparent need. There are so many kinds of work, mostly domestic and, in Western society, feminized forms of labor, that any lay person would deem valuable and necessary–care for the sick/elderly/young, for instance–that are rarely paid and, when they are, often at a remarkably low rate.

      Not to mention all those forms of work that we scarcely recognize as having real social value until they are abundantly available. One of the great boons of the WPA was the proliferation of public art, be it plastic, literary, or dramatic, that people in dark times had pushed to the very back of their collective unconscious, yet once it was everywhere, it became almost immediately a highly prized and sought after public good.

      But that would require thinking of jobs as something other than an excuse to get a paycheck.

      1. washunate

        Getting people to wax philosophically is one of the great accomplishments of what Yves has done with NC!

  9. JW

    I repeat my reply to a piece on this general topic last week.
    The lack of knowledge of the EU , the EZ and the UK’s relationship of both is remarkable. Almost as bad as the typical european lack of knowledge of what really makes US politics/economics work.
    The UK is not in the EZ. The ‘core’ members of the EU are focused on a federal union to support the EZ. The UK will either leave the EU or eventually be consumed into the EZ.
    No one knows the slight positive or negative effect on the economy of Brexit over time. But what is certain is that this is the last chance for the UK to remain an independant nation.
    Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican in the US , faced with this choice, which way would you vote?
    There are a lot of factual errors in this piece, and the nuances of UK politics is missed. The major ‘miss’ is the role of the Euro and its key role in providing the focus of the original federal dream of the founders of the precursers to the EU. The Euro will not survive without common treasury functions across the EZ. This inevitably leads to common taxation ( without representation) which leads to political union. This is stated policy.
    The UK can stay in and wait for this inevitable outcome, and then face the choice of losing its nationhood; or it can rejoin the EFTA/EEA organisation now. EEA membership has most of the free trade benefits of the EU, the perceived loss of being ‘inside’ the club could be offset by the ability to more easily be selective on adoption of ‘directives’ from Brussels.
    The piece above includes ‘a dream of an “independent” Britain which, if it ever existed at all’. Besides it being a rather insulting statement perhaps the writer would be as sanguine about NAFTA morphing into a new ‘super-American State’ with the capital in Mexico City?
    I write this as an ex-pat Brit living in France and the USA, I am not a ‘little islander’ and probably have something to lose if brexit happens. But I do understand the significance of the vote.
    So I repeat, which way would a US national vote ( or is the ‘allegience to the flag’ a purely USA construct) ?

    1. Clive

      Are you saying you think that Britain, were it to be outside the EU, could become — what, exactly ? — some sort of rainy North Korea ? The Tories, who, let us not forget are in office for the next 4 years, have promised to enter into new trade deals with the EU and to negotiate with the US in other new trade deals (presumably TTIP). Just because a referendum result might be for Britain to leave the EU, it does not mean that a UK government will not be able to create conditions which will lead to similar constraints on sovereignty.

      And how is the Euro relevant to Britain being in or out of the EU ? Britain is not in the Euro. Neither is Denmark so are you claiming that Denmark is somehow not fully signed up to the European Project ?

      I’m left wondering, did you actually bother to read my article ? It was nothing at all to do with whether Britain should, or should not, leave the EU. It was about the events leading up to holding the referendum itself and how the campaign is being fought — and what the left could learn from the right (as represented by Conservative Eurosceptics).

      I will be casting my vote to leave the EU because of the increasingly dire drift into a neoliberal infestation and utter disasters which the EU has wrought — Greece and the Ukraine being the most noteworthy — but that is completely irrelevant to the points I raised in the piece.

      1. JW

        I have no idea what ‘rainy North Korea’ has to do with this. Such a silly comment is perhaps indicative of a loss of perspective.
        If you don’t know why the Euro is fundamental to this issue then you don’t understand the issue.
        I read your article, I have commented because its impossible for you to try to draw comparisons with Brexit and other political campaigns as you don’t understand the issues behind the UK/EU/EZ relationships.

        1. Clive

          Juche or “self-reliance”, is a political ideology followed by North Korea, I referred to that country because the regime there thinks (or says it thinks) that it can exist in the world without being forced to align itself to any particular power block.

          In that regard, it is completely detached from reality — as is anyone who seriously suggests that by leaving the EU, all Britain’s problems of how to manage inevitable geopolitical and economic interdependency would be solved. That is magical thinking.

          Do you genuinely believe that the Tories would not sign up to the TTIP? And do you not then think that Britian would then be jumping out of the the (to give but one example) out of the ECJ frying pan and into the ISDS fire in terms of compromising sovereignty?

          I’ve tried to follow your argument about euro membership — I think your saying that if Britian was in the euro it would be harder (if not impossible) to leave the EU. Well, if we were in the euro, that would be true. But we’re not.

          And there is no mandatory requirement for an EU member state to join the euro. It is of course “encouraged” by the big EU powers (France and Germany) in order to bolster their influence. But it is not a binding obligation.

  10. Richard Cottrell

    In June 1975 the British Labour government led by Harold Wilson held an in-out referendum on continuing membership of the then EEC (European Economic Community). Wilson had ‘negotiated’ a deal exactly like the empty peace in our time promise which Cameron brought back from Brussels recently. But the referendum itself was tangential to bringing the hard left in his rowdy coalition to heel. He won two to one, the issue resolved ‘for a generation.’ The Left led by Tony Benn, slunk off to nurse their cold sores. Mrs Thatcher played on Harold’s side, in a dress made of European flags, certainly the most interesting garment in her wardrobe for many years to come.
    Its curious no-one in the thread has mentioned 1975, but this year’s poll (again, note, in June) is an exact re-run, except that Bomber Cameron is aiming for those who are even further to the right than he is. Wilson, inverted.
    Richard Cottrell, Member of the European Parliament (Conservative), retired.

  11. PlutoniumKun

    To a certain extent, the neoliberal left have been doing this to the mainstream left for some time. They have used identity politics to distract from economic issues, and taken a ‘pragmatic’ approach to justify creeping financialisation of the economy (witness the way the Blair administration used PPP to pay for NHS hospitals).

    Here in Ireland, its hard not to despair at the sight of the left. They continually fissure into smaller and smaller groups, while the mainstream left (Labour) travel to the right. The one issue they unite on – Water Charges – is one that has probably the least issue on the broader question of austerity. The confuse pragmatic politics with political opportunism.

    I believe that the crucial failure of the left in the past few decades has been the retreat from economics. By effectively allowing the argument that ‘free markets’ are the most efficient system, they found themselves clinging to increasingly peripheral issues, retreating to comfortable arguments about social welfare or identity politics or anti-war activism. I don’t believe the left can really recover until it really starts to engage with tough questions about how to implement a fairer society. This is one reason I think Piketty’s book is so important – even if some details are questionable, it made people across the spectrum realise that there is a fundamental problem with the way our economies are working – even the more thoughtful elements of the right wing now acknowledge this.

    I think Clives analysis is correct in broad terms – but can only succeed if those on the left actually define precisely what they stand for. And not as ‘anti’ anything, but what they are ‘pro’. I’m sick to death of reading left wing publications telling us everything thats wrong with capitalism. I want to know instead how a modern left wing country will work. It is only by answering the core hard questions that the left can unite around key principles that will allow the unity that such a strategy requires.

    1. washunate

      …if those on the left actually define precisely what they stand for…


      And of course, that presupposes the left/right continuum is the meaningful clash in contemporary politics (ie, government vs. private sector).

      I’d argue the more important divide in the era of the modern nation state form of political economy is the up/down continuum of hierarchy, between those who value centralized power and authority vs. those who value individual rights and decentralized actions. In other words, the question of whether both government and the private sector should be big or not.

      That’s how the neoliberals have been so effective. They use the rhetoric of both leftist and rightist thought to ratchet up the authoritarianism of both public and private institutions. When the ‘right’ does something evil in the private sector, the ‘left’ proposes an equally big jump in government power. But the ‘right’ never shrinks that government power once established, just as the ‘left’ never shrinks the corporate power once it is established. So we end up fairly centrist on the left/right continuum but fascist on the authoritarian one.

      Before you know it, the ‘liberals’ are advocating bank bailouts and global wars and work requirements for the safety net. Because heaven forbid we move decision-making from central authorities to individual citizens by giving money directly to people in need and stopping murderous regime change policies around the globe.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I’d agree with you 100% on that. I’ve often thought that the authoritarian/libertarian axis is at least as, if not more important, than the left/right wing axis in terms of political thought. Its notable of course how many neocons started out on the far left – but specifically on the authoritarian left. Likewise, a lot of libertarian hippy types found a leap to right wing libertarianism a very easy and short jump.

    2. wendy davis

      Given that you live in Ireland, PlutoniumKun, I wondered what you think of James Petras’s paragraph in his current piece ‘Global Economic, Political, and Military Configurations’. It’s all a bit beyond me, but might read it again to see if I can absorb more. Of course, agreement on this might cause me to do so more readily (smile).

      “In sum, the neoliberal- austerity onslaught provoked mass electoral opposition that led to political changes, bringing to power parties and leaders who embraced almost identical policies! In some cases, the changes deepened neoliberal policies by extending austerity measures; in other cases, they modified some of the restrictions on salaries and social expenditures.

      The February (2016) elections in Ireland are a case in point: The neoliberal austerity enthusiasts in the governing coalition (Fine Gael and the Labor Party) were defeated and the Fianna Fáil re-emerged as a leading party, even though it had brought about the economic crisis and breakdown! The only exception to this revolving door politics was an increase in the vote for the national-populist Sinn Fein Party and a scattering of anti-neoliberal and left parties. In the end, the two neoliberal parties are likely to form a coalition regime.”

      1. PlutoniumKun


        I wouldn’t agree entirely with what the article says, even though in broad terms it is right. In the previous (2012) election the population broadly voted for ‘austerity, but gentle please’ in turfing out Fianna Fail and replacing them with Fine Gael and Labour. The latter two essentially ran on the basis that ‘we’ll co-operate with EU led austerity, but we’ll do it with more competence’. The problem of course for Ireland is that membership of the Euro severely restricted the countries capacity to change, and everyone knew it, including the radical parties.

        The recent election gave FF a bit of a boost, but they are still far, far down on their historic ‘normal’ voting levels – maybe 60% of what the would have expected on average before, so its not true to say that the electorate has swung back to them. Its also notable that they have taken a much more distinctly left wing stance than before. FF and FG together got just under 50% of the vote which would have been unthinkably low just a few years ago.

        The great problem is that the electorate has no real alternative. There is no coherent left wing party due to the egos and incompetence of the various leaders. Sinn Fein, the most obvious antiestablishment party, has been unable to put together a coherent policy platform. But still, approximately 40% of the electorate voted for a mix of left wing, Green, and mostly, independent candidates – this is a huge change from a decade ago, where the centre right parties would reliably gain 75% or more of the vote.

        As I alluded to above, its very easy to criticise the political system and the electorate – but because of the straightjacket of the Euro in reality no left wing government can really enact deep change. And leaving the Euro is simply not on the agenda, there is a cross-the-aisle agreement on that – even the small Trotskyist parties don’t argue for it.

        1. wendy davis

          Thank you so much for your reply, and noting the nuanced voting patterns and party alignments and leftist fragmentation.

          As far as anti-capitalism ideologies and failing to platforms, lack of coherent visions, etc., while trying to learn about viable alternatives, I used to read at (UK). But the various factions bickered bitterly and so intellectually, I finally gave up.

          By now, of course, most of the purportedly socialist/communist websites in this nation are featuring why we should be ‘feelin the bern’, while disregarding his hegemonic militarism and a other less than appealing features.

          What would any given nation’s populace choose in the way of governance and economic models given the change at true democracy? Have too many of us been so steeped in authoritarian rule that we cede it too easily? Does the left abjure power as the road to evil? Some posit yes to both.

          I dunno, I’m one of those card-carrying hippies (old as I yam), and keep hoping against hope that the many Indigenous around the globe are correct…that we’re on the cusp of a transformative wave of higher consciousness, which is what any sort of revolution of values will take first. And one in which we all are indeed our brothers and sisters keepers in justice and equality and horizontal rule. I ‘m pretty sold on the Zapatista model, myownself.

          Anyhoo, thank you; I might just read the Petras again, although I do wish more essayists might write in The Common Tongue. ;-)

Comments are closed.