By Luke Davies
The easiest answer is that they were misled: the blatant lie that the UK has been losing £350 million weekly to the EU and that this money could be spent on the NHS; questionable claims about the threat of Turkey joining the union; and backtracking following the last minute decision to put immigration at the forefront of the Vote Leave campaign.
Stories of people googling ‘What is the EU?‘ the day after the referendum, and tweets, interviews and confessions from people who have come to regret voting Leave are widely circulating social media.
But the idea that voters were blind to the debunking of myths on both sides of the debate, or that they somehow voted against their own will, is to skirt around a difficult truth – which is that Vote Leave and media organisations that supported Brexit won because they spoke to the general public’s very real concerns.
During a post-recession age of austerity – it was the Vote Leave camp, and not Britain Stronger in Europe, who reached out to people in their misery and promised them change.
In a bizarre reversal of political norms, Boris Johnson was the one putting inequality at the top of the agenda in the BBC’s Great Debate(drawing 3.9 million viewers). He argued that: ‘the differentials in income in our country have become too great’, before bemoaning a state of affairs in which ‘FTSE100 chiefs are now earning 150 times the average pay of people on the shop floor’.
He even cast the Remain Stronger in Europe campaign as being callously disinterested in the welfare of people on lower incomes, quoting the Remain campaign leader Lord Rose’s remarks that wages of low skilled workers could rise in the event of a Brexit (which Rose had inadvisably insisted was ‘not necessarily a good thing’).
Johnson – in common with his fellow Leave campaigners – was drawing on and taking advantage of a popular belief that the EU is a fundamentally inegalitarian institution.
A YouGov poll published back in April revealed that even before the referendum campaign had got going, most people imagined that Brexit would have minimal negative impact on the working classes, whilst having a significant negative impact on people running big businesses.
Media coverage of the referendum in leading pro-Leave publications firmed up these convictions by concentrating on the impact of EU membership on Britain’s poorest – the success of which has been clearly demonstrated by the class divide in the nation‘s voting patterns.
The Sun, for instance, continuously fixated on the cost for British workers of EU open borders, whilst arguing that in turn ‘big businesses’ have ‘benefitted from cheap labour’. The Daily Express led with articles about EU regulations keeping food prices high.
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail ran stories on the impact of EU open borders on those awaiting social housing.
Of course many of these claims are questionable. Most obviously, research carried out by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests that low-income households are likely to shoulder a disproportionate share of the costs of Brexit – immediately detracting from any claims of potential positive gains.
And yet Vote Leave still won the argument. Why?
It is true that the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign also put jobs, prices and workers’ rights at its forefront. But it made a basic error: it adopted the position of defending the status quo at a time of hardship.
Britain Stronger in Europe told Britons: you and your family have ‘more opportunities and more financial security‘ now than you would outside of the EU. It tried to convince voters that they were already enjoying the benefits of ample workers’ rights; of saving £350 a year through lower prices; of massive investment from the EU; and of unprecedented employment opportunities courtesy of Europe.
Its campaign leaders adopted the policy of trying to persuade the nation that they’ve never had it so good at a time when 4.6 million people live in a state of persistent poverty, homeownership is majorly in decline, foodbank use is continuing to rise, people face long-term wage stagnation and claims of a return to acceptable employment levels mask a reality in which precarious new forms of employment have replaced stable, full-time jobs.
Under these circumstances, spelling out the benefits of EU membership is a bit like a doctor patronisingly telling a patient in acute pain that the medicine is working.
The tragedy is that the Remain vote could so easily have accepted people’s complaints and shifted the debate in the direction of the need for change.
Whilst Brexit may well be a red herring – deceiving people into believing that they have found the single solution for all of the social injustices that they are subjected to – the EU is hardly a blameless target.
It is an undemocratic institution that in Greece, Portugal and Ireland has shown that it puts the interest of bankers and big business before the people.
Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Owen Jones and Yanis Varoufakis are among those on the left who have been busy arguing that people’s anger at the EU is legitimate and should be turned to good use.
The point is that in conceding points against the EU and speaking about the need for reform, Corbyn was completely at odds with the referendum strategy of Britain Stronger in Europe.
The campaign sidelined Corbyn and MsDonnell, choosing Sadiq Khan instead as their Labour representative in the televised debate, and rejecting the Another Europe is Possible movement in favour of their rose-tinted vision of life inside the EU.
Of course, this strategy failed spectacularly.
It is deeply ironic that Corbyn is now being blamed for this failure. His acknowledgment of the valid basis of people’s anger was the only seriously credible alternative to the blind veneration of Britain Stronger in Europe.
So what of the criticisms currently being made of his apparently spiritless campaign?
It was back in April when Corbyn first faced the accusation (from the same group of MPs who staged the recent coup) that his position was unclear. Four days later he responded by delivering a definitive speech to the party in which he quelled all suggestions that he was pro-Leave: ‘Europe needs to change. But that change can only come from working with our allies in the EU‘. Ever since, he has campaigned tirelessly in favour of Remain.
His Twitter feed provides irrefutable evidence of this – with photographic proof of him canvassing on the streets, speaking at rallies and touring the country promoting Labour In For Remain.
The idea that Corbyn failed to throw his weight into his campaign should be seen for what it is: an opportunistic attempt by the party establishment to quash the grassroots movement that Corbyn has established and reclaim the middle ground.
Before resigning, deputy leader Tom Watson was more than willing to acknowledge how much work Corbyn has been doing, stating in response to criticisms of a lacklustre campaign: ‘Of all the bricks that are thrown at Jeremy, I think this is the unfairest I’ve seen […] He’s done speech after speech after speech.’
Corbyn’s Twitter feed proves that he has made more public and television appearances than David Cameron during this campaign.
If Corbyn’s voice was quiet, it is because others made it so. It is because Britain Stronger in Europe – a campaign group run by business leaders, Blairites and Conservative politicians – chose instead to put forward an uncomplicated vision of our present prosperity. And because news coverage reflected this, whilst failing to report on Corbyn’s parallel campaign.
Anyone pushing the line that Corbyn sat back and watched as everything imploded is either practising the dark art of New Labour spin or has imbibed its noxious fumes.
And they are all around us – with underhand tactics being used evocative of the Mandelson era, like the circulation of rumours that Corbyn himself voted to Leave.
MPs have even resorted to levelling the objection against him that he tried to sabotage the Remain campaign by deleting excessively pro-EU messages from speeches – completely missing the fact that this euroscepticism was the much needed antidote that could have won over Britain’s voters, if only it had been more widely adopted.
Still, it would be wrong to say that Corbyn had no impact.
63% of Labour voters voted to Remain.
As for whether he lacks the strength and recognition to lead the party in a snap election – since April, Corbyn has polled favourably with significantly more voters than Cameron.
By no means is his leadership ideal; he campaigns like its still the 1990s, failing to make good use of social media and to exploit the unprecedented levels of support for him among the young and the politically engaged.
But even so – this referendum was not a defeat for Corbyn. It was a defeat for Britain Stronger in Europe, who sidelined him and ran with a strategy completely at odds with the campaign he fought – which succeeded in spite of being underrepresented in the media and unsupported by his fellow Labour MPs.
There has never been a greater need for a socialist candidate to refocus the debate.
The world’s media are in little doubt that this was a vote against the establishment. At the same time, it is clear to all that Brexit is not going to calm the waters. As the myths are exposed, a void will be left for new narratives that can explain to people the true causes of their discontent.
Only Hilary Benn and his cohort of Blairites could possibly think that now is the time to take us back into the dark ages, when there was little to distinguish right from left.
Of course it is not just the Blairites who are walking out, as the exodus has left a few loyal Corbyn supporters feeling that they are on board a sinking ship.
But Corbyn will win any future leadership election.
His detractors should seek solace in the knowledge that Corbyn’s strategy was right. The failure lies in the fact that it didn’t receive enough attention.
That should be a challenge – not a cause for defeat.