Monday, 24 October 2016

The Sore Loser

What is it that I don’t like about Jeremy Corbyn? (October 2016)

At the beginning, I was a Corbyn supporter, so my political tendencies are closely aligned with his. Nevertheless, I believe that his re-election as Labour leader will consign the party to the political wilderness for a decade or more. Since I like his politics, I have to ask myself “why am I so convinced of this?” It does not make obvious sense.

The June EU referendum in which the UK voted to exit from the European political block represents a second strand to this argument. To date I’ve always tried to keep these issues separate, but they are so closely intertwined I don’t think I can make sense of the whole unless I treat them together.

We know the bare facts of the history. Corbyn was elected the Labour Party leader following electoral defeat at the 2015 general election. The Tory Party had promised a referendum on membership of the EU if it won the election. It delivered on that promise. As individual streams of reality there is nothing particularly remarkable but together they have the power to decimate the future of the UK. Why? Because, it leaves no one to speak for the 48% who voted to stay in the EU.

The argument from the Brexit camp seems to be that I and 16 million or so fellow voters were on the losing side so we should put up and shut up. In a normal General Election I would indeed agree, but this was not a normal election. I do not get to vote again in five years’ time.

A further argument might run that I should leave it to our MPs. After all, that’s what they were elected for. Our current Prime Minister, Mrs May, seems to believe that the referendum vote provides her with all the authority she requires to proceed without further scrutiny from Parliament. In fact there has been a wholesale changing of the guard in Her Majesty’s Government (HMG). Was this really a vote to change HMG? Yet that is what has happened. Not only have the personnel changed but significant tranches of government policy have changed. The referendum was not a general election. It conferred no such authority upon the government post referendum, no matter how plausible and rational the changes she proposes. Yet in reality that is exactly what has happened.

At this point, I feel the need to step back again and take a long hard look at what really happened in the context. The members of the UK electorate were given an opportunity to voice an opinion on whether we should remain part of the EU. I’m satisfied that for 90% of the electorate, who voted that is exactly what they did. But I’m not convinced of the remaining 10%. The scope and integrity of the arguments laid before the electorate on both sides lend credence to this view.

The narrowness of the scope of the arguments laid before us and in some respects their downright mendacity suggests that we were being duped for the sake of winning the vote. A feeling of being duped, I suspect was quite widespread and at least some part of the electorate was determined to make their voices known. Is this fanciful thinking on my part? I suspect not. Railing against the government of the day is common place, especially in by-elections.

I have analysed the votes against the government in by-election over the past 4 general election periods. These analyses show a clear protest against the government of the day between general elections. Data source

These tables show clearly that protest against the government of the day is a common feature of by elections, but the sentiment tends to be reversed in General Elections. 

It would be prudent for any government to consider whether this kind of sentiment had affected the result of the referendum. The Cameron administration had invited some pre-eminent voices from the international scene to speak on its behalf. For voters, already predisposed to protest, this could have confirmed their prejudices.

A potent argument against this logic could be that the referendum was a “single issue” topic and therefore not susceptible to the kind of protest so clearly exhibited in by-elections. In truth though this apparently simple question has a multitude of facets. Indeed it is so easy to get lost in the myriad of detail that comprises the EU, I wonder why it was ever considered suitable for a national plebiscite. For that I would have to look into the minds of those who prepared to the 2015 Tory manifesto. This is a task I am determined to avoid.

Unlike our history of by-elections, there is no evidence from similar elections to demonstrate that this was a protest vote. However, I note from Polly Tornbees’s article in the Guardian, 20 October, that the level of regret amongst leave voters was significant around 6%. The equivalent level of regret amongst remain voters (at not being on the winning side) was 1%. On this basis the result of the referendum would have been reversed.

Nevertheless, we have a result that say that the UK should seek to extricate itself from the EU. The new Tory administration is determined to follow the referendum commendation without further consideration. So how should the 48% who voted to remain in the EU react?

Normally, one would jump on the opposition bandwagon and wait for the next general election. This is not practicable. Firstly, the leader of the Opposition (one Jeremy Corbyn) won’t oppose leaving the EU, even though he “said” he was in favour of staying. Secondly, we the electorate, don’t get the chance to reverse the decision in 4 or 5 years’ time.

The “remain campaign” cannot bury its collective head in the sand. It must act now, but how. We desperately need a collective opposition to Brexit. In the absence of Jeremy Corbyn stepping up to the mark, he must be disposed of, since his presence is a positive barrier to effective opposition.

Let us suppose then, that the Parliamentary Labour Party would once again approve a vote of no confidence in Mr Corbyn. That would leave the PLP both leaderless and exhausted from a bruising leadership election over the summer. My advice would be to appoint a caretaker leader until next year’s conference season. That would still leave the “remain campaign” without a focal point or leader.

Curiously, we have a ready-made leader in Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP. Her voter base may appear out on a limb in Scotland, but she is experienced and effective. I wonder if she would be prepared to lead a coalition of that rather disparate opinion that represents the “remain campaign”.

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