Friday, February 15, 2019


Another day, another farce. That's the narrative. Parliament voting in wildly contradictory ways, making it clear that there is no agreement on any way of managing Brexit, is a sign of dysfunctional politics. The real irony is that the current impasse could result in the thing that the fewest people want - no deal. I shall stick my neck out and suggest that this shambles indicates something else.

There is no consensus in Parliament because there is no consensus in the country. The baleful effect of the referendum has been to take an issue of marginal interest and polarise the nation around it. It's been a disaster, an utterly unnecessary disaster. In that sense, Parliament is representative of the nation as a whole. It is a representative picture of a broad dissensus.

Let's first think about how radical - revolutionary even - Brexit is. It means ripping up and replacing the entire economic infrastructure of our trade in goods and services. It requires a complete reinvention of our foreign policy and our place in the world. It needs a re-writing of much of our constitutional law. It also strips every British citizen of their rights, protections, and legal redress given by their EU citizenship. This isn't a minor change. It is huge.

Managing a change on this scale requires careful planning (ha!), but, above all, there needs to be a national and informed consensus that this is what we want to do. There hasn't ever been one. Expert opinion and the most directly effected parties have been adamantly opposed. Public opinion has been split. The best that can be offered as assent to the change is a narrow majority of votes cast on one day in June 2016 without any attempt to gain losers' consent. That isn't the consensus needed to implement something like this. Without it, all you can ever expect is a destructive mess. Brexit has been handled with incredible incompetence, but it was never going to be anything other than a contentious disaster. It was an impossible task.

As a result, Parliament is representative of the nation. However, it is supposed to be the nation's representative rather than its mirror image. It has to act in the national interest, rather than in accordance with the wishes of the electorate. This morning commentators were saying that May's deal is dead and the choice is now between the customs union compromise and no deal. This isn't true. The EEA/EFTA option is still there, but we are also in the land of the Condorcet Paradox. Even if there is a majority for leave, remaining is more popular than any of the individual options for leaving. Deciding to remain is in our power. We can unilaterally revoke Article 50 at any time. If Parliament is to act in the national interest, it should vote to do so and then begin the immense task of dealing with the damage that has already been done. If it doesn't and the government proceeds with Brexit, then it will have done so by deliberate choice.

None of this is necessary. There is nothing that says we have to do this to ourselves and our allies. There is no consensus behind it. Politicians who argue that it would be too dangerous not to go ahead should remember the old adage about airline safety: "If you think safety is expensive, try an accident."

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Conventional wisdom

I am not a statistician and so I am posting this with a caution about my ability to read the data properly. This is speculative and an over-generalisation. However, it chimes with experience.

I have always worried about the "left behind" narrative about the leave vote, which says that people voted for Brexit as an act of despair about damage they had sustained through austerity. There has always been a paradox lurking in there. Some of the most deprived areas voted Remain. When I saw this comment thread on Twitter it seemed to make sense. Marios Richards points out that the commonplace narrative depends on how you slice the data. The reality, he says, is that the poorest, the ones who are the most vulnerable, tended to vote Remain. Their preference was masked by being bundled in with a larger and comparatively wealthier lower middle class. It was they who voted Leave. The difference was that they were more likely to have been bypassed by the worst effects of the financial crisis and austerity, sheltered by things like home ownership and pensions, unlike the poorest who were reliant on income alone and thus highly vulnerable to change. These Leavers were not rebelling against austerity, but were mainly untouched by it. The class profile of the vote then looks more like a sandwich. Remain is the bread - poorer and wealthier people tended to favour Remain, with a solid lower middle class Leaver filling. The filling is a mainly Conservative cohort, the one captured by the Tories in their successful election years

This is an oversimplification, all psephology is. Age, region, education, identity, social values, xenophobia, even internal migration, etc., all played their part, sometimes eclipsing class. But it is one way of pointing out that the narrow vote to leave was complex and cannot be pinned down to a single factor, let alone simplistic cod-sociological theories - people from somewhere v people from everywhere, the revolt of the left behind,* imperial nostalgia, political realignment, or Fintan O'Toole's eccentric insistence of the importance of the legacy of punk rock. There are many more, none of which provide a complete answer, because there isn't one. The one thing they have in common, and I think this is true, is that they had little to do with the reality of EU membership. The EU only mattered to the committed few. I have my suspicions that this is still the case despite the endless queue of commentators lining up to tell us that they know precisely what people were voting for. The vote was shallow and the commitment weak. It wasn't really about Europe, something that few understood well. If we abandoned Brexit, I doubt whether it would continue to be a factor in British politics in a few years time. It would be an episode that we would look back on in embarrassment.

Does this matter? Yes, it does for two reasons. First, it affects reportage. I would happily abolish the vox pop. Sticking a microphone under the noses of unsuspecting and unrepresentative passers-by and expecting to learn something is silly. But the selection of where to go and who to speak to is conditioned by assumptions about who we are looking for and where. Even the better social reportage follows a pattern of class prejudice. Reporters seek out areas that voted leave (preferably in the north). They aren't interested in Remain areas. They talk to as many working class people that they can find until they finally hit pay dirt, the person they can build their feature around. Yes, they find the nutter they can present as representative - you know the type, a balding man with union jack dentures who declares that even if we have to kill and eat our children to survive, it will have been worth it to escape the clutches of BRUSSELS! It's a freak show mentality posing as anthropology, and it's posh Remainer porn - look at the lower orders, aren't they ghastly. It's why there is so little reportage of working class Remainers. Nobody is looking for them. Nobody is going to Remain areas and speaking to them. They are neglected, left out of the narrative, invisible.

Secondly, these perceptions shape policy. That the Labour leadership is pro-Brexit (though anti-no deal) is not in doubt. That Labour members and voters are overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU is also certain. Where does that leave Labour MPs, the people who could make or break Brexit? If they think that their working class voters are pro-Brexit and anti-immigration (and misunderstand the role of a representative), then they are caught and will sway towards making Brexit happen. They do not want to alienate Labour Leavers. But what if the poorest are pro-remain? And what if, as polling suggests, they are not as bothered about freedom of movement as they are about economic prospects? Where then would MPs stand? But how could they possibly know if the mainstream narrative excludes this possibility? Middle class prejudice is hiding working class Remainers. They don't fit the stereotype. In their determination to reflect the views of their working class supporters, Labour MPs may have chosen to genuflect to Tories. They may be about to facilitate a mistake based on a misapprehension.

Instead of the left behind, maybe we should be talking about the left out - the working class Remain vote that nobody seems to want to hear about in case it disturbs their world view.

* I still can't type that with a straight face thanks to jazzlover's comment on this post.