Tactics without strategy: Brexit and the politics of conceit

27 June 2016

Adam Leaver - Professor of Financialisation and Business Analysis at Manchester Business School

The political and economic forces unleashed by the referendum result now pose profound challenges for Leave politicians and the Labour Party

With two million Conservative voters seemingly ‘undecided’ last week and Labour voters preponderantly pro-Remain but susceptible to no-shows at the ballot booth, it was tempting to presume before the vote that an event of this magnitude might be decided by something so quintessentially British as the weather. Come Friday morning, it was abundantly clear that was not the case.  The gap between Leave and Remain was just under 1.3 million votes, far greater than can be explained by a June downpour. The outcome is humbling.

In due course the referendum result will become the textbook reference for political hubris. Cameron’s referendum campaign showed a fundamental underestimation of public mistrust with the political establishment when it committed taxpayers’ money to the production of Remain leaflets.  Similarly an appeal to the eminence of its leading voices on the risks of Brexit – prescient though they were – might work when it comes to winning over fearful middle class swing voters in marginal seats, but alienated a large and sceptical cohort who had not done particularly well since the 1990s.  This played to Leave’s strengths who were only ever going to run a populist campaign with immigration as the issue ‘the establishment wouldn’t touch’.  The more establishment figures Remain wheeled on, the more remote they seemed.

The referendum loss symbolises Conservative leaders’ obsession with tactics at the expense of strategy.  They built a machine to be elected not govern, perfecting the art of winning small political skirmishes which embrangled them in increasingly intractable commitments.  Eventually one intractable position was not going to hold.

So where does the referendum result leave things? Economically, we are in a difficult place.  The EU will push for an early exit to reduce uncertainty in other EU countries.  The longer negotiations are drawn out, the more turmoil will be inflicted on our major trading partners within the EU – there is a good chance they may move into recession, as seems unavoidable for the UK.  It is sadly true that they also must make an example of us or risk giving hope to Leave movements elsewhere.  Investment, already weak, will retreat until some certainty returns.  This is happening in real time, with huge swathes of construction now put on hold.  Financial markets are not as robust as we are led to believe and the £250bn injection promised on Friday morning by the Bank of England – presumably a bid to stave off a prospective wholesale run as bank stocks fell 30% – would seem to support that.  We have yet to see the effects of a ratings downgrade and sterling devaluation on the economy.  It is doubtful that the devaluation will benefit the export sector radically: in four of the last six major periods of devaluation there has been no impact at all.  These are not the conditions under which the politics of optimism thrive.

This takes us to the Leave campaign. The campaign was built on an anti-establishment/anti-intellectual ticket led by an old Etonian and another Oxford graduate.  It traded on the conceit that many of the UK’s problems could be solved by ‘taking back control’ – an ‘organising metaphor’ abstract enough to galvanise a body of voters with quite different perceptions about what this meant.  The usual accusations about Leave voters being ‘old, uneducated people in the North’ have already surfaced but the reality is much more complicated: 43% of the AB social groups voted Leave, for example – that’s a lot of skilled workers and professionals.  Similarly, the geography of the Leave vote is split between cosmopolitan centres like London, Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool on the one hand and smaller towns and rural areas on the other.  The most important indicator of a Leave voter is value-based according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling data: in other words, we are witnessing the reawakening of a particularly cynical, conservative English authoritarian personality which cuts across class and geography.  ‘Taking back control’ in this context signalled a variety of things: release from the EU’s institutional sclerosis and immured power bases; rejection of the neo-liberal grip on policy formation; devolution and an improvement in accountability and sovereignty.  But for many it primarily meant control of immigration.  And the Leave campaign was happy to let people believe that this was precisely what we were voting for.

The problem now is that this puts Johnson and Gove in precisely the predicament of Cameron and Osborne. The latter were outmanoeuvred tactically, but it is Johnson and Gove who have the larger strategic quandary.  The flipside of the Leave campaign’s amorphousness is that all of its voting tribes will expect their vision of Brexit to be delivered: that is the risk with summonsing ‘end-of-truth-and-reason’ politics.  Putting aside the inconceivability of honouring the £350m per week to the NHS pledge, they have a much larger problem regarding immigration.  If they opt out of the pledge to stop free movement, as pro-Leave campaigner Daniel Hannan has already indicated, those who voted Leave believing it was a vote to control immigration will feel betrayed.

This is ultimately why I am pessimistic. If you lead a populist, anti-immigrant campaign on an anti-establishment platform, and then support an EFTA model that retains free movement, you will discredit yourself and the democratic process.  Add to that a rapidly deteriorating economic climate and the resurgent nationalism you were complicit in stoking, and voters will begin to embrace the extreme right.  It will take considerable political skill for Johnson and Gove to manage this next phase should they replace Cameron and Osborne.  I am not sure it is within their capabilities.  Both have a facility with the blunt instrument of populism, but they do not possess the political guile and sophistication to deal with the subtle intricacies of a perceived volte face in such a febrile climate. Farage, however, does have the necessary nous and aggression to point out their deceit.

Can the Left stop this? They are in a difficult position, not least because we are seeing the working out of the legacy of New Labour – its mishandling of the financial crisis and intransigence towards its heartlands.  This instilled a sense of injustice, of powerlessness, of being cut adrift.  Atavism fills the space left by the dismantled social and economic institutions that build solidarity and community.  The Labour Party were correct to move to the left to reconnect with those communities as voters began to defect to UKIP, but they have the wrong leader to deal with the fight to come.  The Labour Party needs a brawler, not a history teacher.

Whoever that might be, they will need to address some of the profoundly reactionary sentiments of their ex- ‘core vote’. Anti-immigration is now a deeply ingrained and increasingly animating ideology that will be difficult to reverse.  A politics of trust, tolerance and understanding to support vibrant communities of difference is needed.  This requires a redistributive politics to fund the rebuilding of the economic and social institutions that embed harmony: better jobs, better public services, better social housing.  That may grate with the business elites of London and other cosmopolitan centres, but social dislocation is not good for trade and growth either. As Duncan Weldon has pointed out: capitalism needs social democracy to function. The state now has a duty to stabilise capitalism by acting against the interests of its most vocal proponents and greatest beneficiaries.  This is the challenge for Labour.

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