In November 1984, fire broke out in the Oxford Circus tube station. Fortunately, the fire occurred late in the evening; when the station was almost empty. Fourteen people were injured (only four of them passengers) none seriously. Inquiries were held, but the core – tragic – message that managers took away was that London Underground’s safety systems worked. Tragic, of course, because just three years later a similar fire broke out in the busy interchange station at Kings Cross. Thirty-one people died and 100 suffered serious injuries. The sad truth was that the safety systems that had been in place at Oxford Circus hadn’t really worked. Once fire broke out at a busy time of day in a major interchange safety systems failed and people suffered as a result.
In fact, there have been a string of disasters (e.g. the Kegworth air crash, the Herald of Free Enterprise sinking and Hillsborough) where earlier near misses led to complacency when they should have led to some serious soul searching. This seems to be a fundamental human weakness – and we’ve all done it. For example, the near misses that we have now and again when we drive most often serve to convince us that we are actually skilful drivers; they rarely prompt anyone to realise just how bad they are; still less to go on a refresher course to improve their driving.
What has this to do with the EU referendum? Well, rather like London Underground’s managers, the Remain campaign drew the wrong conclusion from an earlier referendum on Scottish independence. In that referendum, the Remain campaign adopted the negative electioneering strategy that had ejected the hapless Gordon Brown out of office in 2010. The approach is now colloquially known as “project fear”. It is a particularly useful strategy for playing a weak hand. In 2010, the Tories had nothing positive to offer the electorate. Instead, they highlighted Labour’s weaknesses and the economic risks in electing another Labour government. In the Scottish referendum, the Remain campaign was even weaker, since the policies of a Tory government in England were hardly likely to appeal to many Scots.
Just like the safety systems at Oxford Circus, project fear seemed to work. But did it really? There was blind panic in the week before the Scottish vote after a rogue poll suggested a vote in favour of independence. Campaign insiders were stymied. It was only the appearance of the (then) still respected Gordon Brown, promising everything – including the kitchen sink – short of independence itself that saved the day. Nevertheless, the lesson that was taken away was that project fear had saved the day.
In many ways, the EU referendum is a much harder sell. There is no positive case to be made simply because it is only the opt-outs negotiated by various UK governments that saved the UK from disaster. Had the UK been in the Eurozone in 2008 – when our debts were worse than those of Spain, Portugal and Greece – we would have been subjected to real, Greek-style austerity; not the massive borrowing and “public spending-lite” that Osborne has served up since 2010. Even the most fervent supporters of remaining in the EU concede that there is a lot wrong with it. Their argument being that it is better to remain and reform than to walk away. The problem is that they cannot give any voice to the reforms that they intend pursuing if we remain because they are fundamentally divided over the direction the EU should take. Tory Remainers want to see a reformed EU in which our rights and protections are swept away – no more social chapter, no more environmental protection, no more freedom of movement. Labour/Green/Liberal/SNP/PC Remainers, in contrast, want an EU in which these rights and regulations are protected and extended. (Of course, the same divide also afflicts the Leave side, but that is a subject for a different post).
So negative campaigning it has to be. But here we run into that classic definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and expecting a different outcome. Gordon Brown’s intervention in the Scottish Referendum was essentially positive. It offered Scots a beneficial reason for remaining. It succeeded where a succession of Tory posh boys (who would have struggled to find Govan or Kirkcaldy on a map) prophesying a catastrophe of Biblical proportions had clearly failed.
The negative project fear campaigning in this referendum appears to be further compounded by a growing people’s revolt against the established order that has largely manifested in the form of right-wing populism in Europe, the UK and the USA. It is no accident that people have drawn comparisons between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, or between the US Tea Party and UKIP. These being the (relatively) moderate face of the altogether uglier right-wing nationalist movements that are gaining traction throughout Europe. In the UK, this was forewarned in 2015 in the uneven distribution of the 4 million UKIP voters; a large proportion of whom were traditional Labour voters in Labour’s urban and former industrial heartlands in England and Wales (in Scotland, where a social democratic SNP offered an alternative direction, UKIP got nowhere even as Labour was annihilated).
At the core of this – largely white working class – eruption of anti-establishment sentiment are, no doubt, a hard core of consciously racist hard core fascists. But this no more explains the rise of right wing populism than the personality of leaders like Trump, Johnson, Farage, Le Pen or Hofer – people reminiscent of the self-absorbed loud mouth down the pub who trots out simplistic pseudo solutions to complex socio-economic problems. Instead, we need to look at political systems designed precisely to disenfranchise the majority of ordinary people; together with a debt-based economic system that has served to enrich a minority while impoverishing the majority.
Those at the bottom of the heap don’t need to be told about falling living standards… Just reflect on the fact that a family with just one partner working in a blue collar job in 1970 could afford to buy a house and raise a family. Today, the same family would be eking out a living supplemented by meagre tax credits and housing benefits. The thought of buying a house is a pipe dream; raising a family a remorseless, life-sapping struggle. I am reminded of the comment of a Welsh steelworker during Thatcher’s recession, when the unemployed were being encouraged to get on their bikes: “They say things are going to get worse before they get better. Well things can’t get any worse here. So what’s the point of going there?” Telling unemployed, underemployed and impoverished people that the economy is going to suffer if we leave the EU simply will not do the trick. If you believe you are already at the bottom of the heap, you might even take a perverse pleasure at the thought that it is those who called you “chav” or “scrounger” who are about to get to taste some of the fare they have been serving to you and your family for decades.
It is not, however, the plight of this group that has fed into right-wing populism; at least, not directly. The real change is this – the average graduate salary in 2008 was £24,000. The average graduate salary in 2016 is the same £24,000 (except, of course that inflation – especially in housing costs – means that it is worth a lot less). In the course of the last eight years, the children of the middle classes have been subjected to the same falling living standards as the working class has been experiencing for several decades. And, like the working class before them, they have discovered to their horror that the political system doesn’t work for them. It is their increasingly vocal protest against the system that has legitimised the anti-establishment concerns of the broader working class; and played into simplistic narratives about immigration, sovereignty and uncaring EU bureaucrats.
The first past the post (FPTP) electoral system evolved largely to prevent the majority of ordinary people (once they were permitted to vote) from overthrowing the established order. Seats have been divided up in such a way that the overwhelming majority of votes do not count. Out of 650 seats, only 150 or so change hands at most elections. Worse still, FPTP tends to result in negative voting – with people obliged to vote for the party they dislike least rather than the one they would choose if every vote was equal. The result has been a political class that feels itself insulated from the electorate; a class that is widely seen to rule in the interests of multinational corporate and financial interests to the detriment of ordinary people.
The key factor that generates popularity for the right-wing populists is that they at least acknowledge that there is a problem. By telling US voters that we need to “make America great again”, Trump tacitly acknowledges the fall from grace that many Americans experience in their daily lives. By telling them that “America already is great”, Clinton merely alienates them further. When Farage says Britain has a migration problem, he tacitly accepts that a large section of the British people are experiencing a problem (not, as it happens, with migrants; but in reality an infrastructure problem that means that any addition to the population in the poorest districts of our cities results in further pressure on already over-stretched schools, hospitals, transport systems and utilities, while providing nothing in the way of jobs and prosperity). When the Blairites and their establishment friends wag their superior fingers at the working masses and call them “racist” they simply drive them further into the UKIP camp. Put simply, Trump and Farage and their ilk are winning because they appear to be listening – “they feel our pain”.
So here’s the problem with project fear – it isn’t listening and it isn’t offering solutions. All it is promising is more of the same because this is (perhaps) better than the alternative. There is no vision of a future Europe at ease with itself; in which every citizen is better off… a Europe capable of overcoming the existential crises of our day (e.g. climate change, the energy transition, and an ongoing banking crisis). There is not even a Trump-like “making Europe great again”. There is little more than the vain hope that the Brussels bureaucrats and technocrats will discover some new alchemy to drag the European economy out of the pit of endless bailouts and negative interest rates in which it is currently stuck. Instead, we find ourselves subjected to the verbal flotsam of the discredited political and corporate figures that a growing part of the population has come to despise.
Anthony Blair, his hands still dripping with the blood of a million Iraqis is wheeled out to tell us that we have to vote to remain or risk conflict in Northern Ireland. Cameron, the man largely responsible for turning Libya into an ISIL-infested failed state, and who appears to have personally participated in the killing of a British citizen in Syria (before Parliament had authorised action in that country) using a missile fired from a drone, warns us that leaving the EU risks war. Osborne, a man who many now doubt could pass a GCSE in maths, is wheeled out to tell us down to the last 50p how much our houses will fall in price if we leave (as if lower house prices are going to frighten young people the Remain campaign depends upon). Jamie Dimon, a man whose name has become synonymous with corruption, malpractice and kleptocracy, is wheeled out to warn us that leaving risks triggering the kind of global finance crash that it is supposed to be his job to generate. Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling, the men who sold out the British people in order to save the banks (and who have now been rewarded with highly paid sinecures with the banks they sold us out to) are wheeled out to try to pull off the same trick as they did in Scotland. A procession of global establishment insiders like Carney, Draghi and Le Garde are paraded before us to warn of the economic ruin that awaits us if we are foolish enough to leave.
The problem is not that these establishment figures are wrong. Only a complete idiot would claim that the UK can simply walk away from the EU without suffering severe economic and social disruption. The problem is that they are widely perceived to be the embodiment of the very political and corporate elite that so many people are now railing against. Their project fear is failing not because their basic arguments are wrong, but because the majority of us have our fingers in our ears when they speak. More worryingly, when they stop speaking, we take our fingers out of our ears, give them the V, and wish a plague on all their houses.
The polls are worrying. Despite project fear; and despite the line-up of global economic superstars foretelling doom and devastation; the vote is evenly split – Remain are slightly ahead on 45% with Leave on 42% and 13% undecided. The trouble is that the Remain support includes more than a million younger voters who haven’t registered to vote or are going to be away at Glastonbury on the day of the referendum. They also include a large number of Labour voters who (as in May 2015) may simply stay at home – not least because Corbyn (a man who has been in favour of leaving the EU for decades) currently looks and sounds like a Blairite hostage who has gone Stockholm; making the occasional plea for remain then going back into captivity. The Leave side, by contrast has much harder support – those who have made their mind up to vote Leave are much more likely to turn out on the day (indeed, many have already sent their postal votes in). These may also be joined by a large part of the remaining 13% who appear to be wavering between voting to leave and staying at home rather than seriously considering voting to remain.
The core problem for the Remain side is that they are heavily invested in a project fear that everybody thought would triumph because it appeared to work at general elections; in the LibDem’s catastrophic AV referendum; and in the Scottish near miss. But project fear only works if it can offer at least some semblance of a positive alternative and, crucially, if the person conveying the message has the respect of the voters. The leading figures of the Remain campaign have neither. As a result, Cameron looks set to lead us to disaster. He has given us a referendum we would be better off not having, on the back of a negotiation that everyone else believes to have failed, out of sordid self-interest. This was never intended to be about the British people’s future – it was a squalid attempt to settle an internal row within the Tory party. Indeed, it is even possible that the promise of a referendum only made it into the 2015 Tory manifesto as a ploy – something to prevent supporters defecting to UKIP; something be negotiated away as part of another coalition deal with the LibDems. Having blundered their way into this situation, Cameron, and his establishment chums are the very worse people to lead the argument for remaining.
In practice, there is only one person who can guarantee that Britain will stay within the EU at this stage. But he is the one person nobody in the establishment dare unleash. I speak, of course, of Jeremy Corbyn; the only political leader in the UK to enjoy a mass supporter base large enough to guarantee a vote to remain. The Blairites – still less the Dark Lord himself – will deliver nothing less than a vote to leave. The support of the leaders of an increasingly marginalised trade union movement will not do the trick. Nor will the ineffectual pleas of charities and NGOs that benefit directly from EU funding rally support for Remain. Only the mobilisation of that mass of people that swept Corbyn into the Labour leadership can succeed where the establishment figures have failed.
However, neither the Tories, the Blairites nor the wider establishment wants Corbyn anywhere near this campaign for one very simple reason – neither side wants Corbyn to emerge as the man who saved Britain. Such an outcome would leave Corbyn looking decidedly prime ministerial. Nevertheless, the choice seems clear – project fear can carry on shouting warnings of doom with growing urgency at an electorate that appears to be more inclined to shout “f**k off” in reply; or they can encourage Corbyn to play the Gordon Brown role and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The question is whether the posh boys, the Blairites and the wider corporate elite are prepared to risk handing the keys to 10 Downing Street to Corbyn in order to keep Britain in the EU.