A week ago, the exit polls made it look like the UK electorate had instigated the worst political crisis in the UK outside wartime.
By Friday, the counted votes had removed all doubt.
By a majority of less than 4% across the UK, the electorate had voted to leave the EU.
There are a lot of unpleasant realities to digest with that vote.
The worst and most immediate reality: the racists who voted to Leave, because they thought they had got a promise that by voting Leave the government would make the foreigners go, now believe they’ve won. They believe, according to reports speeding in from all over the UK, that they’re now empowered to tell anyone who looks foreign, whether or not they are, to “go home”. The British word for racism is immigrant.
In Edinburgh, Lauren Stonebanks, 36, was on a bus on Monday when she says a woman shouted: “‘Get your passport, you’re fucking going home.’” She believes she was targeted because she is mixed race. “As I got off the bus, the woman started making threatening gestures, like punching gestures. It made me feel absolutely terrified.”
Many of the racists who voted to Leave have real problems, often, and real causes for anger. They’ve been told they can blame their problems on the EU and the freedom all EU citizens have to travel across the EU. The problems are real: lack of work, sanctions on benefits, housing shortages, strain on NHS and other public services. None of them are caused by immigration: immigrants are a net benefit to the UK even considered only in financial terms. The official government Vote Remain campaign could hardly say bluntly “Your problems are not caused by EU regulation or immigrants, they’re caused by our austerity policies, our lawless sanctioning of your benefits, our refusal to build new homes, our cuts and creeping privatisation of the NHS. Vote for the EU: their funding is keeping you alive.”
Things will not get better for the Leavers when the UK leaves the EU: they will get worse. The EU is the UK’s largest trading partner, and negotiating for a new trade deal that might allow the UK to get access to the European Free Trade Area can’t begin until after the UK has left the EU. Until the deal is clinched, the UK will be dealing with the EU under World Trade Organisation rules. The UK can either try to negotiate a deal like Norway’s, where the UK is within the Schengen free travel area and obeys all of the EU’s regulations, without having any access to affect the regulation and having less control of UK borders than before (the UK is currently not part of the Schengen area, which is why your passport needs to be checked when you cross UK borders into the rest of the EU), or else negotiate a deal like Canada: which will certainly take years.
We’ve seen how this goes. When racists have been told “clean out the foreigners and things will go better”, and then things only get worse, is the government that instigated this referendum going to say “well, it’s our doing, we’re sorry” or are they going to step up the racist hatred? This is a spiral without end. There’s no knowing how far down it goes.
There is also no knowing what this will do to Northern Ireland and the twenty years of fragile peace.
But there is some certainty about what it will do for Scottish independence: a majority of Scots now say we’d vote Yes in a second independence referendum. A million Scots voted to Leave: over one and a half million voted to Remain: but in the UK as a whole, the English and Welsh votes for Leave outnumbered the Scottish majority to Remain.
I voted No in 2014. But if the UK really does leave the EU: then I don’t see that we have any choice but to leave the UK. I don’t want Scotland to be caught up in the spiral of hate and poverty and despair that comes from blaming immigrants for austerity. That’s what England and Wales voted for, by a comfortable majority. It’s not what we voted for. We should go.
That’s more or less the conclusion I had come to over the weekend. Cameron had resigned. Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon has to be triggered by the Prime Minister (foreign policy is a Crown prerogative, so the PM can go to the Commons for a majority vote, but need not), so Cameron’s resignation gave the UK a three-month breathing space as the Conservatives decided between Boris Johnson (incompetent, charming, evil, can win elections) and Theresa May (competent, not charming, evil, can win elections) for who was to be our next Prime Minister.
The EU Referendum has no legal trigger. In effect, all it did was give the mood of the country. But in England and Wales, the mood of the country was very definitely for leaving. Given the likelihood that Scotland will vote for independence during the two years between the Prime Minister starting the two-year countdown to EU exit by invoking Article 50, the Westminster Prime Minister can probably not afford to alienate the majority of English and Welsh constituencies and voters by shrugging off the referendum results and declaring that what the voters asked for is impossible. (They could hold another referendum, of course.) This was a mess: a Tory-created, UKIP-enhanced, horrible mess.
And then the Labour debacle happened.
The proper procedure for triggering a leadership election in the Labour Paty is for at least 20% of MPs to nominate a challenger to the current leader. Given the Tories are in thrall now to their own leadership contest – Boris Johnson screams and runs away, Flipper Gove pops his head up and offers to be Prime Minister, Stephen Crabb’s links with homophobic gay cure charities exposed – a sensible, long-term thinker might have decided that now was not the time to have a Labour leadership contest: however infuriated Labour MPs were with the news that after a hard-fought campaign, Jeremy Corbyn had accepted defeat for Remain far too easily.
Jeremy Corbyn said, all too promptly on Friday morning, that Leave had won and Article 50 should be invoked immediately. He went on to say:
“I think a lot of the the message that’s come back from this is that many communities are fed up with cuts they’ve had, fed up with economic dislocation and feel very angry at the way they’ve been betrayed and marginalised by successive governments in very poor areas of the country.
“My point throughout the campaign was we must have an alternative to austerity, we has to have more resources going into areas that have seen huge changes.
“We now have to try to protect the working conditions we have in the country between densely populated urban areas and the rest of the country. And to ensure obviously there are some trade opportunities for Britain because clearly there are some very difficult days ahead.
“There will be job consequences as a result of this decision. We have to do everything we can to protect jobs and working conditions in Britain.”
None of this is wrong – coming from a politician in a Leave party, if there had been a genuine left-wing campaign for leaving the EU. (The so-called Labour Leave campaign was funded by a Tory donor.) But Jeremy Corbyn was, or should have been, the leader of the left-wing Remain campaign. Corbyn has an impressive habit of being on the right side of history: but I do not see how forcing Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the EU against the will of the majority, can be on the right side.
None of this changes the fact that, when the Tories are in disarray and struggling to find their feet, that’s not the time for Labour MPs to stage a coup against their leader. For a coup it was: a regular leadership election within the Labour party begins with 20% of Labour MPs nominating a challenger, not with Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey tabling a no confidence motion for a secret ballot by the Parliamentary Labour Party, followed by dozens of resignations from the Shadow Cabinet, followed by a Commons debate in which David Cameron publicly mocked Jeremy Corbyn to cries of “Resign!” from Labour MPs.
Apparently, the Labour MPs who took part in the coup against Corbyn justified themselves by claiming that this was a time for unified leadership. Nothing they have done suggests they actually think that: everything they’ve done demonstrates a desire to be rid of Corbyn, regardless of the damage this does to the Labour Party, and to their country. One hundred and seventy-two Labour MPs have pledged their political careers that Corbyn will lose the leadership election (or resign first).
Angela Eagle resigned as Shadow First Secretary of State on Monday 27th June. But her campaign website, angela4leader, was registered by Joe McCrea on Saturday 25th June.
Hilary Benn attacked Corbyn over the results of the EU referendum, and was then sacked from his position as Shadow Foreign Secretary, on Sunday 26th June. Officially, this sacking triggered a rush of resignations. Practically, it appears that Joe McCrea’s PR company knew the day before Hilary Benn “spontaneously” attacked Corbyn that it was going to happen and that Angela Eagle would just happen to be the Parliamentary Labour Party’s choice to be Corbyn’s challenger.
I don’t see how the Labour Party comes back from this.
Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour Party leadership election last year, fair and square. He wasn’t the candidate the Parliamentary Labour Party wanted, but he was absolutely the candidate the membership wanted. His experience as a party leader and his leadership skills in managing the Shadow Cabinet were practically non-existent, and there was quite literally not a vested interest in the country that wanted to see Corbyn become or continue as leader of the Opposition, and certainly not become Prime Minister – including, as we see, many MPs within his own party. That wasn’t a situation that allowed Corbyn any learning time: he was leader of the Opposition and many MPs junior to him chronologically had gone on to senior positions without ever having spoken a word to him before he became their party leader.
If Corbyn wins the leadership election again this year, and he well may – then those 172 Labour MPs who staked their political credibility on Corbyn resigning in the face of their contempt and hostility, have lost what they staked. Their position is untenable. They’re in the pit they dug for themselves, voluntarily, choosing to be in this horrible position rather than face the Tories as a unified Opposition – but they are the majority of representation the Labour Party has in Parliament, and the majority of Shadow Cabinet ministers have also gone. Corbyn really doesn’t have a Shadow Cabinet any more.
If Corbyn isn’t allowed on the leadership ballot, so that the membership who wanted to re-elect Corbyn aren’t permitted their voting rights, then 172 Labour MPs have deliberately alienated the majority of the party’s membership. What this will do to the Labour Party long-term is unknown. But it seems unlikely to be good. Many of the MPs who joined the coup against Corbyn hadn’t consulted with their constituency branch (Angela Eagle did so against the direct request of her local branch): this was supposed to pass as a spontaneous uprising, though it seems they didn’t take much trouble to cover the details that show it was anything but.
If Jeremy Corbyn is on the leadership ballot but loses fair and square to Angela Eagle, then 172 Labour MPs can heave a happy sigh of relief: they’ve rid themselves of the man the media kept telling them was “Unelectable”, who could inspire popular enthusiasm like no other Labour leader in recent history and who had led the party to victory in several byelections: but he’s out, a safe candidate is in, and they can look round again and remind themselves of what the current issues are and focus on opposing the Tory party.
Of course by that time, the Tories have picked their next Prime Minister, elected him or her, and moved on to invoke Article 50 and launch the process of negotiating Brexit. Labour have been left behind, struggling to catch up, having rather publicly made it clear to all their voters that the crisis of EU membership was of rather less importance to them than removing their elected leader.
I do not see how the Labour Party comes back from this. And the clear blame lies not with Jeremy Corbyn – who stood, who was elected, who did his best – but with the poisonous festering boil of arrogance directed against their own party membership: the 172 Labour MPs who cared more for their own careers than for anything else.