One of the many myths about Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn is that, his supporters having demonstrated their ability to work campaign miracles in the 2017 General Election, they could at any time turn the same powers to campaigning for a second referendum, but for some reason they choose not to.
This inaction gets explained with the usual clichés that the Corbynites have all been mesmerised into Euroscepticism by their closet Brexiteer cult leader, that they’re being tragically strung along by Corbyn’s ambiguity on the issue, or – most imaginatively – that they’re all secret Leninists hoping raise communism from the wreckage of a no-deal Brexit. As one of the more grounded versions of the argument claims in the Guardian, if only a renewed effort for Remain could be launched “by Labour and run by Labour’s base – its constituency parties, Momentum, union members, Another Europe is Possible”, it would be sure to win.
But this misunderstands the nature of Momentum and of the campaigning strategies around Corbyn more generally. As I argue in my book, Other People’s Politics: Populism to Corbynism, the surprising new political movements across the spectrum that have found success since 2016 are too often analysed as if their strategies were simply neutral ‘tools’ that could be picked up or adopted by just any political campaign.
Could Remain have succeeded in the referendum by using more manipulative Facebook ads like Leave did? Could Hillary Clinton if she’d had her own version of Trump’s alt right trolls? What we tend to miss is that these new kinds of campaigning are successful because the strategy and the political ideology are dynamically entwined with each other. Leave had better traction than Remain online because people already liked venting about the EU in Facebook groups, following anti-immigration accounts, and sharing tabloid attacks on Brussels bureaucrats, in a way pro-Europeanism could have no equivalent to. Similarly, attempts to launch a ‘Tory Momentum’ will always fall flat because Momentum’s kinds of campaigning are inherently linked to their political aims.
Momentum sees itself as embodying the radically democratic ambitions of the Corbyn project. At its heart, Corbynism claims that it is not enough just to reduce inequality, but that Britain also needs a radical expansion of democracy in all areas of life, from the workplace, to the management of local utilities, to the media and other centres of power. People don’t just need more money, they need to see that their actions actually have meaning in their lived environment. Corbyn’s campaigns have been successful because they are managed along similarly radically democratic lines. Whereas Labour’s 2015 election campaign was highly centralised with volunteers more or less reduced to collecting data, the 2017 campaign was uproariously egalitarian, with campaigners bypassing the authority of local parties via a range of phone apps designed by Momentum to put enthusiastic Corbynites directly in touch with voters.
So how would these strategies work if applied to a campaign for a People’s Vote and ‘Remain’? We may well find out, and, anyway, Momentum has already campaigned for Remain once in the original referendum. But that said, a renewed Momentum campaign for Remain would be unlikely to have the traction that hopeful liberals are assuming it would. This is because whatever one thinks of the European Union (and despite talk of ‘Lexit’, Momentum members are broadly favourable to it), it is anything but ‘radically democratic’. It is an entirely neutral statement of fact that EU institutions are designed to limit democratic accountability of economic decisions.
As the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, notoriously put it with reference to the Eurozone, ‘elections cannot be allowed to change an economic programme of a member state’. Among countless other examples of the EU’s resistance to democratic reform, when referenda in the Netherlands and France rejected the creation of an EU constitution (causing the UK to abandon its own projected referendum) in 2005, the EU’s response was not a profound rethink of consent creation in the continent, but the literal removal of the words “constitution” and “constitutional” from an otherwise un-revised text.
This is certainly not enough to convince most Labour members that we must therefore leave the EU. But it is enough to temper their enthusiasm for resisting Brexit, and enough to present a fundamental contradiction between what Corbyn supporters are trying to achieve in Britain (and their means of campaigning to achieve it) on the one hand, and what they are being asked to defend on the continent on the other. That is the real reason Corbynites are so lukewarm about a ‘people’s vote’.
James Smith is a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Other People’s Politics: Populism to Corbynism