Just over a year ago, I wrote a piece on why the youth were ‘reluctant Remainers’, and for the most part these arguments still stand for a typically left-leaning student. Student ambivalence boils down mostly to a lack of real recognition for what the EU actually does (providing crucial top-ups to local authority funding, the backbone to university research, structural funding for deprived areas) and a belief that the EU is, at best, a flawed bit of mildly benign bureaucracy and at worst, a Machiavellian, anti-democratic proponent of neoliberalism. It will be these arguments that are in the back of students’ minds when they vote in the European elections this Thursday, and which will lead to, probably, many continuing to vote Labour, whose convenient Brexit hedge allows distance from right-wing Brexiteers without really challenging their broader Leave vision.
However, this is a fundamental mistake. We can all agree that the last two years have been a colossal waste of time, and a vote for Labour in the European elections would effectively negate this vote as an opportunity for us to make a concerted appeal against the meandering, inefficient way in which we have faced Brexit negotiations so far. We’ve already seen the failure of the Tory government to come up with a palatable strategy even for their own party, failure of inter-party talks, and the failure of indicative votes: the only remaining option for conclusion is a confirmatory vote on the final deal. Voting Labour delays the organisation of a referendum, and so decreasing the possibility of an informed vote, and gives the Tories the possibility to convert lack of support for Lib Dems/Greens/Change UK as a green light for them to fashion their Brexit deal without taking other views into consideration.
Furthermore these arguments against the EU simply aren’t true, and even if they were, the EU is subject to change with the allegiances of its elected officials. Indeed, both the democratic nature of the EU, and its willingness to evolve was demonstrated in a recent article by Simon Kuper for the Financial Times. Kuper pointed out that the number of meetings between national leaders is on the increase, exceeding what was originally stipulated in the Lisbon Treaty. These meetings aren’t even solely just to do with Brexit – the greatest number of meetings was in 2015. Such not only demonstrates that the EU encourages international democratic participation (and that there is an appetite for greater involvement with national leaders), but also its flexibility, exceeding inscribed regulation dependent on current demands and circumstance.
The ‘neoliberal’ argument (a favourite among any student discussion of politics) is difficult to challenge, not because it is true, but because the term is incredibly nebulous: I’ve had discussions with peers who believe that any kind of acquiescence in international trade makes one a fervent Randian. However, putting aside sometimes problematically isolationist stance that people of this breed tend to argue themselves into, the main qualm from this angle is the suggestion that Corbyn’s aims of boosting national industry through state aid would not be achievable given EU rules about maintaining sufficient competition. However, as QC George Peretz explained back in December, not only does the EU allow ‘block exemptions’ to the state aid rules (support for local infrastructure, and funding research and innovation) which would allow industry to have significantly greater support than it does currently, but also many of their state aid rules are maintained by the WTO. While leaving the EU may seem for some to usher in the a utopian era of nationalised industry, the UK will never be in a position where it can effectively cut off trade with the rest of the world, which would what would be required if we were to avoid having protective tariffs slapped on us by other countries. This kind of thinking is embarrassing similar to right-wing Brexiteer scapegoating of the EU: conflating unavoidable international circumstances and our own national policy with ‘rules’ and ‘meddling’ by the Europeans. And the greatest irony? Corbyn’s post-Brexit vision of a customs union with the EU would require compliance with all state aid rules.
Labour-supporting students that I’ve spoken to all seem to conflate a People’s Vote with a mechanism to Remain, which is why I have put pro-EU arguments first. But the situation has changed in the last year, with a People’s Vote no longer being a taboo subject but an increasing valid, and, in my opinion, inevitable option if Brexit is going to have any kind of democratic legitimacy.
What has been perhaps missing from arguments for a People’s Vote is a broader, more idealistic concept of how we should treat the citizens of this country. I hadn’t really thought about it much myself, until listening to a talk from basic income advocate Professor Standing, who had just the previous day been presenting his research to Labour ministers. For Standing, the most important argument for basic income came not from his extensive studies, which suggested that greater emancipation for women, greater productivity, and better mental health resulted, but from a question of moral responsibility. Offering a basic income allowed people to make moral choices, Standing argued, rather than being compelled into harmful compromises because of poverty.
The same argument could be applied to a People’s Vote. Most students seem to accept that a People’s Vote is democratically viable, recognising that countries that decide by referendum nearly always have a confirmatory vote in big legislative changes, that we didn’t know (and still don’t) what the final deal would look like when we initially voted, and that the original vote is universally acknowledged as distorted by foreign intervention, electoral malpractice, and lies. Yet these same students still won’t vote for Lib Dems/Greens/TIG because of some suggestion that a People’s Vote will cause polarisation and hate, and that its just ‘a bit rude’ to those who initially voted to Leave.
Yet this attitude is actually incredibly arrogant. Those who criticise the Cameroon government for compromising our autonomy through ‘nudge theory’ don’t seem to note the irony of espousing a vaguely paternalistic belief that we can sustain a kind of rocky peace through strategic ignorance of democratic principle and suppression of changes in public opinion. As Standing would say, what makes us human is our capacity to take moral responsibility through free choice. Assuming that the UK population would be indifferent to the questionable activity of the Leave campaign, the inability of government to formulate policy outside of Brexit, and the other repercussions that have surfaced since the referendum, is exceptionally naive and worryingly oppressive. We need to give the population, at the most basic level, a chance to express their moral disapprobation.
Labour, now more than ever before, is meant to be radical. But a vote for Labour in these elections will only be a vote for the status quo: muddling through and ending up with a universally unsatisfactory deal that will cause dissent without ratification. Speculating on public opinion is shaky business, as the last referendum showed. We may agree with Labour’s social policy, but given that their plan is for us to be out of the EU by October, we can’t allow normal party allegiances to determine how we vote. Thursday is about Brexit, and we can’t allow our first opportunity to have a say go to waste.