Brexit voters don’t listen to elites. But they might listen to Labour

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell

Corbyn and McDonnell: opportunities for statesmanship.
Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Brexit is pointless – utterly pointless. It cannot even be distinguished by the label “project”, because the Brexit people are unable tell us with an ounce of conviction what they have in store.

The essence of their campaign is entirely negative: keep out immigrants – although some of the more prominent Brexiters, in common with so many of us, are descended from immigrants – and take a leap into the economic and trading unknown. The supply chains of so much business are now trans-European, but these would be needlessly disrupted as the nation turned in on itself. No wonder the markets are unsettled; and those of us with long memories know that when markets become seriously unsettled, it is difficult to prevent things from getting totally out of hand.

One of the ironies of the recent turn of events is that, after the Remain side thought they had had the better of the economic argument, they became concerned that the Brexit camp had given up on that front and began to play the race card.

They – we – are right to be concerned about the race card. But my own researches indicate that victory in the economic argument was not as decisive as some of my fellow Remain spirits believed. Personally, I accept the economic argument wholeheartedly. The idea of leaving the single market and then renegotiating is patently absurd, as is the fantasy that, without even a British member on the seven-person appellate body that resolves World Trade Organisation disputes, the Brexit gang can negotiate everything to the UK’s advantage. Trade negotiations take decades, and, of all the skills shortages in the UK, the shortage of experienced trade negotiators is probably the most acute.

But there appears to have been a backlash against the forces of the economic and political establishment, national and international. These have – to my mind, quite rightly – been warning about the potentially dire consequences of Brexit, but are generally thought to have overdone it.

Although the British and international officials and economists who produce these forecasts are, in my experience, an honourable brigade, it is leading with one’s chin to publish precise forecasts of the impact of Brexit on people’s incomes in 2030. It was not difficult for the Brexiters to hit back at the chancellor with the marked discrepancy between his November forecasts and his March forecasts.

As for George Osborne’s warning that panic over Brexit might produce a collapse in house prices – well, this was intriguing: a fall in house prices is just what the younger generation wants, but not necessarily what the older, predominantly pro-Brexit, generation would be happy with.

Now, it is apparent that both in this country with the onset of Ukip, in the US with the egregious Trump and continental Europe with the rise of the far right, the common factor might well be labelled “globalisation and its discontents”.

The other problem is dissatisfaction with elites. Many people don’t like being told what to do by governments and international bureaucrats. It was plainly with this in mind that the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, recently criticised London mayor Sadiq Khan for appearing on a Remain platform with David Cameron.

I have the unfashionable view that McDonnell is a formidable political operator who should not be underestimated. My worry is that every time he impresses one with salient criticism of Osborne’s austerity policies, he then goes and blows it by, for example, appearing to advocate civil disobedience, or with this recent example of criticism of Khan’s decision to sit alongside Cameron.

The fact of the matter is that the outcome of this referendum – the calling of which was the ultimate political folly of Cameron’s leadership – is so important for the future of our nation that it transcends conventional political squabbles.

It is a commonplace that Jeremy Corbyn and McDonnell are from the extreme-left, Eurosceptic wing of the Labour party. They have been slow to follow the good example of those great men before them, namely Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, who voted Leave in the 1975 referendum but subsequently rose above that position, and realised how important, for all the EU’s flaws, was the goal of keeping Europe united and avoiding the horrors of the disunited interwar period after 1918.

More recently, there have been signs that the relatively new Labour leadership has begun to realise the importance of the social protection aspects of the EU – rights which could well be torn to shreds by rightwing zealots such as Alexander (Boris) Johnson, Michael Gove and their motley crew after Brexit.

So far, however, the general impression is that the Labour leaders have been reluctant and half-hearted about their conversion to the European cause. And there are a lot of doubters among Labour voters affected by discontent over globalisation.

It would be an act of genuine statesmanship if Corbyn and McDonnell could throw themselves into the campaign to convince the doubters that the European Union is better than the alternative. It was the veteran pollster Sir Robert Worcester who recently told me: “Don’t-knows don’t vote.”

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