Remain needs to change

I was fortunate to have a critique of my EU Elections article from Robin Bunce, a Cambridge politics professor who is far cleverer than me. (However, I maintain that I sourced better GIFs.) You can read the public exchange on Facebook here if you like.

After some quibbles about my maths, Robin made three substantial points about Labour’s stance on Brexit which make sense to me, but still need a push back. They were:

  1. “Labour’s strategic ambiguity has stopped Brexit.” (At least for now, because otherwise enough Labour MPs would have put Withdrawal Agreement (WA, or May’s deal) across the line.)
  2. “In a situation where Remain is not strong enough to win a full-on battle, the best solution is a guerilla struggle.” (Stretch it out, avoid losing, keep Remain “in the game” essentially.)
  3. “As soon as the Tories elect a new leader and adopt a harder Brexit stance, Labour can endorse a second referendum as a last resort.” (It can be said that Labour tried everything else first.)

While that sounds kind of sensible to me, it also sounds all kinds of horrific, for reasons I’ll explain in my reply below.

But Robin’s most powerful point, I thought, was that “Remain have won all of the arguments* but lost the POLITICAL battle,” and that Labour needs a political strategy. (* by “arguments” I think Robin meant economic analyses rather than elections, but he could correct me on this.)

In any case, I thought I should post my reply here rather than just leaving it in a Facebook comment.

The breakfast food references are my way of trying to make sense of these polling numbers, by the way. Thousands of people were asked to rank their preferred Brexit options. “Remain” was the most polarising, in a Marmite-like “love it or hate it” way. “No Deal” had quite a few fans but most people were not keen, which I’ve likened to black pudding. The middle options were more palatable to most, but were more for settling than loving – “Soft Brexit” looks to me like the cornflakes most people will happily put up with (it’s the majority’s second choice), but the “WA (Withdrawal Agreement)”, or “May’s Deal”, is a lot less popular, perceived more like a bowl of cold porridge.

I like analogies which help me to think laterally and potentially break out new solutions to tricky problems by seeing if there’s something we can observe from a different angle. Also, I like food.

What stands out for me in your excellent analysis is the idea of perhaps winning an (economic?) argument but losing the political battle. I’ll stick with my breakfast analogy for a bit, but put it in a domestic situation...

Let’s say Dad wants black pudding but Mum says it’s too expensive and gross. Mum wants Marmite, which is better economically, but Dad says it’s yeasty shite which no one in their right mind could like, and now Mum is crying.

There’s an economic argument here, but the kids won’t remember it. They will remember how Mum and Dad started to make them feel when they kept shouting “bollocks*” at each other and nobody had any breakfast, even that crappy dust in a jar which no one likes or remembers why it ended up in the kitchen in the first place.

(*If you’re wondering why the bad language is necessary, by the way, I didn’t start it. This is the state we’re in. This is a REAL photo, from a REAL political campaign from a party generally known for its sensible, moderate views, led by your kindly uncle. How did we get here?)

The actual Liberal Democrat manifesto for the 2019 European Elections

Fact is, the significance of broken politics is starting to overtake the significance of who’s right in the economic arguments. There’s an economic cost to pay for this as uncertainty is not an attractor of business investment. But the political cost of a prolonged fight should be a scary wake up call to Labour, Conservatives and the rest.

It’s possible that Labour forces the election it wants, but in doing so loses the trust of the electorate. Enter parties like the Brexit Party which might get real wide-ranging power without offering any real policy other than Brexit. You might think that’s as unlikely as a lying, repulsive, impetuous, emotionally stunted, economically incompetent reality TV star winning the US presidency, and you’d be right.

(At time of writing, I forgot that the Brexit Party had also recruited a candidate who may be most famous for appearing on a popular reality show and not being very good at what the show is meant to be about. But I strictly shouldn’t mention that.)

The political battle is everything now, and if parliamentary democracy can’t or won’t deliver something, anything, even an unpopular but workable option, it may get overwritten by the next charismatic dictator who comes along and says we can have what we want if only we’ll trust them. Even if we obviously can’t trust them.

So Labour needs to get itself together. “We want an election” is not a policy you can put into a manifesto if you get one. So grow a policy.

I’m thinking Labour might regret trashing the WA quite so much. After all, if policy was to deliver Brexit but make it nice and soft, the WA was (and, err, still is) the way to get that. Yes, it seems like a political win to unseat May, but who’s going to celebrate that if it leaves Labour unelectable? I’m not going to write publicly about how a Conservative could reframe the whole debacle to make that happen, but they could. I think we’ll find that at least one of the leadership candidates will be better at basic political competence like this than May.

Paths for Labour to proceed with political credibility have narrowed. I think there are two, and they both involve reframing unpopular Brexit options in the hope that people will buy into one.

The one I don’t want but I think is easier, and stands the best chance of avoiding no-deal Brexit, is to embrace the WA as a bowl of crud nobody wants, but at least it’s a bowl. If we can at least settle on cornflakes (and if you’re feeding a whole crowd one thing, it obviously has to be cornflakes), that’s the way to get them. Start with an empty bowl, which is what the WA should always have been described as. It’s not what you want, it’s the way to get what we all need. But Labour have trashed and possibly smashed the WA bowl to the point where they might not be able to use it at all.

The harder option is to sell the benefits of Remain to people who hate the idea. There’s maybe a little hope here. I actually hate Marmite but still like Twiglets. I know, that makes no sense. They’re covered in Marmite and even say so on the packs now. But if enough people who don’t want Marmite for breakfast can be persuaded that they might like Twiglets instead, it’s doable.

What that means in political practice is not trying to sell the idea of being internationalist to people who don’t want it, but reinforcing the power of being British and proud of it.
Having a vote about what we do with Europe is having power. So let’s have a vote. And what can we do in Europe? Focus on Brits and British influence abroad, which is a positive thing to celebrate, rather than just worrying about people “coming over here taking our jobs”. Focus on the transforming for good we can get done in Europe rather than the paralysis implied by “remain”.

Labour ideally needs reframe “remain” with a better word, and back it up with positive, deliverable promises of what Britain can achieve for the many if it takes back control (yes, use that term) from a paralysed, incompetent, not-listening, failing Conservative party.
That’s snack food for breakfast, eat all you want.

So, what do you think? If you’re reading this far, I’m guessing you’re super into politics, or really can’t sleep.

Is there any good way to bring people happily along into a new point of view on Brexit? Can you think of a better term than “Remain”? And what do you want to do about it?


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  • Reply

    David Matthews

    Love both the critique by Vince and your response. Can’t say I fully understand your use of culinary stuff – we both have porridge laced with fresh fruit every morning!
    I think that the nation (with the exception of Scotland and, possibly, Northern Ireland) is in the mood to vote in Farage: he has charisma (if nothing else!) we’re there to be a general election.
    I honestly feel that the Remain group could win the argument if there were to be a ‘people’s vote’ but only if they show as clearly as possible the probable consequences of a no deal exit or even a revised May deal.

    • Reply


      Thank you! Do you think there’s a way to talk about bad consequences without being dismissed as “Project Fear”, though? That’s a powerful bit of framing. What could overcome it?

  • Reply

    David Matthews

    ‘Project fear’ has been used on both sides of course, Bern, but you have made a good point. I certainly like the idea of focusing more on what we Brits have been and, to an extent, still are, good at.
    Perhaps ‘Transform’ of something similar might be better than ‘Remain’; it does, at least, convey an element of hope.
    While I still think it important to win the economic argument, there can be no doubt that Farage and those who dance alongside (if not fully in step with) him can and will fight back with the ‘look what we achieved in the past’ and such an attitude could still gain the majority in any people’s vote.
    This may sound arrogantly naïve, but I think that, without a British involvement in the heart of the EU, the whole idea could collapse into pieces again with (some) individual nation states being led by tin pot but charismatic leaders willing to push their nations into warfare of one kind or another. In the background, quietly, the larger empire-building nations would be chewing away around the edges.
    I don’t think that the presence of the Brexit MEPs in Brussels does anyone any favours, least of all any future PM of whatever party colour. But we are where we are and, to be honest, I think it’s a tragedy. Yet, I’m not without hope. I’m not sure where all this fits with cornflakes, black pudding, marmite and twiglets!?

    • Reply


      I think you’re right about British involvement in the EU being important, but not because they couldn’t function without us. According to the BBC’s Europe correspondent, looming Brexit has actually made other countries value the EU more and raise their determination to stay in. Parties which previously campaigned to exit didn’t do that in the EU elections this year. Britain has a future part to play in helping with the reformation of the EU which is now widely talked about and accepted as necessary, and preferred to its break up. We can’t do that from the outside.

      The food analogies, by the way, come from the end of my previous article, and particularly this graphic: It’s drawn from a large academic survey of 5000 people’s preferred leave/remain outcomes, and I tried to draw parallels between the patterns of preferences for each outcome with a recognisable food – e.g. Marmite for “remain” because preferences break down into strong loves or hates with very little middle ground, and cornflakes for “soft Brexit” because most people would agree they’d quite like it even if it were few people’s actual favourite. There’s lots of room to quibble over whether I picked the right food for each option, but I’ve served quite a few breakfasts in different contexts over the years, and I stand by my “expert” opinion!

      • Reply

        David Matthews

        I was aware of the food analogies, Bern; I read the article but, being a bear of little brain, I couldn’t get my head round them. I guess it’s because I tend to think in terms of toast, porridge and full English!
        Anyway, I take your point although I noticed that NF talked about aligning himself and his dance partners with other groups who want to break up the EU. Anyway, we’re off now to more mountainous climes.

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