Ignore those saying otherwise, Britain will vote Remain

‘Brexit’ and Cameron’s renegotiation of Britain’s  deal with the EU have dominated the news cycle for a good week now, and this has been accompanied by plenty of chatter in the commentariat about the prospects for the ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ sides. If you are keeping track of this – believe me, there are better things to do – you would be forgiven for thinking this referendum is genuinely up-in-the-air. Ignore them. It isn’t.

To start with, Cameron’s so-called ‘renegotiation’ is an utter farce. All it addresses is the largely invented problem of migrants draining the welfare state. Countless studies have shown that it is not our welfare state which draws migrants to the UK, but instead our relative wealth, opportunities and, crucially, English being our first language. While I have no problem with British natives being first-in-line to receive welfare, the renegotiation does nothing to address the real problems of the EU. From the left, it doesn’t tackle the institution’s consistent bias towards privatisation and austerity, as we have seen in Greece, Italy and Portugal. From the right, it doesn’t repatriate powers over much of our law-making ability, and, in general, it does nothing to address the lack of proper democracy, accountability, the power of lobbyists or increasing federalism. But none of this matters, and here are the reasons why:

  1. The Leave Campaign:                                                                                       The main risk for the leave campaign was that they were always going to perceived as a lunatic fringe full of ‘little-Englanders’ and conspiracists. The Brexit campaign has responded to this with a spectacular lack of self-awareness, and filled the movement with just that. Prominent figureheads are Nigel Farage, the climate-change denying Nigel Lawson and, as of yesterday, George Galloway. The only credible and fairly well-known names backing the campaign are Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith,  Kate Hoey and Frank Field, but even the latter two aren’t major enough to carry real clout and are seen as on the fringe of their respective parties. Perception matters hugely, and no one wants to be seen as a narrow-minded, slightly weird racist due to their stance on the EU. This is made even more pertinent by the relative strength of the In campaign. They can pick up plenty of votes simply by saying, ‘Do you want to be here with all the major party leaders, business people and celebrities, or over there with George Galloway lapping milk from your hands?’
  2. It’s about loss aversion, stupid:                                                                 Even if the Leave campaign weren’t a bit of a mess, I would have no doubt that we would vote to remain. If there is one thing that decides elections, it is uncertainty and the fear it causes. So often in politics, people lose sight of this simple fact and start analysing every facet of the opposing sides’ arguments, but this is nearly always a waste of time. It was obvious to any serious observer of the Scottish referendum Better Together would win as soon as it became clear the Yes campaign didn’t have a plan for an alternative currency. People hold what they know dear to them, especially in a modern world gripped by uncertainty.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   This observation was clearly documented by Kahneman & Tversky with their 1979 theory of loss aversion. Put simply, Kahneman and Tversky argued that people feel twice as much psychological hurt in losing something than they do pleasure in gaining something. When looked at through this prism, it is obvious that we will vote to stay, especially because the gains of leaving are speculative. Possible losses are trade, economic security and influence and national security. All of these are concrete, and translate into people’s fears for their jobs and lives. Possible gains, on the other hand, are speculative trade agreements with ‘the rest of the world’ and repatriating legal powers which few people understand anyway. Control over borders will be the only thing seen as a gain by many, but this will not be enough to trump the fears of the majority concerning economic well-being.
A cartoon mocking the ‘Out’ campaign in 1975. Little has changed today. (Credit to @Jacob4MK for the find)

Why you should bet against an EU referendum before 2019

Theoretically, the Tory victory in May gave rebellious Conservatives what they’d be seeking so passionately for over 20 years: a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. Most pundits expect this to be held in late 2016 or early 2017. But is it possible that it won’t be held at all? If things remain as they are, it would be suicide for Cameron to renege on it. However, I’d like to put forward a scenario in which I think it could happen.

Economists and international observers are becoming increasingly worried about the prospect of another crash. It is no longer the preserve of websites such as Zerohedge to openly state fears about markets. As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, the turmoil in Greece caused stocks and the Euro to fall sharply, with not only Greek banks being shut but also some in Southern Italy for fear of contagion. Even if the Greece crisis is resolved, it is only a matter of time before the innate problems with the Euro flare up again in Spain or, even worse, in Italy. Meanwhile, London is floating on a completely unsustainable property bubble funded largely by foreign capital, which is guaranteed to burst some point soon and could easily destabilise the UK’s economy in the process.

However, all of this pales in comparison to fears over China. Since early June, Chinese stocks have fallen by 29%. Everyone knows the country is financed by colossal debt and the remnants of a command economy, and their stocks are overvalued, but as long as confidence held China was still a boom market. Not anymore it would seem. Once again, this is not the talk of doom-mongers, but ‘respected’ institutions everywhere.

Based on the above scenarios, and the fact that in a boom-and-bust economy crashes tend to come every decade or so anyway, it seems very likely that we could see a serious crash and subsequent recession in the next few years. Would Cameron risk introducing further uncertainty to markets by letting Europe’s second largest economy hold an in/out referendum on the EU? I doubt it. A referendum was never in his instinct and it would give him a chance to face down the ‘lunatic wing’ of his party to put country first. Granted, his party may commit regicide in the process, but the pressure on Cameron to postpone a referendum would be immense. So don’t imagine that this referendum is cast in stone just yet …

Yes, Labour should run a separate pro-EU campaign

PoliticsHome today reports that the Labour leadership hopefuls are split on whether to be part of a ‘grand coalition’ arguing to stay in the EU with the other major parties or if they should run their own pro-EU outfit. The latest intervention comes from Alistair Darling, leader of the ‘Better Together’ campaign, who stated it would be a ‘massive mistake’ to shun a broader coalition.

Personally, I am a little surprised at Darling’s comments. While I have great respect for him as a politician, Labour’s participation in the ‘Better Together’ campaign is widely held to be one of the main reasons the party’s collapse in Scotland was so complete. It allowed us to be painted as the party of the established, Westminster elite sallying north of the border to bully the rebelling Scots. I remember cringing when I saw Ed Balls and George Osborne sat next to each other on Newsnight like old pals cheerily declaring that they would both block any currency union with the insurgent Scottish nation. By the end of the referendum campaign it should have been obvious to anyone that a torrent of bile had been unleashed and would be directed not at the Tories – the party who were already seen as beyond the pale – but the great betrayers: Labour.

Of course Labour should have campaigned for Scotland for to stay in the UK. I’m completely behind John Major in that the whole devolution agenda was a grave mistake for the union, and would only lead to the toxic nationalism and division we have seen, and I have very serious reservations about Labour’s increasing commitment to regional devolution, but more on that later. However, it would have been perfectly plausible for the party to run on a separate ticket from the Tories. They could have promised Devo Max, or stressed how a Labour government with Miliband rather than Blair at the helm was going to take Scotland seriously and restore prosperity to the region. Sure, it’s not the most formidable campaign, but it would have been better than just being part of a campaign that solely warned of the dangers of independence while attacking the SNP rather than actually offering positive reasons to remain. And yes, I know that Labour would have been attacked for ‘putting party before country’, but how much would that have stuck is debatable; and, quite frankly, if it would have saved us 25 seats or so I think we’d have taken it.

So now we fastforward to the EU referendum in – probably – 2016. It’s a year where we will have the Scottish Parliament elections, the Welsh National Assembly elections, the London Mayoral and Assembly elections and Local Government elections. UKIP will be looking to build upon their strong performance in the general election as well as the locals. Labour will be in their first year of having a new leader and trying to forge a new direction. It is quite clear that the party needs to put in a good performance, particularly in the first three elections, if they are to appear as a genuine up-and-coming force to be reckoned with in 2020.

Much as politicos are divided on why Labour’s defeat was so great, it is indisputable that part of the reason we suffered so badly was because we were seen as ‘the establishment’ by large sectors of the population. Even worse, these large sectors happened to be in our Scottish and working-class heartlands.

So we are faced with a simple choice. 1) We can have a new, fresh-faced leader lining up alongside David Cameron to tell the people they should vote no or they’ll lose their job while Nigel Farage rips into us for completely selling ourselves out to the Westminster establishment and having learnt nothing from the ‘ordinary Brit’ who sent us a strong message in 2015. 2) We can campaign to remain in the EU while also campaigning to reform it so it better suits said ‘ordinary Brits’ while the Tories tear themselves apart over which reforms, if any, will be enough to keep us in. Faced with these options, I know which one I’d choose.

What to look out for now that Syriza have triumphed

Yesterday, The Coalition of the Radical Left (ΣΥΡΙΖΑ) won a stunning victory in Greece. Despite falling just short of an absolute majority, this election marks, in the words of Paul Mason, ‘The first true Left government since 1936 in Spain.’ Now the hurly-burly is done, here are a few key things to watch out for:

  1. Sudden exposés of the private lives of leading Syriza figures. Expect the press to root around as much as they can to find any dirt on anyone linked to the group.
  2. An ‘in-depth report’ linking Syriza to marginalised hate groups. Once again, the press will try and smear the group through guilt by association. Particularly watch out for tenuous reports linking donors or members to ‘shady’ far left groups, groups campaigning for the rights of migrants and minorities and, a favourite of the right, radical Islam.
  3. Shocking footage and reports of poverty and unemployment in Greece. It is in the interest of those in power to portray Syriza’s policies as leading the country to ruin, whatever the reality. Doubtless they will point to the shockingly high levels of joblessness and deprivation already in existence and present this as evidence leftist policies do not work rather than as a hangover from austerity.
  4. The EU and IMF showing their true colours. As I mentioned in my post on David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, supranational institutions such as the IMF and EU are well-acquainted with enforcing their economic models through the means of debt and threats. This is the first time a left government has been elected in Europe rather than in Latin America or South East Asia since the foundation of these institutions. It is outside the US sphere of influence and within the EU, so some of the more overt measures of aggression used previously cannot be used here. It will be very instructive to see how the EU and IMF react; we will see how far they are prepared to obstruct and overrule democracy when it is closer to home.

Disappointing words from Miliband on the EU

The Spectator reports that Ed Miliband set out a dividing line with the Conservatives today by declaring that ‘his party would never, ever leave the EU’. His actual words were:

‘We must demand reform from Europe—a European Union that works better for Britain. But make no mistake: exit from the EU would be a dramatic mistake for our country and our economy. So, whatever the politics, I will not join those who cynically offer exit as a realistic plan for our future or the future of Britain’s working families.’

This is disappointing. I haven’t quite made up on my mind on whether I’d vote to stay or leave but at the very least any true call for reform has to be backed up by the threat a referendum. Without this, the EU have no reason to take any demands of reform seriously, and Miliband knows this.

But what is more disappointing is this continued one-way love affair between the British Left and the EU. To me it seems this is more borne out of a knee-jerk opposition to the Right’s Euroscepticism than any actual examining of the facts. When you actually look at how the EU operates, you see it has pushed crushing austerity on Greece, Italy and other poorer nations through its demands that EU countries ‘balance their budgets’. The ECB demanded the privatisation of Italian and Greek water companies under the extremely thin veneer of increasing economic growth. Marxist geographer and sociologist David Harvey recounts how Swedish conservatives pushed the country to join the EU to cement in place and accelerate neoliberal forms that they failed to make headway with at home. Furthermore, all this is taking place with no real democratic element or transparency about the role of lobbyists and capital.

The British Left need to wake up and stop pretending the EU is some cosy, liberal dream of harmonious countries holding hands in a circle of stars and see that it is following in the footsteps of the IMF and World Bank and becoming a neoliberal institution pushing austerity and privatisation in return for loans while denying the people who live within it a say. This practice ruined South and Central America, is ruining southern Europe and the reach of this will only increase if no one from the Left is prepared to stand up and call it out. Sorry Ed, must try harder.