The Official Leave Campaign’s Dismal Half Term Report Card

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While many Brexiteers may be in line for a gold star for trying hard, the official Vote Leave campaign and its major spokespeople are coasting for a big fat F when it comes to execution

With little more than a month to go until voting in the EU referendum, it is worthwhile for Leavers and Brexiteers to pause, take stock of where we are and conduct a candid review of our strengths and weaknesses – what is working, and what is actively setting back the cause of independence from the European Union.

This blog post is not such a detailed report – though some other intrepid Brexiteer may well wish to create one, as a matter of historical record if nothing else. For in truth one does not need to dive deep into the poll numbers or aggregated political analysis to see that the Leave campaign is not only on course to lose the EU referendum, but is actively doubling down on those behaviours and activities which make defeat more likely.

For evidence, one has only to regard this crowing article in the New Statesman, in which Glenis Willmott gloats about the overly-emotional, rank amateurism of the country’s most prominent voices for Brexit.

One can almost hear the glee in her heart as Willmott writes:

They needed a new argument, a positive, forward-looking vision for what they see as the future of Britain… but they realised they didn’t have one so reverted to WWII and Hitler. Having lost all arguments on the economy, Vote Leave’s Boris Johnson raised the spectre of Hitler, talking about superstates and “historical parallels” between the EU and Nazi Germany. And they’re accusing the Remain campaign of being fearmongers?

They’ve complained about the terms of the debate. They’ve accused broadcasters of conspiring with the government. They’ve said journalists would be punished, and called for civil servants to be sacked. They’ve said they’ll disrupt pro-EU meetings and target pro-EU businesses. At every stage they’ve attacked individuals or organisations and not their arguments. And now they’ve invoked Godwin’s Law by comparing their opponents to Hitler.

Their tactics are the textbook definition of the increasingly desperate behaviour of the losing side in a debate.

Willmott concludes:

It’s what happens when you’ve given up on convincing the undecideds and care only about firing up die-hard Eurosceptics, praying for a low-turnout poll, which Vote Leave privately admits is their strategy. Having lost the argument on the economy, they’re now following step-by-step the UKIP guide to politics: attack foreigners, bash immigrants and peddle conspiracy theories of continental plots to take over Britain, likening Brussels of today to Berlin of yesteryear. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.

And who can disagree with her? People expect some kind of positive message if they are to vote for a campaign – it can’t all be doom and gloom. And while the Remain campaign are certainly no strangers to scaremongering, they do at least take time to waffle on about their vague, fictionally pleasant European Union, a naive vision of a loose association of countries coming together on a super voluntary basis to fight crime, trade with one another and enshrine rights for working people.

Never mind that this idealised vision of the European Union is complete nonsense (and it is). People believe it because Vote Leave are too busy shouting about building a new hospital on every street corner with the money we supposedly save from leaving the EU that they almost totally neglect to pick apart Stronger In’s incredibly superficial and deceptive sales pitch.

It does, therefore, strongly appear as though Vote Leave have given up on winning the new support of anybody without a long-held antipathy toward the EU, choosing to focus instead on firing up the base and praying for a low turnout. Sadly, this almost never works. Brexiteers fired up on lashings of anti-immigration, “they need us more than we need them” rhetoric can still only vote once, just like everyone else. A fervent minority is still a referendum-losing minority.

Worse still, when they aren’t ranting about building hospitals on top of hospitals on top of hospitals in their utopian post-Brexit Britain, Vote Leave and other eurosceptic big beasts love nothing more than to prance around playing the role of the aggrieved victim. Despite having known for a long time that the prime minister is an unrepentant europhile and that the Cameron/Osborne “renegotiation” was nothing more than a deceptive piece of theatre, the brightest stars in the eurosceptic firmament somehow neglected to come up with a countervailing strategy besides running weeping to the media, sobbing about how unfair it all is.

Mary Ellen Synon puts it very well over at her excellent new Brexit blog:

This kind of complaint is worse than useless, it is embarrassing.

Anyone over the age of six who squeals, ‘He’s not playing fair!’ is absurd.

Of course Cameron is not playing fair. Of course he has been involved in secret dealings with big business. He is a politician who intends to win, and he has form for exactly this kind of behaviour.

I therefore have no time for Tories such as the MP Jacob Rees-Mogg who is reported today to be ‘furious’ over Cameron’s secret FTSE dealings.

Rees-Mogg told the Bruges Group in London that Cameron’s secret Remain dealings with the big corporations while he still worked to make people believe he might support Britain leaving the EU was ‘a scandal of the highest order.’ He said it appeared Parliament had been misled by Cameron.

Yet Rees-Mogg is a member of a party that was happy to go on backing Cameron even after he betrayed his ‘cast-iron guarantee’ to give the British people a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

That betrayal was in 2009. Cameron was a weasel then; he is a weasel now. It is no good for Leave campaigners such as Rees-Mogg to act as if they have only just realised it.

Quite. While it is not unreasonable to remark on the levels of deceit and lack of principle emanating from the Conservative Party leadership – pity the day when we come to accept it as unremarkable, or even virtuous – there is no point building a national referendum campaign around the fact. Besides the fact that momentum matters in elections and moping around weeping that you got a raw deal is like a big neon sign declaring that the momentum is with the other side, we are back to the fact that the Leave campaign does not have a compelling vision of an alternative Britain outside the EU.

And Vote Leave failed to come up with an alternative vision for Britain because that would mean having some kind of plan for Brexit. And they long ago decided that their unrepentant lack of a Brexit plan was somehow going to be their greatest selling point.

As Synon concludes:

The Leave campaign needs to stop whining that the campaign is ‘unfair,’ because of course it is.

However, Cameron is winning this referendum not because he is slippery, he is winning it because the official Leave campaign has described no clear, safe path out of the EU for the voters.

In other words, Cameron is not winning this campaign. The Leave campaign is losing it by being unthinking, uninformed, and unorganised.

This much is true: Cameron is not winning, but rather the Leave campaign is losing. And while the pro-EU side may have the advantage, at least this is not based on the great skill of the Remain campaign. David Cameron and his motley crew are coasting by using the advantage of their bully pulpit and the public’s natural hesitancy to depart from the status quo as their chief weapons. Even most Remainers would likely concede, under pressure, that Cameron achieved no meaningful concessions in his renegotiation, and that they cannot say with certainty what the EU will look like in five, ten or twenty years’ time, for example.

Right now this is enough, because Vote Leave have decided to fritter away their time and resources making ridiculous promises, playing the victim and invoking Godwin’s Law. Thus the Remain campaign is winning by default. But their numbers are potentially soft – people are sticking with Remain only because Boris Johnson doesn’t look like the type of man who can tie his shoes unaided, and because the avalanche of establishment opinion (organisations with no mandate to care about democracy but with strong interests in maintaining short term economic stability) coming down on the side of staying in the EU.

Realistically, there is no chance now that Vote Leave will significantly change their tactics, or suddenly embrace Flexcit and the EFTA/EEA model as a stepping stone out of political union. That ship has sailed. The only hope is that the Remain campaign’s principle strength – the overwhelming support of the establishment – may yet become its biggest weakness. And this could well happen.

Right now, Stronger In can point to a cast of thousands of the great and the good who have all lined up to tell the British people that the EU is wonderful, that Cameron negotiated a brilliant new deal and that exiting political union would lead to economic (and even military) armageddon. But what if this stops acting in their favour? These are febrile, uncertain times where little is certain except for the fact that those in positions of authority are distrusted and despised as almost never before. So what if the British political establishment, Barack ObamaChristine Lagarde, David Cameron and his CEO buddies all singing from the same hymn sheet begins to seem more like a stitch-up than wise counsel? What if their unanimity becomes more like a criticality accident of sanctimonious, self-interested elites clubbing together for their own gain rather than the sober, high-minded intervention they like to imagine?

Returning to the half term report card analogy, right now it is fair to say that the official Leave campaign has failed every single piece of coursework they have been set so far. This is not good. But fortunately, fifty percent of the total class grade is based on the end of term exam, and here we have an opportunity to make up some distance. We are never going to get an A and win by a landslide, but a concerted effort in the right direction and a hefty dose of luck* could yet bring us to 50% +1, which is all we need.

So do not despair, fellow Brexiteers. A pathway to victory still exists, albeit one which is heavily dependent on luck, or “events, my dear boy, events“. Fighting the EU referendum with Vote Leave in the driving seat is like being partnered with the class idiot for an important assignment – we are going to have to do all the leg work while they thrash around attention-seeking and disrupting everyone else. It will be difficult, but it can be done. Just buckle down, hope that the shining ones at Vote Leave towers manage to keep a lid on their worst excesses, and then pray for some kind of game-changing event to shake up the board.

This thing isn’t over until it’s over.

 

*mostly involving Vote Leave sitting out a few rounds and letting the adults take a turn.

 

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Is Widespread Voter Apathy Acceptable In a Country Like Britain?

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Britain’s relative peace and prosperity are no excuse for us to shirk our duty to be informed and engaged citizens

This blog has little time – and much contempt – for voter apathy and the politically disengaged.

Only last September, while the Labour leadership contest raged, I was complaining about low-information “swing voters”:

What if the fabled political centre doesn’t exist – or is only a small group casting a large shadow, while another unacknowledged mass of voters goes unnoticed and un-courted by the main political parties?

[..] What if rather than there being a rich goldmine of real centrist voters out there – people who pay close attention to politics and legitimately arrive at a position somewhere between Labour and the Tories – there is instead just a massive, congealed fatburg of low-information voters bobbing around, people who simply haven’t paid enough attention to come to an informed opinion about the great issues of the day?

By contrast, Janan Ganesh has an interesting and thoughtful piece in the Financial Times, basically defending non-voters and holding them up as an example of everything that is going right with our society:

All politicians understand Yes, No and Undecided. Only the winners understand Don’t Much Care. Mr Cameron communicates crisply because he knows most people only tune in for a few minutes a day. He does not lose himself in marginalia that no swing voter will ever notice. Rousing a nation through force of personality is something leaders do in films: the real art of politics is accepting apathy and bending it to your purposes.

[..] Apathy is a respectable disposition in a country where, for most people most of the time, life is tolerable-to-good. There are nations with much hotter politics, and they tend to send refugees to tedious old Britain.

This should be the most obvious thing in the world. You will have several friends who match this profile of contented languor. But among politicos, on the Labour side especially, it is a shock finding. They priggishly elide apathy with dysfunction: if voters do not care, something must be wrong with the body politic.

Ganesh concludes:

Apathetic Britons are not waiting to be redeemed. They just have lives to get on with. Not only are they apolitical; they rouse themselves to vote every five years precisely to stop hot heads and crusaders from running their country. They like Mr Cameron because he governs well enough to save them having to think about politics. He is prime minister because someone has to be.

I don’t necessarily disagree with Janan Ganesh’s view of the political landscape and voter apathy as it currently stands. But I do take strong exception to any suggestion that this is how things should be in an ideal Britain, or a prosperous Britain.

Do I have the right to expect and demand that everyone else share the same interests and obsessions as me, or that they campaign for them and partake of them as loudly and vociferously as I do? Clearly not. Everybody should be free to pursue their own happiness in any way that they like, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of anyone else.

But what happens when one bloc of people acting as a bovine herd of politically disinterested consumers allows the dominant political class to get away with just about any scheme, machination or conspiracy that they choose? Such people may have the right to stay glued to Britain’s Strictly Come Bake Off On Ice while our democracy erodes and collapses from within, but does their apathy and lack of interest not infringe on my right to live in a society where the government is properly held to account? I would argue that yes, it does.

Now, I can’t tie the politically disengaged to a chair, clamp their eyes open and force them to watch Today In Parliament on an endless loop. Nor should I be able to do so. Even if we could take the hugely illiberal step of forcing such people to pay attention to politics or even make voting mandatory, by their bovine nature many of them would make ill-informed, capricious or spiteful voting choices which would hardly enrich our democracy.

But if we can all accept that the right of the non-voters to sit on the couch and fester in their own KFC grease trumps my desire to make them sit up and pay attention to several highly pressing political questions which will have profound consequences for how Britain (and even humanity as a whole) is governed in future, can we at least stop putting these bovine people on a moral pedestal?

Where Janan Ganesh goes too far in his article is when he praises the politically disengaged as a symptom of a well functioning system where all of the major existential and ideological questions have been settled, leaving nothing to argue over besides pernickety points about the technocratic management of our public services.

For in truth, some of the biggest questions facing human civilisation have indeed not yet been settled. They have just been masked and papered over by an artificial political consensus among the major British political parties and the Westminster-dwelling establishment.

There is a political consensus that the NHS is a glorious institution, a bureaucratic idol to be worshipped and uncritically praised from dawn to dusk, as well as the best way of delivering universal healthcare to a large, developed country. But the NHS model does not exist in any other major modern democracy – there is, in reality, no intellectual consensus that it is the best solution. There is just a lazy ideological consensus of convenience among the political class, who prefer to pander for votes by singing hymns of praise to the NHS rather than talking critically about how to make British healthcare better.

There is a near-universal political consensus among the establishment that the European Union is a Good Thing. That this one particular very dated mid-century form of internationalism represents the future of European governance, and that the nation state is antiquated and passé. A vocal minority of British people begged to differ, and now – despite the kicking and screaming of the establishment – we are going to have a referendum to decide whether or not we want to remain part of the Brussels club. The Westminster elite always claimed that there was such a popular pro-EU consensus that a referendum was unnecessary, but clearly this was not so.

And so it goes, from issue to issue. What are in fact gross and damning failures of imagination or political courage from the main political parties are continually presented as some high-minded form of consensus that Britain has got all of the major questions figured out. But the rise of UKIP, the Green Party, the SNP and the coming EU referendum tell us that this is in fact not the case at all.

Therefore it is worth going back to Janan Ganesh’s assertion and asking which came first: the chicken or the egg? Are many voters really disengaged and apathetic because they are broadly satisfied with the status quo and an often-artificial consensus between the main political parties? Or is this dull, suffocating consensus actually the reason why so many people are politically disengaged in the first place?

Nothing in Ganesh’s article provides convincing proof that it is the former – that millions of people stay home on election day because they are broadly happy with the way things are. That’s not to say that such people do not make up an element – potentially a sizeable part – of disengaged voters. But even these voters are not excused.

Maybe these people really are content with the status quo and impatient to get on with their lives, more concerned with moving up the property ladder or buying the latest iDevice to show off to their friends than they are with tedious subjects like welfare reform or the EU referendum.

But such people should be criticised and urged to step up, not praised or held out as an proof that the system “works”. There is nothing noble about forgetting one’s duties as a citizen as soon as one reaches a position of economic comfort and security. Having 2.4 children, a house with a paid-off mortgage and some cash in the bank does not alleviate one’s responsibility to think about how best to secure prosperity, security and freedom for everyone else. And so long as the state has the power to regulate the things which we are allowed to drink, smoke, eat, read, hear, associate with or say, we are derelict in our duty as citizens if we blithely ignore what the government of the day is doing.

Janan Ganesh does an excellent job of summarising where we are, of describing what Britain is like at the moment. But where he and I part company is our differing view of whether the status quo is anything to be remotely pleased about.

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Stop Worshipping ‘Centrist’ Voters – They Are Responsible For Britain’s Woes

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First published at the Conservatives for Liberty blog

What exactly constitutes the political centre, anyway? Is it even a real thing? And why are we so in thrall to something so vague and ill-defined?

The political centre ground: people talk about it all the time. It is meant to represent the silent majority, that great conclave of wise and sage-like citizens who – unlike us hotheated partisan folk with our strong beliefs and awkward ideals – remain serenely above the political fray, calmly and methodically weighing competing policies against each another before arriving at their pragmatic, irreproachable voting decision on polling day.

Every British political party leader since Thatcher left office has been in hot pursuit of the political centre ground, happily throwing established party orthodoxy and revolutionary thinking alike out the window, preferring to court the good opinion of people who took a good look at Labour’s managed decline of the 1970s and the Tory individualism of the 1980s, and, Goldilocks-like, decided that they prefer something half way between the two, thank you very much.

But who are these political centrists? Do they actually exist, or are they an artificially created demographic, an amorphous and shifting blob of people whom the pollsters have not yet found a better way to categorise?

It’s a relevant question, because you can be assured that British politics for the next five years – or at least, the narrative around politics constructed by the media – will be all about the political centre, and which party is doing the better job of wooing it approaching the 2020 general election.

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