I have just spent the past three days at two significant gatherings involving progressive politicians, thinkers and activists – one in Liverpool, England, and the other in Montreal, Canada.
The commercial links between Liverpool and Canada go back to the 18th century, when English merchants were busily acquiring timber along the Canadian coast which they imported to England via Liverpool and used for shipbuilding and other purposes – hence the Port of Liverpool’s Canada Dock. But in this instance, the link is less commercial and more political.
The ongoing Labour Party conference commenced over the weekend and Brexit has dominated as an issue. I was at the People’s Vote march and rally, along with more than 5,000 others, that took place on the streets of the city yesterday. It was a fantastic event joined by people of all ages and from all walks of life.
At the same time, an international gathering of progressives from across the globe has been taking place at a summit in Montreal organised by the Global Progress network and think tank which I spoke at the day before. That summit was addressed by Canada’s Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau and the socialist Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez, among others. It focused on work, society and democracy in the digital age. Brexit was a big talking point there too.
The big question in Liverpool was: will Labour’s leadership commit to do what the overwhelming majority of its members, supporters and voters want – backing a final vote on whatever the circumstances of our withdrawal from the EU may be, with the option to remain? The answer: not quite. Nevertheless, Labour has taken an important step in the past 24 hours, not least because attempts to properly debate Brexit at 2017’s conference were blocked and the leadership was pretty much opposed to a vote on the final deal, whatever the circumstances.
Whereas much of the impetus at the outset for the campaign for a people’s vote had come from the progressive centre-left (winning the argument, though not necessarily gaining popularity in the party through doing so), this year many traditionally left-wing groups and trade unions joined the campaign. That has made all the difference in changing the weather in the party on Brexit these past few weeks.
There is still a long way to go. A snap general election is unlikely because it requires the support of Tory MPs who, after last year’s torrid experience, will not vote for another early poll. But if an election does happen, Labour’s manifesto should commit to a vote on the terms of Brexit either way, whether or not the party is in power. It wouldn’t be consistent otherwise.
If there is to be a vote, it obviously should include the option to remain. Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the Unite trade union (Labour’s biggest affiliate), told the BBC yesterday that he was strongly opposed to Remain being on the ballot paper. Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, echoed this today when he told them a people’s vote “should be a vote on the deal itself and then enable us to go back and do the negotiations”, with no option to stay in the EU.
Trying to sell a final vote without a Remain option would be like selling a car without a reverse gear – rather nonsensical. This, as ever, illustrates that trying to shift the Labour leadership into a clear and unequivocal position of opposition to this Tory Brexit has been like running up a down escalator.
Among the most vociferous advocates of the Brexit cause are the populist right, but also many of populist left – which might explain the challenges we have faced in shifting Labour’s Brexit position these past two years. They have ridden the wave of public discontent with globalisation, a key factor that has fuelled the vote to leave the EU and polarised our country.
In this context, how can centre-left progressives ensure that our agenda of inclusive prosperity, poverty and inequality reduction can prevail? Indeed, if we secured a people’s vote with Remain on the ballot paper, what is the key to being successful?
In Montreal, much of the discussion focused on how progressives can build a new coalition of support across the divisions in society. More In Common – a new international initiative set up in 2017 in the wake of the late great Jo Cox’s death to build communities that are stronger, more united and more resilient to the increasing threats of social division – presented some of their research which is to be published in the coming weeks.
They described how typically European electorates are 25 to 35 per cent “cosmopolitan” types with an open, internationalist approach to the world; 15 to 20 per cent are “nationalistic”, with a more closed approach; and 40 to 55 per cent fall into “conflicted middle” groups with a mix of open and closed views.
The “conflicted middle” groups are different to the “Middle England” of the 1990s whose support the two main parties fought over. The new middle groups are against the status quo and think the economy is rigged in favour of a privileged few. Some are more concerned with financial insecurity, others with cultural and identity issues. They have views on some issues that would be considered traditionally left-wing; others that would be considered traditionally right-wing. They are also fed up with the continuing bickering and extreme partisanship in today’s politics.
So, if a people’s vote were successfully secured in parliament – and events in Liverpool show we are not there yet – then any subsequent campaign to stay in the would need to win over this group.
Tim Dixon, co-founder of More In Common, told the summit the key to gaining the conflicted middle’s support is building a “bigger story of us” – an inclusive patriotism focused on what we have in common, a narrative that calls out those who seek to divide us, a platform that explains how we will address the insecurities people face and shows voters “we’ve got your back” in a fast-changing world. That has to be a big part of the progressive mission in the months and years to come.