They are encouraged by a YouGov opinion poll, which for the first time showed a slight plurality for a second referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal last month. Kier Starmer seems to think such a referendum would be a good idea, and even John McDonnell refused to rule it out.
Yet's an odd campaign, led as it is by many of the same people who have warned of the dangers of simple yes/no votes. Too easily leveraged by demagogues. Little real popular input. The 'taking back control' element is extraordinarily brief and limited. You get to say 'yes' or 'no' to a question, a problem, you didn't formulate, and whose implementation you won't control either way. What sort of People's Vote is that?
Nonetheless, that isn't my primary issue with it. Referenda can sometimes be a point of popular, democratic assembly and mobilisation. That, ironically, is what many of the Hard Remainers dislike about them. And besides, this isn't really about 'taking back control' any more than the first referendum was. It's simply about cancelling the initial result which, to the campaigners, was a disaster. If that could be accomplished by court action, or by the crown-in-parliament, it's fair to say that most of them would be happy with that. They can't, so they're doing this, and that's their prerogative.
No, my main disagreement is with the left-wing of this campaign. Of course, those on the Left who are actually passionately pro-EU could comfortably fit in a Euston pub. The opposition to Brexit was largely negative, owing to the sinister, racist, authoritarian, fanatically 'free market' orientations of those dominating the Brexit camp. The majority of the Left nonetheless rightly reacted to the result by quickly accepting it, since yet another democratic vote overturned in favour of the EU would not be a good look, and might stimulate reaction for years to come.
But a minority have always wanted to overturn the result. Another Europe Is Possible is their main vector. That hip and happening outfit who performed so spectacularly well during the referendum. They have joined a broad coalition encompassing liberals, the Labour Right, Gary Lineker, The Independent, most of big business, the Tory Remainers, and the senior civil service, who want to overturn the result. Admittedly, there may be worse coalition partners. Nigel Farage. But it's their being part of any coalition on this issue at all that I think is a waste of time.
Manuel Cortes makes the case for this position well in his Left Foot Forward article. Essentially, his case is that on leaving the neoliberal EU, Britain will still find itself "a capitalist country within a neoliberal world", one step closer to recalibrating "Britain as deregulated tax haven on European shores", where the costs of the economic shock attending Brexit will fall on the working class, with welfare cuts and attacks on organised labour ensuing. But the good news is that the public has turned against Brexit, and the majority of parliamentarians are against it. And so, no to "Brexit appeasement" and yes to a "People's Europe".
Now let's just go through this in reverse order. Whence this "People's Europe"? The European institutions are even more resistant to popular pressure, and even less democratic, than the national states participating in them. Is the European Commission ripe for socialist capture? Are decades of legislation pertaining to competitiveness, state aid and budgets vulnerable to collapse provided Britain reverses its decision to leave? I don't foreclose struggles for reform, but this "People's Europe" is even more of an hallucinogenic fantasy than "Lexit". As for "Brexit appeasement", that is choice little jingoistic turn of phrase to refer to the acceptance of defeat in a once-in-a-lifetime democratic referendum in which the overwhelming resources were on the side of Remain.
Moving on. We are told that the public has turned against Brexit. I'm sorry, what? That is not what has happened. Yes, in a poll carried out after the Chequers deal, a plurality, 42 per cent said they wanted a second referendum. That is indicative of a shift in opinion. But 100 minus 42 equals 58 by my counting. And at any rate, those supporting a second referendum aren't all supporting it for Remain purposes. A fifth of Leave supporters want a second referendum, presumably so that they can make sure that May doesn't sell out their side, a concern of many reactionaries since Chequers. Even if a campaign by a minority of the Left, acting as a radical flank to a mainly liberal campaign, can tilt the balance, it doesn't follow that this is likely to result in a new referendum: Martin Kettle outlines the salient obstacles to that outcome here.
Then to the matter of the consequences of Brexit. These are not as straightforward as they may have seemed before June 2017. Or, before Chequers. Taking Chequers first, one thing it signalled fairly clearly is that May's tough talk about hard Brexit from 2016 was just that. It was a negotiating stance that failed. The threat of Britain becoming a deregulated offshore tax haven is real enough if the process is administered by the Ukippers and the hard Tory Right. While May and her co-ideologues will undoubtedly transfer the costs of Brexit to workers where possible, they are not signed up to the 'tax haven' solution.
And then there's the Labour Party. Cortes lauds the 2017 election manifesto. I'm not sure he's taking on board its significance. The point of having an activist, interventionist state, is that one no longer has to do things on neoliberal terms. In other words, one doesn't have to accept the blackmail according to which you acquiesce or you lose jobs, wages and taxes. That's the neoliberal blackmail in a nutshell, and its persuasive power always depended fundamentally on the idea that there is no alternative. What if there is an alternative? Even if it isn't a "socialist phoenix", it changes the equation, and forces a different and less caricatured conversation.
The strongest part of Cortes's case is that leaving the neoliberal EU, Britain will still be part of a neoliberal world. In other words, a range of global institutions, trade and financial bodies, from the WTO to the IMF, will continue to have a pronounced role in how British capitalism is governed. Nevertheless, there are certain specific constraints that come with membership of the European Union. May's soft Brexit plan, of course, did not address those: why should it? But a government of the Left, with a suitable flexibility of tactics, could address it.
The point I'm making is that, setting aside phoenixes and appeasement and other such shopworn imagery, there are ways to adapt to Brexit, to protect workers, and even make something of an opportunity out of the relinquishing of eg state aid rules. This is no longer a terrain in which the outcome has to be settled by the most reactionary elements in our political life. Moreover, given this, if the agenda is to fight for any kind of "People's Europe", that would surely not be helped by a rush of the loyalist Left to rejoin these institutions and acquiesce to these rules. If there is a route to a People's Europe, it is surely through the crisis of those institutions.
Every choice is a renunciation. Every decision comes with opportunity-costs. There are a million possible ways to waste your time. In politics, there being so many issues, you have to be parsimonious. You hammer away, relentlessly, at the biggest prize, the biggest opportunity. If you make the wrong choice, that is wasted money and labour-hours. Prioritising a quixotic campaign to save Britain's position in the European Union is, for the Left, a waste of its energies. It would be far better placed dedicating its forces to a creative project -- for which, slogans regarding a "People's Europe" are an exceedingly poor, emaciated substitute.