For our party and its supporters in the country the last few years have brought one defeat after another: local councils, devolved government, national government, AV referendum, now the EU referendum. There is a limit to the number of times a boxer can climb back up off the floor. What fortifies me is the adage that winners are losers who never give up. And perhaps we should think bigger: not as a small party with an 8% core vote but the centre of gravity of a broad movement of 48% of voters who chose Remain.
The first step in responding to defeat has been to look for scapegoats: the people who led a poor and failing campaign. Cameron has gone and (hopefully) Corbyn and Osborne are going. But in truth the Remain campaign as a whole failed to grasp the strength of the opposing coalition: not just conservative pensioners who want the past back but the’ left behind ‘who have suffered declining living standards and public services, the Commonwealth voters who felt Europe was at their expense and many who felt this was the best way to give an unpopular and unrepresentative government a good kicking.
That is why we have to approach the result with some humility. There is nothing to be gained by denial: crying foul. We wuz robbed, ref. I see petitions demanding a re-run, legal challenges and appeals to parliament to ‘do something’. Dream on. Of course the Leave campaign was mendacious; of course the referendum shouldn’t have happened; of course parliament was negligent in not building in thresholds. But the public was clearly told by both sides that the result would be final. And there was a big turnout. That is it..
The other unhelpful response is to try to rerun the debate,: ‘make the case for Europe”, again, better, in the hope that somehow we can prevent the inevitable happening by pretending last Thursday never happened. Sorry. Let’s get real.
Some argue that there should be a commitment to a second referendum to ratify the results of the renegotiations and then, somehow, get back to where we were.. Again, this is hiding reality behind procedural dodges. Anyway, the end point is years away. And surely parliament should accept responsibility which it has shamefully ducked over this referendum.
Then there is the hope that a General Election in the autumn will provide an opportunity for a fight back. An election is possible. And Lib Dems would certainly benefit. But is it likely? The process of calling an election within a fixed term parliament is complex and difficult. It requires a majority greater than the government’s. Why would Labour turkeys vote for Xmas? Or Nats put at risk their hegemony ? Or, for that matter, the Tories risk letting in a batch of Ukippers. We have to be ready for an election but also recognise that it is far from certain.
What is needed is something which reaches beyond the tribe and doesn’t rely on conventional party politics within the existing structures. Somehow we have to try to give direction and hope to those who voted to remain but are now fragmented, demoralised and frightened. We must confront the Leave leadership, who have no idea what to do next, with a post-Brexit programme which respects the result but retains the outward-looking, inclusive values of those who voted to remain: many moderate Tories, Lib Dems, most of the Left, business people and trades unionists, most young people. The 48 Movement.
Concretely that means aiming for a form of close association with the EU which keeps those things which we collectively value. These include economic integration through trade, environmental and social protections, human rights, cross-border cooperation on security and defence: crucially, the values rather than the institutions. It is for the post Brexit Conservative government to take full responsibility for negotiating its way through the many obstacles including unfriendly European governments. What we need now is a coherent opposition , based on the wider 48 Movement, which will hold its feet to the fire.
A movement of the kind I envisage would start with a set of propositions which would form the basis for campaigning and political action.. My list is short and not everyone will share my priorities. But, here is a start
Fighting the Brexit Recession.
There will be an economic shock as the Governor of the Bank of England, the IMF and others have warned. This is how Brexit will affect ordinary people. I already hear many reports of businesses cancelling investment plans. Consumer confidence is plummeting. Once the reality sinks in the Right will reach for their traditional remedies: scrapping labour protection and environmental regulation; further cuts in public spending.
We need a rescue plan which recognises the reality that there are no easy ways of dealing with a recession caused by a collapse of confidence. There will need to be a radical programme of public investment to stave off unemployment, making a break with the Osborne obsession with rapid cuts in public borrowing and taking advantage of very low interest rates to borrow to invest. There is a stalled rail investment plan to revive. Councils and housing associations must start building houses to offset the impending collapse in private building. There are strong legacies from the Coalition –the Business Bank, the Green Investment Bank, the Regional Growth Fund-to mobilise investment.
Long term planning and industrial strategy.
Business confronts massive uncertainty. There is a danger of investment slowly leaking away. Skills and innovation will dry up. There will be an urgent need for a national plan, getting business and government working together to coordinate skill training, business finance, public procurement, exports and research. The Coalition’s long-term industrial strategy was working well but has been allowed to decay; it urgently needs reviving.
Here I will be controversial. I have always been liberal on immigration and believe that it is good for the country. But it is blindingly obvious that the perception of uncontrolled EU immigration cost us the referendum. Not just Daily Mail reading pensioners but working class, Labour, voters and even many Asians who felt discriminated against. In truth the current position is totally unsustainable. Non-EU migration is being held down doing great harm to universities in particular. At the same time free movement of labour in the EU is wholly uncontrolled. I believe we must accept the political reality that there should be some control over migration from the EU. (exempting Ireland for obvious reasons) within a broadly liberal regime. This will however make it difficult to retain Single Market status unless the EU becomes less dogmatic. It may be that the Conservative government will have the responsibility of telling its friends in the City that some of them will have to be sacrificed. To govern is to choose.
One of the biggest dangers moving forward is that the UK fragments: not just Scotland and N Ireland but successful parts of England (London, Manchester, Cambridge, Bristol) demanding to keep more of their tax revenue at the expense of poorer areas. The Scottish problem is most immediate and, if I were Scottish, I would feel like voting for independence in Europe. It may be that economics might make independence unattractive fight now but in the longer term the only thing which will keep the union together is the emergence in England of a powerful movement with the same liberal and social democratic values.
More broadly, the process of devolution in England will, and should, gather pace but must be done in a way which supports the ‘left behind’ as well as the successful. That cannot happen if the Conservative government keeps eroding the financial base of local government: another reason for demanding a fundamental rethink of fiscal policy.
There is no doubt that seething resentment over widening inequalities in the wake of the financial crisis played a big role in boosting the Brexit vote. Production line workers at Nissan in Sunderland and JLR in the Midlands simply ignored company advice. Low pay and insecure jobs have taken their toll. In the post-Brexit world, issues like executive pay and the taxation of incomes and property will have to be revisited in a more progressive spirit.
There are people more skilled than I in crafting slogans and writing manifestos and others will have a different view about the key essentials .
But if we were to develop a programme around which a wide segment of the population could unite, there is then the issue of how to deliver the programme politically.. Within the current parliament the government has a small majority and most MP’s are Remainers. The Lords is a formidable obstacle to damaging legislation. So , there are realistic prospects of stopping seriously bad outcomes.
But more is at stake than parliamentary arithmetic. It seems likely that the Labour Party will split. It is more than possible that many Conservatives will look to leave when they grasp the scale of the havoc their party leaders have wrought. We could well be facing a major realignment. Our party can play a leadership role if it is willing to be part of it. That is why we need to define, now, what a broader movement would fight for.
* Vince Cable was MP for Twickenham from 1997-2015 and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills from 2010-2015