It’s time for the Remain campaign to talk about change

There are a lot of similarities between the EU referendum and the recent one on Scottish Independence. One is the tedious focus on money, when the issues at stake are much more important that. Another is the difficulty of making an exciting case for keeping things the same. Another is the Leave/Yes campaign’s curious belief that, while the politicians in the further away place are incompetent and self-interested, those closer to home are much better (and don’t expect that line of argument to continue much beyond 24th June, regardless of which way the result goes!).

Then there’s the Leave/Yes campaign’s talk about “taking back power”, though surely the only people whose power would really increase are the politicians at the heart of that campaign, and their cronies. And there’s the wild, unwarranted optimism of the Leave campaign, insisting that post-break-up negotiations with the rest of the Union would be amicable and constructive – about as realistic as divorcing your spouse but still hoping to come home for dinner every night.

And, more generally, there’s the gloomy opinion that the Union is so flawed that leaving it can only improve matters, which sounds a bit like optimism but isn’t. A bleak but profound joke in the novel The Cellist of Sarajevo is that “a pessimist says ‘Oh dear, things can’t possibly get any worse.’ and an optimist says, ‘Don’t be so sad. Things can always get worse.”

And, lastly, there’s the way that, just like in 2014, the polls are getting closer as the election looms, and that the Remain/No campaign is starting to get nervous. In 2014, the response of the stay-in-the-Union campaign (which, then as now, helpfully included the prime minister) was to start making promises that staying in the Union would still result in positive changes. And that was a good thing, because we’ve all still got to live here after the vote, and even if only 49% of the population votes to Leave, that’s still a lot of people who’re so unhappy with the status quo that they were ready to consider drastic action. Back then, the promise was of further devolution. This time it will have to be different.

I think it should start with a reminder of the benefits the EU brings to all of us: our right to travel through Europe without paperwork, and to have access to healthcare while we’re there; our right to appeal to one more court if we feel that the British justice system is failing us; the much-maligned rules that prevent companies from selling us dangerously unsafe products. And much more.

And then it needs to turn to the difficult subject of immigration.

It needs to recognise that communities in Britain are changing, but to remind people that leaving the EU won’t suddenly bring back a time when everyone in town spoke with the same accent and supported the same national football team. It needs to remind us that immigration really does benefit the country as a whole but, crucially, to recognise that, at the moment, it doesn’t necessarily benefit everyone. It needs to accept that as people move around – within the country, as well as into the country – that this does cause some problems, but to make the case that there are better ways to deal with these than trying to stop people from moving around.

And this is the big promise I would like to hear in the next few days: that as communities expand, funding will follow, and follow fast, for the additional public services that are needed, whether it’s GPs or school places or social housing or anything else.

And, hopefully, with a strong message about how a vote to Remain is still compatible with wanting change, we’ll get a clear Remain vote on Thursday and can put the issue of EU membership to rest for another 42 years or so.

* Malcolm Wood is a LibDem member in Edinburgh West, and former GE candidate in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.

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21 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 16th Jun '16 - 9:51am

    ‘Another is the Leave/Yes campaign’s curious belief that, while the politicians in the further away place are incompetent and self-interested, those closer to home are much better..

    Who is it that has said this?

    ‘And this is the big promise I would like to hear in the next few days: that as communities expand, funding will follow, and follow fast, for the additional public services that are needed, whether it’s GPs or school places or social housing or anything else.’

    Sorry, but I really don’t know what to say to this. I’d like such a fund in the same way that I’d rather like motherhood and apple pie. Even if I did think that it was possible to set up GP/Schools/houses fast then I’d still think that this was somewhat missing the point. The big problem I think that many have with the EU (even if it’s not articulated well) is a lack of reciprocity. What is needed here is not LESS free movement, or taxpayer funds optimistically following immigrants, rather it is MORE free movement. Free movement is more than two weeks in Magaluf with a short passport queue. What would sort out the EU in the UK is a million dislocated workers all heading for housing/in-work welfare to the East European countries. Yes, this is all nicely reciprocal on paper, but it really, really isn’t that simple.

    As to the rest of it, I guess we all have to make our own minds up. I know there will be an economic downside, I know there is a benefit to European co-operation and I know a LEAVE win will give us the Tory headbangers. It’s just that as I look at the EU now I really don’t know if I’ll be able to bring myself to cross a box saying more of the same please.

    I’ll take my kicking now.

  • The real question is why the Liberal Left didn’t anticipate these arguments beforehand and demand a proper negotiation from Cameron.

    This article encapsulates the stuffy orthodoxies that have bedevilled the Remain campaign. It’s all `why won’t they fall into line?` rather than tying up the loose ends to promote a strong offer.

    (And, hopefully, with a strong message about how a vote to Remain is still compatible with wanting change, we’ll get a clear Remain vote on Thursday and can put the issue of EU membership to rest for another 42 years or so.)

    Good luck with that one – when the Euro falters and we get more and more integration that impacts on our poorest communities the insurgent force (however it manifests itself) will impact directly on the Lib Dems ability to gain Labour council seats and will effect the body politic for those 42 years.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Jun '16 - 10:55am

    Good thoughtful article. Leave speakers use a lot of very short slogans and then ask the question, which is a familiar sales style. For instance Tory Eurosceptic Daniel Hannon MEP ask “If the UK was not in the EU would we join now?”.
    Daniel Finkelstein takes a page of The Times (£) to answer on 15/6/2016. He is a former member of the SDP, a former Owenite and now a Tory peer, supporting Remain.
    He takes us back to Harold Macmillan’s application, why he applied, how he thought it would turn out, where we are now. I remember the surge of patriotism in the UK at that time.
    “Since 1973 we have grown faster than Germany, France, Italy and even the US. And in the single market era we have grown by 62per cent while Germany has grown by 35 per cent. And Switzerland, which is outside the EU but a member of the European free Trade Area? 48 per cent.” “It admits that the EU does not dictate our laws and economic model. We have been able to diverge, rather than converge, with our neighbours.”
    We should assume that if we hadn’t joined the EU we would be as strong as we are now economically and diplomatically.
    But Macmillan didn’t think we would be and neither has a single serving Prime Minister since”.

  • The big problem with this line of argument is that over 70% of the population want lower immigration. It’s not about listening or changing the narrative. It doesn’t divide neatly into remain and leave or young and old or even rich and poor. There is more to a country or society than economics and the market place. In the end it’s going to come down to doing something.
    One of the things that is frustrating about this debate is that liberal and progressive parties seem incapable of understanding that you get populism when the disconnect between what governments do and what the electorate want is too big.

  • Malcolm Wood 16th Jun '16 - 11:50am

    Glenn, if over 70% of the population say they want lower immigration, it’s worth asking “why?”. Is it racism? Is it xenophobia? Or is it that they feel they’ll lose out to the people that are arriving? If it’s the last of these (and let’s hope that mostly it is!), then my point is that there are things that can be done to help, without restricting movement. And then the only people left complaining would be the actual racists and xenophobes, hopefully in small enough numbers that they can be ignored.

  • Malcolm, your response to opponents of immigration is “Here’s half an answer to your concerns, it has been wrung out of Remain at the last moment, it is not a real promise, and it will be easy for us to go back on it once we’ve won the referendum. So you’re happy now, aren’t you!”

    To which the typical opponent of immigration will respond “Don’t you dare call me a racist, I think the country is just plain full, I think we should have control, I don’t trust you to give me this sop that you say you will give me, and anyway, it’s not enough to change my mind. You arrogant politicians need a kicking, and that’s what I’m going to give you!”

    Sorry Malcolm, I’ll give you some credit for trying, but the voters won’t.

  • Malcolm
    To me the question isn’t why people want lower immigration. It’s why a minority policy overrides the majority wishes in a democracy. Really. advocates of mass immigration have more grip on policy than their minority view warrants.

  • jedibeeftrix 16th Jun '16 - 4:25pm

    @ glen – “One of the things that is frustrating about this debate is that liberal and progressive parties seem incapable of understanding that you get populism when the disconnect between what governments do and what the electorate want is too big.”

    Sadly, the answer is probably something along the lines of; 70% may be against, but the 30% left is our unique liberal niche! Which sadly ignores the fact that this just isn’t the way politics works in a fptp adversarial political society.

  • Glenn
    The EU requires its members to take an open, democratic, and non-discriminatory approach and policies. Are you saying that if (somehow) a majority of people in a country demand that discriminatory policies be implemented, that the Government should supply them? I wonder why I opposed the former apartheid policies of South Africa for so long if that is where we are heading. It is sometimes incumbent on governments to take the right, not the popular decision. It is what liberals do, and have always done.

  • A promising title but a disappointing article.

    For some weird reason I am unable to fathom most Lib Dems including the leadership appear unable to contemplate any reform of the EU that goes beyond minor and essentially unimportant course corrections. Yet fundamental change is necessary if the EU is to survive let alone thrive.

    In domestic politics Lib Dems fundamental policy objectives include constitutional reform (especially STV and Lords) and pushing power down to the lowest practical level, a.k.a. subsidiarity. The EU’s existing constitution is top down and technocratic over bottom up and democratic. As such it profoundly violates our core constitutional aims in domestic politics yet somehow gets a free pass from Lib Dems with only lip service paid to the need for reform and no discernable thinking about the root and branch changes that are needed.

    Inevitably, with such an inappropriate structure the EU doesn’t work (except perhaps for a tiny handful of bureaucrats and bankers). For the rest it’s leaving a mounting trail of human wreckage and broken dreams across the continent, most obviously in Greece, but widely now and spreading steadily. The EU may often use liberal-sounding terminology but it’s emerged as a neoliberal monster. That’s the same trick that cancer uses, ‘non-self’ masquerading as ‘self’ and thereby evading detection and attack.

    Across Europe there is a rising tide of euro-scepticism but not against the idea of a united Europe, I think, only against this toxic version. Yet the Commission will never support meaningful reform, it must be forced on them so Lib Dems should be making common cause with mainland European groups to offer people hope. How strange then (and how strategically inept) that Lib Dems have meekly accepted that the fight should be on UKIP’s ‘little Englander turf, framed as Britain vs. foreigners.

  • Tim 13
    Apartheid was a white minority denying rights to and ruling over a black majority on the grounds that they didn’t think that Black Africans should decide who should govern their country. Aside from being extremely racist it was incredibly undemocratic as it was based on the idea that a country should be run according to the wishes of a minority.

    Also on immigration The EU already does have a highly discriminatory policy which allows free movement to Western Europeans, but no to nations outside the EU.

    I just think government policy should largely reflect the decisions of a majority otherwise why bother pretending to believe in representative democracy?

  • Jedibeeftrix.
    It’s even more stark than that because when the do survey attitudes, and there have been such surveys, the remaining 30% or so includes don’t knows and undecideds!

  • Malcolm Wood 17th Jun '16 - 9:44am

    Gordon, sorry to have disappointed you by talking only about change in Britain, and not about changing the EU. Right now, of course, Britain’s attempts to change the EU have largely failed. But, in my view, the EU still isn’t so bad that we should leave, and changes in Britain can make more people feel the benefit of our membership.

  • Bill le Breton 17th Jun '16 - 10:03am

    I agree with Gordon. There is a further factor mitigating against reform. Isn’t it the case that meaningful reform would require a Treaty and that now more and more countries are committed to referenda to sign off treaties?

    The Commission won’t risk that, nor would individual Governments back them if they did, certainly not after France and the Netherlands voted against the Constitution way back in the relatively halcyon days of 2005.

  • John Probert,
    The term Little Englander does indeed date back to the 19th Century, but as far as I know, it was used to chide Liberal objection to involvement in the Second Boer War. In other words its about lack of empire spirit, not openness.

    I would say most countries are tribal. To be honest, I think some you guys are fearful of representative democracy and view a large number your fellow citizens as dangerous. And let’s be we’re not talking about ending all immigration. we’re talking about placing some controls on it . It’s not like we’re suddenly going to follow the Japanese model.

  • All difficult subjects have to be debated. The Liberal Left has a blind spot on immigration it’s like a dirty word. We need migration – yet it’s only Northern Europe that seems to be impacted by the potential of unlimited migration. Interestingly no one seems to suggest to Trudeau that Canada should have the same unlimited migration to Canada. Double standards.Usually people that are against planned balanced migration are those that are least affected by it particularly if they live in London that has the wealth and levers of privilege to soak it up.

    I find Londoners tend to think that everywhere is like London without thinking of the impacts on those at the bottom of the Labour market elsewhere. Politicians should be made to do some canvassing in a totally different constituency than their own for about once a year.

    London isn’t like everywhere else. Vote Leave haven’t acted in an aggressive way – Farage has. The same way that IS isn’t the same as muslims – but better to demonise people to suppress the issue for another decade eh? I defy anyone to say whether Johnson/Leadsom have said anything racist. If you think that these things shouldn’t be discussed at all then you’re not a democrat and are a contributor to the worries people have on immigration.

  • I agree with jane.
    I just wish I was hearing voices for a better world for our poorer fellow British citizens. Instead all I hear, as per this article, are dismissive platitudes for the poor in Britain, and a deafening clamour to maintain privilege for the already privileged, all overseen by a Praetorian chattering class.

  • Malcolm Wood – For various reasons I will, in fact, vote for REMAIN but with fingers firmly crossed that we get a sea-change in approach to the EU whereby reformers join hands across Europe to force change. For, despite the clear lesson of history that those who refuse change eventually collapse in chaos (e.g. French & Russian revolutions), the EU is doing precisely that – denying that change is possible and carrying on more or less as usual.

    The result is that the EU establishment is much, much weaker than they dare let on. Under their watch the economy of much of Europe has been devastated, youth unemployment is off scale and there is a rapidly metastasising banking crisis. This can’t go on which is why anti-EU sentiment is rising everywhere. The Chinese would say the EU is rapidly losing the “Mandate of Heaven” meaning its basic legitimacy. You say that “attempts to change the EU have largely failed”. If by that you meant Cameron’s recent attempt then I suggest it was never aimed at reforming the EU but only at healing Tory rifts – and even then it failed abysmally as this link neatly summarises.

    https://mishtalk.com/2016/06/14/camerons-deceit-and-lies-revisited-what-he-promised-what-he-delivered/

    All this leaves an open goal for reformers, a real opportunity to show leadership towards a better EU by demanding positive change. Bill le Breton makes the very good point that the EC and some governments now see referenda as too risky. I agree, but would add that the EU in supporting the TTIP and CETA deals proposes unconstitutionally to hand legal and judicial powers over to corporate appointees. That suggests they are happy to try when lobbyists ask, just not when people ask. Secondly, the direction of travel in recent years has been to centralise and homogenise so that’s why referenda have run into strong opposition. Reforms that proposed sensible ways of pooling sovereignty where necessary while retaining local or national control elsewhere might just prove very popular.

    Of course, all this does presuppose some limited ability to formulate policy which the Lib Dems don’t have – but then that’s another hobbyhorse of mine.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Jun '16 - 9:36pm

    Gordon

    The result is that the EU establishment is much, much weaker than they dare let on. Under their watch the economy of much of Europe has been devastated, youth unemployment is off scale and there is a rapidly metastasising banking crisis.

    So doesn’t this suggest we need European coordination to change things?

    I don’t think the cause of what is observed here is the EU at all. However, it makes it an easy diversion to put the blame on the EU, doesn’t it? Especially for economic right-wingers who are the ones really to blame, that is why Brexit is being funded and led by the most extreme of that sort.

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