Back in March, I posited how a radical Remain campaign might win a second referendum by learning the lessons of 2016. Since then, everything and nothing has changed. Following a surreal impasse where all power seemingly receded to Westminster, amendment-mongering has given way to panic in the form of Nigel Farage. May is finished, whilst my own party, Labour, confronts a moment of decision. Mark Drakeford has called it and we are told that Wales is a Remain nation. So be it.
In truth, Farage has forced further polarisation. Whilst the Leave vote has consolidated under his banner, Remain appears to have fragmented in four directions across Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.
For Corbyn’s Labour, the evaluation is ruthlessly simple. Not only will a hard/no deal Brexit spell economic catastrophe for Wales but will also introduce conditions to preclude the development of a radical electoral project. Notwithstanding its impact on SMEs, the block grant and consequential funding, I foresee a political ‘nuclear winter’ in which confidence and hope withers. If we accept that no Westminster Labour government has ever been elected during a recession, we also recognise the need to prevent a ‘Tory Brexit’ at all costs.
Acknowledging the parliamentary challenge, the logic of necessity increasingly favours a referendum and, by implication, not only a position and message capable of winning but also a keen understanding of Remains cardinal adversary.
Hannah Arendt described a particular sort of politician who sold ‘access to history at the price of catastrophe’. The interesting feature of this transaction is that the voter is fully aware of the risk that they undertake. While Farage has toured at least fifty UK towns since his comeback gig in Clacton-on-Sea, the message has remained consistent: ‘oust the elites’ and ‘what would Brexit mean to [us]? National pride – you can’t put a value on that!’.
Under normal circumstances this would sound ridiculous but consider a very real world in which liberal voices pointed to the remote dividends of the UK’s EU membership and invited the poor to make common cause. What did this achieve other than deepening alienation and a sense of legitimate grievance? Farage is more than a bromide – it is not that they believe him. Rather, we have given them no reason to believe us.
To build a winning coalition, it thus becomes essential that Remain focuses its undivided attention on explaining how our EU membership can be made to credibly satisfy the very real economic demands of Welsh working-class communities. Cast aside any illusions: this is the only way in which the consent of working class soft-leavers will be gained. They are not interested in reforming EU institutions. I know from knocking doors that many remain unconvinced by the all too credible predictions of further economic damage. Visit Merthyr or Torfaen and you will see that many people already live amongst the uncleared debris of the previous crises of deindustrialisation and the 2008 crash.
Moreover, in devising a successful offer, we need to understand that much of this ground has already been toxified. Farage indicts Remain as an elite’s cynical attempt to maintain its privilege even at the cost of democratic freedom. Consequently, talking about Horizon, Erasmus or anything else outside people’s immediate experience will only serve to catalyse that anger. Rather the message must speak directly to working-class leavers’ lived experience and priorities. Put bluntly, it must answer the question; “If the EU makes us so much money – why am I so bloody poor”?
So what worked in Ely, Pentrebane and Glyncoch? Give this whirl: ‘Stay or leave, the rich will just try to get richer. The EU generates a shed-load of wealth for a privileged few. What we need to do is tax that wealth and bring it back to you, your kids and community’.
If this sounds too simple, go out and try it for yourself. Who would have thought that roughly four in every ten Leavers prefers the notion of taxing grotesque concentrations of domestic wealth to exiting a remote supranational body whose meaning is derived chiefly from instrumental resentment?
Granted, this is not a policy as much as a meme. That said, it can be made policy. Already, a number of economists and at least one leading tax expert are engaged in scoping a hypothecated wealth tax which can be levied against the dividend of our membership. Their task is made easier by the blizzard of projections released both by government and professional organisations. In all, it will soon be possible to place a GDP value on that ‘dividend’.
Similarly, the excellent work undertaken by Eurfyl ap Gwilym reveals the potential power of a GDP-linked uplift. Making our continued membership a basis for a radical settlement based around redistribution can thus be expected to raise additional billions for Wales every year. Just consider what might be achieved over a five- to ten-year period. Not only would Welsh Government secure the resources to undertake meaningful strategic investment, but also the fiscal flexibility to make money directly available to communities. This is how we build power.
Of course, all of this assumes a good degree of political will and an excellent relationship between Cardiff and London. To that end, and discounting the miraculous ascension of Rory Stewart, we can rule out a pathway which maintains a Conservative prime minister.
Either way, my proposal offers an urgently needed point of departure. In addressing the key demands of working-class leavers it stretches Brexit’s meaning beyond the dull phrase of ‘honouring the vote’. Moreover, in presenting a hard-headed transaction, it puts the Brexit Party on the back foot. After all, it is one thing for a ‘metropolitan elite’ to arraign Nigel as a minted opportunist; it’s quite another to say that we are going to lift up everybody by taxing rich beneficiaries (such as Nigel Farage).
But there is a very real bill attached. If hope lies with us proles, consent must come at a money price. Those who, having accumulated much of their massive wealth from the UK’s membership of the world’s premier trading block, should dig deep, for as my old communist nan used to say, nice things cost money!
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