Four waves of mobilization – Election introspection, 2

One impression I often had was of a gulf between the political activity on the ground and that in the media, almost as if the two contests were happening in different countries – the pays réel and the pays virtuel – or even that the contest was one between the canvassers and the opinionators. Maybe it even was. The teams of Labour activists I worked with – a mob of dangerous thugs, apparently – often seemed like some sort of convention for fans of wholesome content compared with the utter bad faith, shameless lying, and relentless pursuit of drama for drama’s sake that passed for media coverage.

I blogged this a few weeks ago:

I think the answer is that the on-stage critics, much as they enjoy the sound and fury and bask in the attention, are rather unsettled by getting what they asked for: actual decisive politics happening in front of them, in Parliament, at the party conferences, and on the doorsteps

Over the last year or so I have been repeatedly surprised to walk past pubs and see a TV showing the BBC Parliament channel. All sorts of democratic muscles have been exercised that haven’t moved in years, and I actually hoped some good might come of this unprecedented public engagement. But a consequence of this is, of course, soreness, and I suspect a big part of the election result came down to exhaustion with so much politics demanding one’s attention. People were asked to think, and as Barbara Castle said, it hurts at first. The detailed results weren’t characterised so much by Labour-Conservative swing as people who voted for us in 2017 drifting away to the Lib Dems, to small parties, or back to Hizb al-Kanapa, the Sofa Party in the wonderful Afghan expression. This seems to have been especially important up north, especially where we didn’t have the numbers of activists to drive the turnout.

Especially as we were explicitly campaigning for more political activity to happen. Here’s an actual doorstep insight:

To my surprise, it was the very idea of a second referendum that seemed the sticking point. It would have almost been comical if it weren’t so sad: as soon as the words “second referendum” or “another public vote” or “final say” left my mouth — and I tried as many variants as I could think of — then shoulders slumped, brows furrowed, heads shook. Lights went out in eyes. This was across the political spectrum, by the data we had: Labour voters, Lib Dems, Tories, don’t knows. From people inclined to remain and to leave.

I didn’t see this so much from voters as from myself. I would do the first bit, perhaps emphasise that an alternative deal had even been tested with the European side, and then feel real dread at the very idea of another godawful referendum. And if I couldn’t find any enthusiasm for it myself, I surely wasn’t going to project any.

Back in 2017, I blogged about three great waves of political mobilization – that for Scottish independence in 2014, that for Brexit in 2016, and that for Labour. There has since been a fourth, for Remain, although whether that meant sacking the government, having another referendum, compromising on single market status, or just supporting centrist politicians was never clear. In fact all of these overlapped; the Scottish one was running strongly enough to mark the elections of 2015 and 2019, the Labour one began before the 2015 elections, the Remain one had begun in earnest in 2016.

The Scots wave has made the SNP hegemonic in Scotland, but despite everything there’s no decisive polling lead for independence, and it’s easy to imagine an equilibrium where the leaders on both sides would be happy: the SNP and Tories gesticulating at each other, but the SNP primarily competing with Labour, and of course the Barnett formula money still flowing. The Brexit one now looks like it’s sure of formal, juridical exit from the EU, although every detail is up in the air, and for the rest, they got another Tory government. This may fall short of their radical aspirations. Labour’s transformed the party, came horribly close in 2017, and created the political space for the fourth, while its failure seems to have closed this astonishing fifth season of political possibility.

The People’s Vote campaign needed a parliament like that of 2015 or 2017 in order to serve any purpose – with a working majority, the Tories could and can ignore it. After Gina Miller and Jeremy Corbyn gave it the only context in which it could do anything, off it went, but to where? Labour got a lot of flak for trying to come up with a compromise position here, but the rest of the Remain coalition was a moving target. Did they – anybody – want another referendum? Had they any idea of how to win it? Would they take a single market-like solution as a compromise?

Without answers to these questions, or any mechanism to answer them, as the movement remained one run top-down by professional political consultants, they drifted in the direction of the most committed people involved, the politicians, who saw themselves as competitors with Labour, as indeed they were. Enemies can cooperate more easily than competitors. And so it came about that the fourth great wave of mobilization, like the others, achieved something but nothing it wanted.

On Twitter, I recalled that everyone in Germany was astonished how quickly after 1989 Politikverdrossenheit, the condition of being exhausted with politics, set in. This is, I think, a hugely underestimated factor and a deeply conservative one.

5 Comments on "Four waves of mobilization – Election introspection, 2"

  1. «Did they – anybody – want another referendum?»

    When in june 2017 85% of voters endorsed a “get brexit done” party, the second referendum campaign was fueled by the media; when in december 2019 55% of voters endorse a “second referendum” party, the second referendum campaign simply evaporated.

    That is only when Corbyn got a large election loss the campaign for a second referendum ended. The Guardian and the FT abruptly stopped their campaign for a second referendum, from daily articles attacking Corbyn for not offering a second referendum or later offering it without a commitment to campaign for “Remain”.
    I reckon that the People’s Vote campaign was simply and entirely anti-Corbyn, solely designed to drive a wedge between him and Labour’s pro-Remain voters, with quite a large chunk of “gullible simpletons” in the role of useful idiots.


    1. What would be the point of running articles about a second referendum? Even if there was some way it could happen it would have to happen within the month!


  2. “Did they [People’s Vote] want another referendum? Had they any idea of how to win it? Would they take a single market-like solution as a compromise?”

    The justification for a second referendum (to possibly reverse the results of the first) would be the flaws in the first one. Promoting a second referendum therefore requires proclaiming loudly the flaws in the first referendum, the misleading claims, the lack of planning, the multiple meanings of Brexit and the bizarre antics of May and Johnson afterwards. Given the vast amounts of media propaganda in favour of “delivering Brexit”, promoting a second referendum would require loud incessant denouncement of the myths of “delivering Brexit”. People’s Vote never did anything like this, despite access to significant resources and supposedly media-savvy people.

    It was all rather like Cameron’s failure to denounce Gove and Johnson during the referendum campaign.


  3. It’s important to realise that the British FPTP system, when working normally (as it has now, by turning a small vote share advantage into a big majority) builds in Politikverdrossenheit. Parliamentary politics is now largely irrelevant for 4 years. The government will push through anything it likes that doesn’t stir poll tax levels of resistance. And poll tax levels of resistance are not only a level up from what even the Remain campaign managed, but also actually depend on specific conditions.

    i.e. What made the poll tax untenable was that they had to collect the money and people refused and went to jail, but there were too many for the jails. You can’t replicate this around Universal Credit as it is a different structure. See also Extinction Rebellion – too many people to arrest, so they just don’t arrest them all. And the system is not threatened deeply by this.


  4. I suspect that most of the people involved with People’s Vote would consider the anti-Poll Tax campaign to be an example of “our Broken Politics”.


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