Can anyone actually stop Brexit?
Possibly, but forget about new political parties
photo courtesy of stubblepatrol.com
by Olaf Stando
Twenty-one months since the referendum, the debate is still raging. Despite the never-ending political ping-pong and the word “Brexit” crawling its way into almost every corner of everyday lives, no one is quite sure what Brexit means or what type of Brexit we should have. Or, indeed, whether we should have a Brexit at all.
Some hoped that Theresa May’s recent ‘Road to Brexit’ speech would strike a conciliatory tone and offer some concessions to half of the population that’s increasingly sick and tired of Brexit. It was supposed to bring the country together, but there was nothing in that speech that might count as a substantial concession to Remainers. May’s pitch to Europe is that the UK expects a soft Brexit without having to comply with any of the necessary conditions of a soft Brexit, and it expects the EU to come up with a mechanism to make that work. She wants a soft Brexit, but also a hard Brexit at the same time. She wants no hard border in Ireland, no customs border in the Irish Sea, but she still demands that the whole of the UK is going to leave the customs union and that there’ll be no regulatory divergence. There are ambitious objectives and bold red lines but there isn’t a coherent plan.
After all, Brexit has taught us that the British government still expects that slogans on the side of a bus are realistic options. The UK doesn't merely want to have its cake and eat it; it wants that cake to be full of eggs and cream but still to be suitable for vegans.
The ongoing shambles has to be fixed, and fixed soon. Most MPs in the House of Commons consider Brexit an act of folly. But when the ‘meaningful vote’ in Parliament comes, they will most likely vote against their conscience, because the referendum’s narrow majority for Leave has been invested with an absurd, almost mystical status. No one can even dare question the sacred “will of the people”, in fear of being branded as “saboteurs” by powerful right-wing press and the angry section of the internet. With odd, honourable exceptions, many pro-European Tories and especially Labour MPs seem inclined to let Britain sink rather than make common cause across party lines.
But worry not, there is a new political party on the block that’s coming to save the day. Having launched a few months ago, the Renew party has a grand vision: fielding 650 candidates in the next election and stopping Brexit. They pitch themselves as the moderate, centrist voice; their policy platform is rather vague and still to be developed, but they position themselves as a more effective and dynamic version of the Liberal Democrats. Renew is largely inspired by Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche!, a party that seemingly sprung out of nowhere, gathered large numbers of votes from the left and the right, and swept into power within a year of its founding. Looks simple, doesn’t it?Britain, however, cannot count on a “revolt of the moderates” and a new party will find it inherently difficult to break the two-party system, especially at a time when voters are increasingly polarised. Renew faces its first electoral test when the local elections take place across London and England in May, but so far, they have struggled to garner any significant attention. Pollsters don’t even include them in questions and they have amassed less social media followers than, say, the University of Aberdeen. A party that hardly anyone even heard about cannot stop Brexit, and even if miraculously they can grow, they will have no MPs until the next general election and therefore no tangible impact on the Brexit legislative process.
If Brexit is to be stopped, it has to be done rapidly, as the ticking time-bomb of Article 50 grows ever louder. This requires significant infrastructure: mechanisms that can reach millions of people, thousands of volunteers committed to knocking doors, and most importantly, a political force in Parliament that is committed and powerful enough to, for example, push legislation for a second referendum. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour demonstrated last June that they can inspire scores of young people and change the tectonics of political opinion. Momentum recruited huge numbers of people into political activism and created enthusiasm on unprecedented scale. The problem with the Labour leadership, however, is that it tacitly supports Brexit and some elements of it harbour a deep sense of distrust towards the EU’s economic model. Not all hope is lost. Young people within Labour have become increasingly influential, and young people will be by far the worst affected by the burden of Brexit. So far, the voices of the youth on Brexit – the worst inheritance deal in peacetime history – have been disparate and easy to ignore. Young people have historically been at the forefront of progressive social change, and this time too, we have the capacity to influence this process. Only Labour, combining forces with the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens and some pro-EU Tories, have the tools to stop the government in its tracks and push for a Brexit re-think.
For those of us who are determined to avoid the cliff-edge, it’s time we finally show that we care. What we need is a concerted, well-coordinated social movement that will continue to push Jeremy Corbyn, and then the ’soft Leavers’ in the right direction. A new political party simply won’t have the time and capacity. There is a silent opposition to Brexit in Parliament that’s waiting to be unlocked.