Since the exit poll dropped on the night of December 12, Britain’s liberal commentariat have lined up to pass judgment on a failed movement. Their columns deride a political force that reached for the stars but landed in the ditch; that insisted on ideological purity and ended up with nothing to show; that ignored public opinion and spent years preaching to the converted before succumbing to the harsh test of electoral reality.
Self-awareness has never been these pundits’ strong suit, so we shouldn’t expect them to realize that they’re describing their own reflection. They rail against Corbynism, but their patronizing strictures could be much more aptly applied to the amorphous movement known as “Continuity Remain.” Boris Johnson’s triumph at the polls was a crushing defeat for the anti-Brexit campaigners of the liberal center. Their strategy has proved to be an abject failure.
That failure is nothing to celebrate. Hard-right, xenophobic nationalism has routed left and center alike in British politics. There’s no point reveling in the eclipse of Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leader who claimed she might become the country’s next prime minister but finished the campaign by losing her own seat. “Swinson for PM” was always a joke; Boris Johnson as PM is the reality everyone will have to cope with for the next five years.
However, it’s important to put on record the catastrophic failings of “Continuity Remain,” because its leading partisans still occupy vital positions of influence — ones that they have no intention of giving up. They’re already hard at work rewriting history and shifting the blame — above all, onto the shoulders of those who repeatedly warned that their approach would end in calamity.
It would be fatuous to scold liberals for not supporting Corbynism, a project that was never their own (although some did claim to support the kind of social-democratic policies that Labour spelled out in its election manifestos). But we can certainly blame them for undermining their own self-proclaimed goal: to stop Brexit, or, failing that, to mitigate its potential consequences.
Continuity Remain largely defined itself in opposition to Labour’s Brexit policy after the 2016 referendum. So it’s worth spelling out again what that policy actually was, and why Labour came to adopt it.
The position set out in Labour’s 2017 manifesto could be summarized as follows: we accept the result of the referendum; it’s not the result we wanted, but people have voted to leave the European Union and we can’t ignore that choice. That doesn’t mean we’re going to give the Tory government a blank check to negotiate any kind of withdrawal deal they like. There are several possible routes out of the EU, some of which would be far more damaging than others. We won’t support a deal that will destroy people’s jobs and living standards, or one that will prepare the ground for a bonfire of social rights and protections.
This was in no way a distinctly “Corbynite” position. Leading figures on the Labour right gave it their firm support in the run-up to the 2017 election: from Tom Watson and Yvette Cooper to Chuka Umunna and Wes Streeting.
The thinking behind it was simple. On grounds of principle, it would have been extremely dubious for politicians to reject the outcome of the referendum altogether. All the major British parties agreed to hold it in the first place, and there were no conditions for a quorum or a supermajority attached before the vote. The turnout was reasonably high, and those who took part voted to leave the EU by a small but decisive margin. Trying to overturn a democratic vote without having made any attempt to honor it would set an ugly precedent for the future.
It might still have been necessary to do so if all possible versions of Brexit were bound to be disastrous, but that simply wasn’t the case. Norway has never belonged to the EU, and there’s no reason to think its citizens are worse off than their neighbors in Sweden or Denmark. A so-called “soft-Brexit” deal would have been a perfectly acceptable framework for Labour to carry out domestic social reforms: a step sideways, not a step backward.
There was also a pragmatic case for Labour’s Brexit platform that could not be ignored or wished away. The Leave/Remain divide cut through the heart of the party’s electoral base. Two-thirds of Labour’s 2015 electorate voted Remain, the rest broke for Leave, but the “Labour Leavers” weren’t spread evenly around the country. Roughly two-thirds of Labour-held constituencies had a pro-Brexit majority in 2016: if all the Labour Leave voters defected to the Conservatives — or just stayed at home on polling day — the party could end up losing dozens of seats. It would be much easier for the Conservatives to win a general election on a hard-line pro-Brexit platform than it would be for Labour to see them off with a clear-cut anti-Brexit stance.
The pundits and politicians who became the leaders of Continuity Remain understood this logic perfectly well. The movement they began to forge after the June 2017 general election was a curious amalgam: an inner core of cynics surrounded by an outer layer of zealots.
For the cynics, it was primarily a vehicle to revive the fortunes of their own political faction, the liberal center: a loose tendency that encompasses Labour’s right-wing current, the Liberal Democrats, and newspapers like the Guardian and the Observer.
That tendency had suffered three major blows in the space of two years. First, it lost control of the Labour Party to Jeremy Corbyn and his allies in the summer of 2015. Then came the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum. But worst of all, from their perspective, was the big increase in support for Labour in the 2017 election. Centrist figureheads had insisted that Corbyn’s leadership was sure to be disastrous: instead, the party managed its best performance since Tony Blair’s second victory in 2001 and would have won the election outright were it not for the post-Brexit Tory surge.
That performance was a vindication of Labour’s Brexit policy. Once again, its electoral coalition split roughly two-to-one between Remain and Leave supporters. Since Labour had added 3.5 million votes to its 2015 score, that meant the party must have gained more Leave voters than it lost to the Conservatives. In 2017, the predicted Tory breakthrough in Leave-supporting areas didn’t really materialize: although the Tories made significant gains in regions like North East England, Labour either matched those gains or surpassed them and kept hold of its seats.
There were two factors that made it possible for Labour to pull off this balancing act. On the Remain side of the party’s voting base, there was a general willingness to accept some form of Brexit, as long as it didn’t seem likely to prove calamitous. Meanwhile, the party’s acceptance of the referendum result held together its Leave vote and shored up its flank against Tory encroachments.
Continuity Remain did everything in its power to upset that balance. Its leaders concentrated all their fire on Labour’s Brexit policy, denouncing it as a betrayal. Many of those leaders had supported that policy before the 2017 election, because they expected Corbyn to be gone soon. But after the election result strengthened Corbyn’s position, they made a cynical U-turn and started a longer-term bid to undermine his leadership — using Brexit as a wedge issue.
Of course, we shouldn’t exaggerate the ability of any political force to shape the course of events. However, the leaders of Continuity Remain had significant resources at their disposal that more authentic social movements could only dream of. Experienced political operators like Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, and Chuka Umunna knew how to play the media and get their message across. They had financial backing from wealthy businessmen like Roland Rudd, who bankrolled the main organizational vehicle of Continuity Remain, the People’s Vote campaign. They also had the support of the liberal broadsheets — a privilege that was never granted to the Corbyn leadership, which faced their unrelenting hostility even though the vast majority of Guardian readers had supported Labour in the 2017 election.
To supplement these political assets, Continuity Remain could call upon its own army of foot soldiers. Daniel Cohen painted a memorable picture of those he called “remainists” in an article published last summer:
Just as only a fraction of the people who supported Margaret Thatcher could be called Thatcherite, voting remain is not enough to make you a remainist. Remainists are the people who keep bringing the conversation back to Brexit. They point out that the referendum was only ever meant to be advisory, and insist that another one is just around the corner. They go on protests. They have strong opinions about Guy Verhofstadt and Sabine Weyand. They worry about chlorinated chicken. They have acquired detailed knowledge of electoral law and can list the Leave campaign’s violations. They light up at any mention of the 2012 Olympics. They wonder what Orwell would have made of all this. They hang the EU flag in their windows.
Anyone who has encountered the Twitter hashtag “FBPE” will recognize the type. This was the outer layer of zealots that gave the anti-Brexit cause much of its impact on social media (just as equally zealous supporters of Corbyn or Scottish independence helped promote those movements online). It included many people from British cultural life — actors, novelists, comedians, philosophers — who had a significant profile in their own right. They used those platforms to amplify the arguments fed to them by the likes of Campbell, Umunna, and the Guardian elite.
Out in the Cold
Exploiting these advantages to the full, the inner core of Continuity Remain worked tirelessly to misrepresent Labour’s Brexit platform and turn the party’s Remain voters against it. Daniel Cohen’s essay helps explain why it was possible for them to do so. As he noted, the liberals who supported the campaign against Brexit had formerly seen themselves as part of Britain’s political mainstream:
Before the referendum, many of the people who have become remainists considered themselves immune to the passions of politics. They tended to hover around the centre ground and didn’t strongly identify with any party. They were used to being on the inside, to being listened to. But since 23 June 2016, remainists have found themselves out in the cold.
Scapegoating Jeremy Corbyn made instinctive sense to these people, because the Labour leader clearly didn’t belong to the mainstream or the center ground in any accepted sense. His sudden arrival at the heart of British politics had come just a few months before the trauma of the Brexit referendum, and it was easy for “remainists” to lump the two phenomena together. That conflation might be illogical and unsupported by the facts — but its emotional resonance still gave it wide currency.
Cohen put his finger on another aspect of “remainism” that made it easy to direct against the Labour leadership:
Remainists often describe Brexit as a distraction from the real problems Britain faces — austerity, inequality, a creaking NHS. Yet those problems existed long before the referendum, without galvanising most remainists in the way Brexit has. For many remainists, in fact, it can feel as if everything else is a distraction: what drives them on is their belief that Brexit is the battle of a lifetime.
Corbyn and his allies really did see Brexit as a distraction, as a problem to be managed and hopefully put to bed as soon as possible. Yet this attitude baffled those who considered the struggle against Brexit to be the great cause of their generation. It was a short step for them to imagine that Labour’s pragmatic line masked a hidden agenda, a desire on Corbyn’s part to “enable Brexit” because he was a “closet Leaver.” And many Labour politicians from the party’s right wing were happy to encourage such conspiracy theories. Even those MPs representing Leave-voting constituencies who stood firmly against a second referendum hid behind Corbyn’s authority, letting him take all the flak for a position really designed to protect their own seats.
This tendency to hold Corbyn personally responsible, not only for Labour’s Brexit policy, but even for Brexit itself, encouraged Remain partisans to catastrophically underestimate their opponents’ strength. Time and again, spokesmen for Continuity Remain insisted that support for Brexit was collapsing, that the scales had fallen from people’s eyes and the outcome of a new referendum would be a foregone conclusion; only Corbyn and his “Brexiteer” advisers stood in the way. Yet the polls told a very different story: while Remain usually had a modest lead in opinion surveys, that was mainly thanks to people who hadn’t been eligible to vote in 2016 joining the electoral register. The Leave constituency itself hadn’t suffered any real attrition, and the outcome of a second vote was impossible to predict.
Those surveys also needed to be handled with care, because they didn’t prove that all or even most “Remain” supporters were hell-bent on securing a new referendum. The pollsters usually asked people how they would vote if there was another chance to do so (or if they now regretted the 2016 result). Simple yes-or-no questions like that could never fully capture the different shades of opinion. More fine-grained polling suggested that many “Remainers” would be happy with a soft-Brexit deal, even if it wasn’t their first preference. The People’s Vote leaders took it for granted that everyone cared about EU membership as much as they did. The idea that people might have other priorities to weigh against Brexit — such as the election of a left-wing government — didn’t feature in their calculations.
Did Labour’s alternative strategy ever stand a chance? Its biggest test came when Theresa May returned with a withdrawal agreement at the end of 2018. When the House of Commons got to vote on May’s deal in January 2019, MPs defeated it by a resounding majority. Labour came forward with its own platform for the Brexit negotiations that set out clearly the terms of a soft-Brexit deal. It was practical and achievable — and the leading EU officials said so publicly.
In a remarkable display of groupthink, the British media ignored those clear statements from EU leaders and dismissed Labour’s alternative blueprint out of hand: it was either a “unicorn” deal, with no purchase on reality, or else indistinguishable from the package May had already negotiated. The Continuity Remain camp took the same attitude. As a result, May faced no public scrutiny for her refusal to engage with Labour’s proposals. With the clock ticking, she clung stubbornly to the terms of her own agreement, refusing to soften it in any way.
Labour’s experience in this period speaks volumes about the hypocrisy and opportunism of the party’s hard-Remain critics. May invited the opposition leaders to Downing Street for talks; Corbyn initially refused to attend, because it was clear that she had no intention of making any compromises and simply wanted to lecture her opponents. Continuity Remain attacked Corbyn for not agreeing to meet with May; when he reversed that position and went into talks with her government, they flip-flopped immediately and accused Labour of colluding with the Tories to deliver Brexit.
No Loaf at All
In hindsight, the closest Britain came to avoiding the disaster of Johnson’s victory was at the beginning of April. Parliament had voted down May’s deal three times, and MPs scheduled a round of “indicative votes” to determine if there was any option — from “no deal” to a second referendum — that could win majority support. The indicative votes were not legally binding, but if one proposal had come out on top, it might have become a rallying point as the Brexit deadline approached.
It’s worth looking closely at the second round of indicative votes, which came after Parliament had whittled down the options from eight to four. The motion that came closest to passing was the one in favor of a customs union with the EU, proposed by veteran Tory politician Kenneth Clarke. It fell by just three votes. A motion in favor of “soft Brexit” — staying in the European single market and customs union — lost by twenty-one votes, while another to support a second referendum lost by seventeen.
The soft-Brexit motion, referred to as “Norway Plus,” could have passed with the support of those Labour MPs who either voted against it or abstained (fifty-eight in total). They did so for what seem like diametrically opposed reasons: some were actively pro-Brexit — in a way that never held true for Corbyn — while others were stridently pro-Remain and refused to support any path other than staying in the EU.
It should have been possible for campaigners to direct their fire at both groups and pressure them to support the soft-Brexit proposal, which would address most of the reasonable concerns Remainers had about what Brexit might entail, without obliging MPs in Leave-voting constituencies to campaign for a second referendum. Instead, the People’s Vote campaign and its media outriders devoted their energies to attacking the Labour leadership and shooting down every compromise proposal.
From Hubris to Nemesis
The failure of the indicative votes set in motion a sequence of events that led inexorably to the December vote and Johnson’s triumph. May had to ask the EU for an extension of the deadline until autumn, which meant that the UK would take part in the upcoming European elections. Continuity Remain saw the election as a glorious opportunity to punish Labour for not adopting their preferred line. Their arguments started to hit home beyond the activist circles of the anti-Brexit movement. Labour came third, well behind the Liberal Democrats, while also leaking support to the Greens and the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales.
The People’s Vote campaigners hailed the result as a triumph for the hard-Remain parties who had made such deep inroads into Labour’s electoral base. Yet they ignored the most striking outcome of the night: Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, an Astroturf operation hastily launched a few months earlier, had won the election by a country mile, taking 30 percent of the vote and swallowing up most of the Tory electorate.
While Continuity Remain patted itself on the back for a job well done, the Conservative Party drew a simple lesson: it must deliver Brexit at all costs, the harder the better. Within a couple of months, the Tories had selected Boris Johnson, the only politician who could rival Farage as a champion of the Brexit cause, to replace Theresa May. Meanwhile, Labour shifted in the opposite direction, taking up the call for a second referendum as the People’s Vote campaign had been demanding.
The die was cast for a snap general election. Continuity Remain started the year with a number of goals: they wanted to discredit any soft-Brexit compromise, force the Labour Party to support a second referendum, and polarize British politics around Leave vs. Remain. In every respect, they got exactly what they wanted. And they reaped the harvest on December 12.
It’s possible that Labour would also have lost support heavily if it had stuck to its original position, albeit from Remain voters rather than Leavers. There was, in fact, still a leakage of votes to the hard-Remain parties, in particular the Lib Dems.
That doesn’t soften the indictment of the Continuity Remain leadership in the slightest. It was always their goal to force Labour into a position where it had to choose between two unattractive options. And their behavior after Labour had embraced the second-referendum call laid bare the cynicism of the whole enterprise.
The contrast with the pro-Brexit camp could not be starker. Nigel Farage initially planned to run a full slate of candidates in opposition to the Conservatives, denouncing Johnson’s deal with the EU in exactly the same terms that he had used to condemn the agreement brought home by Theresa May. But the right-wing press came down hard against Farage. So did Leave-supporting capitalists like Arron Banks. As Banks put it:
The only way Brexit is going to get delivered is by a Boris majority. Nigel reminds me of a gambler at a casino that’s been winning all night and it’s time to take the chips off the table and step away.
In the end, the Brexit Party ran a much more limited campaign targeting Labour-held seats, pushing Johnson’s candidate over the line in a number of constituencies by taking votes from Labour.
Those who talked about stopping Brexit refused to practice the same kind of political realism. The only way to deliver a second referendum was to prevent the Tories from winning a majority of seats. In most of the country, that meant voting for the Labour Party. Instead of acknowledging this reality and acting upon it, the various strands of Continuity Remain chose to play childish, self-defeating games.
Roland Rudd scuttled the People’s Vote campaign altogether, just before it had to face its first significant challenge. According to one of Rudd’s disgruntled allies, the businessman was “more interested in using its database to create a new pro-European, Lib Dem-centered political force after Brexit — a sort of mirror image of the Brexit Party capable of realigning British politics — than he was in securing a second vote and preventing Brexit.” Rudd ensured that none of the resources at the campaign’s disposal would be used to mobilize voters against Boris Johnson.
For their part, the Lib Dems opted for a mendacious travesty of a campaign, pretending to believe that they could win a majority of seats, make Jo Swinson prime minister, and scrap Brexit altogether without any need for a fresh referendum. Deceptive “tactical voting” websites urged people to support no-hoper Lib Dem candidates in constituencies where only Labour could beat the Tories. The party ended up with one seat fewer than it had taken in 2017.
The role played by the Lib Dems in Kensington should be remembered for a long time to come, not because it was representative of the national trend, but because it perfectly encapsulated the moral and political bankruptcy of Continuity Remain. Labour had taken the seat by a very narrow margin in June 2017. Although Kensington has a reputation for affluence, it also contains many impoverished working-class communities, and was the location of the Grenfell disaster that took place just days after that election. The newly elected Labour MP Emma Dent Coad played an exemplary role speaking up on behalf of the Grenfell families. For what it’s worth, Dent Coad also consistently supported the Remain cause in Parliament.
In this year’s election, the Lib Dems ran a former Tory cabinet minister, Sam Gyimah, against her. On the campaign trail, Gyimah spread foul lies that Dent Coad was somehow complicit in the planning decisions that led to the Grenfell inferno. Gyimah’s party distributed thousands of leaflets claiming that he was the only “Remain” candidate who could beat the Tories: in fact, Gyimah had voted for Theresa May’s deal when he was still a Conservative, so his record was inferior to Dent Coad’s even on the narrow question of Brexit. Long after it was clear that Labour had pulled way ahead of the Lib Dems, the Observer urged its readers to support Gyimah as the “tactical choice” in Kensington.
In the end, the Lib Dems nearly doubled their vote, but Gyimah still had barely half as much support as Dent Coad. The only result of his efforts was to hand the constituency to a Conservative banker, two years after Grenfell, by a margin of 150 votes. As a movement to stop Brexit, Continuity Remain was a disastrous failure. As an anti-Labour wrecking operation to facilitate hard-right Tories, it was an outstanding success.
Washing Their Hands
In a column published in April 2019, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee confidently predicted that Labour wouldn’t pay any significant price for supporting a second referendum: “Nigel Farage says his Brexit party will be rampaging through Labour’s northern heartlands, but he may find less of a welcome from Labour’s voters than he reckons.”
She was right in one sense: it wasn’t Farage who came “rampaging through Labour’s northern heartlands,” it was a Tory Party that had adopted Farage’s agenda. Disillusionment with Labour among its 2017 Leave voters could damage it in three different ways: they might cross over directly to the Tories, they might opt for the Brexit Party instead, or they might not vote at all. There is ample evidence of all three happening on a wide enough scale to cost Labour dozens of seats.
Unsurprisingly, Toynbee refused to take any responsibility for the outcome, offering a disingenuous diatribe against Corbyn in place of any serious analysis. The liberal commentariat is following her example en masse, with varying degrees of spleen and malice. Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer who ran as a candidate in the European elections and urged Leave voters not to support his party, has spent the last few days demanding a ruthless purge of the Left, instead of apologizing for his own foolishness and irresponsibility.
They all insist that it was Corbyn, not Brexit, that cost Labour the election. Of course, this is very convenient for those who insisted that the party should campaign for a second referendum and would surge in the polls if it did so. Yet all the evidence thus far available — polling data, qualitative evidence from canvassers and journalists alike, the profile of the seats Labour lost — suggests that Labour paid a heavy price for its new Brexit line.
Nor can the question of Corbyn’s public image be separated from Brexit. Surveys and focus groups repeatedly found that Corbyn suffered from a perception that he was “weak,” “indecisive,” or “sitting on the fence” over Brexit. That perception didn’t arise spontaneously: it was deliberately fostered by those who wanted to polarize British politics around a simple choice, “Brexit, yes or no?” Labour’s preference for a soft-Brexit compromise did not stem from Corbyn’s personal character traits: it reflected a very real political dilemma, thrown into sharp relief by the election results.
Liberals who prefer to stress other reasons for Corbyn’s unpopularity betray their lack of self-awareness once again. The picture that the right-wing press painted of Corbyn after 2015 was no more grounded in reality than the picture the same press has painted of the European Union for the last thirty years, to the helpless fury of Europhiles and “remainists.” Of course, you need to have a strategy to deal with industrial-scale disinformation, now amplified by social media. But it ill behooves those who spent three years blaming Facebook ads for the Leave victory in 2016 to wag their fingers at the Left now for wanting to discuss media bias.
Labour supporters and the wider British left will need to digest last week’s result properly and draw the right conclusions about what went wrong. There’s plenty of room for self-criticism. However, nobody who backed Corbyn’s leadership should dream of prostrating themselves before the collective wisdom of Continuity Remain, a menagerie of political has-beens who guided their own ship onto the rocks in the course of wrecking Labour’s. The first priority, as the party again sets sail, should be to keep them well away from the helm.