Some might immediately dispute my headline. “We got six million people to sign a revoke petition! There were several marches through London attended by hundreds of thousands of people!” All right, but Brexit happened. Sort of. It’s hard not to see a pretty hardcore version of a real Brexit taking place at the end of this year. And really, it all ended in December when the Tories were given a very large parliamentary majority by the British electorate. To reverse quote the Corbynistas, FBPE lost the argument. What went wrong?
There are several ways to approach this question. You could say that Brexit was always destined to win given the 2016 referendum result added to the fact that the leaders of both major parties were pro-Brexit during the period in question. But I don’t think so; everyone knows there was a period where Brexit unquestionably felt in peril. You could say it was ultimately going to fail because of Corbyn’s Euroscepticism – this is a more compelling argument, but not quite the whole truth. As a movement, #FBPE has pretty much completely disintegrated since the general election, whereas Brexit as a social bond, despite it technically having happened in January and the government discouraging use of the term, is continuing to grow.
I have had the opportunity to work with/be interviewed by a few PhD students over the past couple of years doing work on social media and its sociological effects. Apologies in advance, but I have to tread a line here in not giving away too much of someone’s original research that will hopefully earn them a PhD in the near future, so I can only talk in generalities. Basically, one student’s research seemed to be telling her that pro-Brexit accounts are “stickier” than #FBPE ones, as in, if you have a pro-Brexit account that displays the appropriate signifiers – Union flag and/or cross of St George, “no Remoaners”, #Britishindependence, “love Europe, hate the EU” – and you follow a fellow pro-Brexit account, you are much more likely to get a follow back than if you are a #FBPE tweeter and you follow a fellow #FBPE account. And by “much more” I mean possibly between two and three times more likely.
I want to reiterate that I am mentioning this anecdotally as opposed to presenting it as a statistical slam dunk – she may have done more research after we spoke that led her to believe this wasn’t as much the case as her initial findings suggested. I mention it because when I saw her data, it rang intuitively correct. And that is important not just for understanding what happened in December 2019 but for what happens in British politics next.
Those who display a #FBPE hashtag on their Twitter profile are likely to be more discerning about where their information comes from than pro-Brexit accounts are. To turn this around into something pejorative, I suppose you could say FBPE types are more likely to be snooty about this sort of thing; skeptical of voices they are unfamiliar with, whereas because pro-Brexiters are much more doubtful about mainstream news outlets already, they are more open to entrants and unknowns. This is obviously going to have an effect on who follows whom; a pro-Brexit account is much more likely to find a new account that at least on the surface seems culturally helpful or at least not unhelpful worthy of a follow, whereas the FBPE person is going to be more selective as to which accounts it is listening to.
If it is the case that FBPE types are two to three times less likely to follow back their political brethren than pro-Brexit accounts, this tells a lot of the story already. As we’ve all become accustomed in the time of CoVid to talking about R rates, the same principle applies here; if pro-Brexit accounts are following each other at double or even treble the rate, the connectivity of that community will quickly be exponentially greater.
There are loads of reasons that contributed to and might have been a result of this relative lack of social media connectivity in FBPE land. One is that there was a definitive schism in the movement, essentially between pro and anti-Corbynites. This came to a head in the general election, with those who were at least tolerant of Corbyn were urging people to “vote tactically”, while it was clear that the anti-Corbynites were not going to vote Labour just to possibly stop Brexit. There was no such split in the pro-Brexit ranks. While there was briefly a threat in the form of the Brexit Party splitting the vote, Farage couldn’t have done other than he ended up doing, which was essentially standing aside. The ascension of Boris Johnson united the tribe. The schism was only ever a false one anyhow – most Tories didn’t like Theresa May either, so there was never anything like the problems the left had over Corbyn.
Perhaps the centre-left can unite around Starmer. The near-death of the Lib Dems as a national force – and I only add “near” here to be kind – along with the fact that Starmer is pro-European, meaning Labour won’t suffer “revenge of the Remainers” at another election, means there is hope for non-Tory politics. But it will need to be more connected and I think that is some ways off.
I have a new book out now. It’s called “Politics is Murder” and follows the tale of a woman named Charlotte working at a failing think tank who has got ahead in her career in a novel way – she is a serial killer. One day, the police turn up at her door and tell her she is a suspect in a murder – only thing is, it is one she had nothing to do with. The plot takes in Conservative Party conference, a plot against the Foreign Secretary and some gangsters while Charlotte tries to find out who is trying to frame her for a murder she didn’t commit.
Also: there is a subplot around the government trying to built a stupid bridge, which now seems a charming echo of a more innocent time!
It’s available here:
Jonathan Cook says
Fascinating research about the lower “follow back” rates of the #FBPE hashtag, but ultimately I believe the main reason it failed is because it didn’t realise the argument had moved on from the 2016 referendum.
People who voted leave, the EU itself and some people who voted remain in 2016, realsied the UK was leaving the EU and turned their attention to what kind of Brexit that would look like. But the #FBPE group were still fighting the 2016 referendum.
So many times we saw comments like “but if there were another referendum right now, remain would win”. If we held a referendum right now on bringing back the death penalty, it would probably win, that doesn’t mean we should have a referendum on that!
The problem with trying to replay the 2016 referendum, is that when the #FBPE group realsied we actually were leaving the EU, they were too late to be able to influence how we left the EU. Rather than accept the result in 2016 (however disappointing it was for them) and lobby and seek to influence the softest Brexit imaginable (something they almost certainly would have got with 3 years of lobbying and campaigning), they still fought right up to the end, even in effect orchestrating a General Election in 2019 – which even a child could see the Tories and the hard Brexiters were going to win.
By continually seeking to rerun the arguments of 2016, they picked the wrong battle to fight. By contiunally belittling people who voted leave (for whatever reason) just entrenched the Leave position and in my opinion hardened it and made them more likely to “Go WTO” or seek “No Deal”.
I heard in the autumn of 2019 that calling a GE was “the last roll of the dice for remainers”, it was a “risk worth taking”. That demonstrably was untrue, we had a hung parliament, something that in UK political makes it very hard for the governing party to fulfil their manifesto in its entiriry and gives oppositjn parties so much more power. That opportunity was wasted because the #FBPE group never engaged in the “what kind of Brexit should we have” discussion.
Hard Brexiters realised (and took full advantage of ) this, the EU realised this, soft brexiters reaslied this, people who voted remain but accepted the result of the 2016 referendum realised this, #FBPE people did not. It wasn’t even a case of “they put all their chips on red and black came up”, they put all their chips on “0”…
Dave Chapman says
…’…they were too late to be able to influence how we left the EU’.
There’s more than a grain of truth in that, but there’s a wider truth there too. That a great part of the Pro-EU movement would not compromise on any aspect of membership. The idea of what some erroneously name ‘The Norway Option’ was already pre-rubbished by those who tried desperately to cling to it almost immediately subsequent to the Referendum.
I’ll deal with ‘The Norway Option’ only briefly. Nations taking advantage of the Singe Market via the EEA\EFTA option have their own Court of appeal outside the ECJ. They do have an input into the rules and the idea of the childish term ‘fax democracy’ or ‘rule taker’ simply is not true. It’s a myth invented by those who cannot brook the idea of fullest EU integration. However, in a sense ‘Norway option’ is accurate in the sense that this route is a bespoke agreement negotiated nation by nation. It’s not an ‘off-the-shelf’ pre-packaged agreement. (And I’m not saying you’re implying it is).
It was the most logical and obvious route the UK should have taken post a referendum which returned a ‘Leave’ vote. Claiming that Cameron’s Govt. had ruled out remaining in the Single Market is both foolish and moribund. Cameron left Downing Street almost immediately. No follow-on Prime Minister had any obligation to anything Cameron had previously claimed. Single Market membership even so by this route is sub-optimal, but would cause the least economic harm. But pro-EU campaigners pre-salted that fertile ground and we are where we are now. With their own partial culpability. (Not that they are ever able to accept their part in that).
A little over one year before the Referendum, there was a General Election in which the fun-up to it saw the received polling wisdom that Ed Miliband’s Labour would be the largest Parliamentary party, but without an overall majority and seeking a Coalition partner. A little before the Campaigning period, it was either late 2014 or early 2015, Nick Clegg asserted an extremely strange quote. To paraphrase it went a version of ‘We should not rule out proceeding to Stage 3 EMU’.
An odd turn of phrase. Terminologically rather an arcane and dry one. it’s almost as if he wanted to say ‘We should not rule out joining the EU Single Currency’ in plain language without using the actual words clearly? And that he wanted to say it coincidentally in a period he would not wish to say it in conjunction with a General Election Campaign? A Campaign in which the received wisdom might have suggested to some there was an obvious opportunity for a Labour\LibDem coalition between a pro-Euro Nick Clegg and an Ed Miliband Prime Minister who was also known to be pro-Euro single currency?
That’s a small limited example of the refusal to compromise. It was all or nothing to far too many of the most influential pro-EU politicians. They provided themselves with no advance psychological preparation that the electorate might be prepared to accept ‘nothing’. In that I think that’s the EU’s greatest problem. it is fundamentally unable to accept differing levels and commitment of membership. It’s definitively ‘all or nothing’. What they think is it’s greatest strength is really its greatest weakness.
William Francis says
‘The near-death of the Lib Dems as a national force – and I only add “near” here to be kind’
What is dead may never die.
The Lib Dems and the old Liberal party have a track record of revival and death.
Doug Hill says
Much of (but not all of) the FBPE crowd were opposed to the right wing Brexiteers, but didn’t particularly fall into the left wing / social democratic camp either – and there was a strong strand of what I would call “corporate liberalism” amongst many of the supporters and spent a lot of time both attacking anyone on the left and those who voted Remain who had any concerns about the EU.
There were a lot of “eurosceptic” Remainers or simply moderate Remainers out there who felt on balance Remain was the best option – but had concerns about the direction the EU was headed in – whether it was over immigration, TTIP, the treatment of Greece, the wasteful spending with dual parliaments, market liberalisation of rail and mail, the Euro and so on. Rather than address these concerns, many of the FBPE crowd would call all that lot out as good and that anyone opposed to it were either deemed far left Corbynites or far right Faragists. The result was that FBPE simply in the main became a vehicle largely for “soft right Tory wets”, “globalisation is good – New Labour Progress types” and “Orange Book Liberals” – ideologies which have little public support in Britain today. Other than Lexit supporters – the Brexiteers were largely united under a broader church.