On Echo Chambers and Politics: Labour picks the wrong fight over the EU referendum
Electoral defeats are as old as democratic elections, and that parties lose elections should therefore hardly come as a surprise. Which parties lose in theory should not be a surprise either. Opinion polling, once the rare preserve of upper class subscribers to society magazines, with the attendant distortions, is now ubiquitous. So it is ironic how parties, the Republicans in 2012 in America, and Labour less than a month ago in the UK, have managed to convince themselves right up until the polls closed that they were going to win.
This is not the beginning of a discourse on the problems with polling, which have always existed, but on a different matter, how the proliferation of internet media has allowed supporters of one ideological side or another to block out opposing views so as to convince themselves of the correctness of information of their position and its near universal appeal. People have always been prone to believe what they want to be true is true, and therefore to overvalue information that agreed with it. And they have also been prone to bubbles, in particular college campuses and academic communities whose environment of identity politics and political correctness so crippled the Left during the 1980s and early 1990s, in which opposing views are shutout. It is perhaps therefore not ironic that the internet, rather than increasing the pluralism of information, has actually reduced it. The rise of Vox and Tumblr has allowed the left to retreat into a fairy-tale world of gender and identity politics filled with words, ideas, and phrases that mean absolutely nothing to the ordinary member of society, while the right in the United States, after a brief exercise in humility after the 2012 elections which lasted about two months, rapidly retreated into the world of historical pendulum swings, where the "fact" that parties struggle to win third terms in office wills somehow deliver power to them without slightest shred of agency on their part.
Much can and has been written about the American Right, but the behavior of the British Left following their 2015 defeat is uniquely interesting for the speed with which they have resumed talking in what is effectively a foreign language to the electorate they need to win over. With the Labour party still to select its leader, and following an election in which over 50% voted for either UKIP or the Conservatives, the left has managed to find a worse issue to fight on than any that arose during the campaign. Namely, for some reason the ability of non-UK citizens who are legal citizens of another EU member country to vote in a potential referendum on whether or not Britain should leave the European Union.
The issue of the EU Referendum presents unique complexities for the British left, not least in the fact that far too many within it have not grasped that the issue of whether Britian should leave the EU is a fundamentally different issue than whether there should be a referendum on Britain's EU membership. The former is a make-believe issue popular with certain segment of the electorate; the latter is popular with a large majority ranging from those who support leaving to those who simply want the issue to be over with. The arguments against leaving the EU are legion, and pragmatics of doing so are unclear. By contrast, the arguments against a referendum range from implicitly insulting the electorate(claiming that it would cause too much uncertainty) to explicitly insulting them(the voters are too stupid to decide important issues by referendum). The Labour party realizes this, which is why it has dropped opposition to a referendum. But whatever good may have come from this decision has been squashed by what followed. Having decided to avoid adopting a position based on insulting the electorate and attacking its legitimacy, the Labour party has found itself dragged by the entire British left-wing echo chamber into, well, adopting a position based on attacking the legitimacy of the electorate.
This has come in the form of the debate over who is eligible to vote in a potential referendum, a debate that has developed so favorably for the Conservatives one would almost believe they planned it deliberately if not for the fact it is hard to see how anyone could have imagine Labour being stupid enough to make a stand on the issue of voting rights for non-citizens. What the Conservatives did was simply try to bury the matter, as David Cameron, who in fairness almost certainly shares the elite distaste for direct democracy so prominent on the left, sought to do by adopting the path of least resistance, namely announcing that any potential referendum would be held with the same electorate as a UK General election. To the average person this seems sensible enough; the general election electorate is the one entrusted with determining who gets to be the government. But in Britain, there is a minor wrinkle or in fact two; first, citizens of EU member states resident in Britain are allowed to vote in local elections. Secondly, citizens of the commonwealth are allowed to vote in UK general elections if they are resident in the UK, a holdover from colonial times when only a minuscule number of such voters would qualify, almost all of whom would be among the elan of their respective societies.
Most plausibly, both are probably concessions that the electorate as a whole tolerates due to the difficulty of changing the law at this late point rather than endorses as somehow representing dedication to a principle of representation in which Commonwealth citizens inherently have an equal moral right to a say in the future of the UK, or that non-citizens who happen to be from the EU have some sort of right to vote. In fact, this was precisely the position adopted by the Scottish government when running its own referendum. But somehow, the presence of EU citizens on the local roles and their absence from the potential referendum one has become a symbol of governmental hypocrisy, and the decision to use the general role, used as well for previous referendums, a sign of political opportunism.
This is not nonsense. David Cameron does not want the referendum to result in a vote to leave the EU, not least because it is unclear what exactly would follow such a vote, and the consequences of leaving, or more likely, not leaving after such a vote, would be on the Conservative party. If there was any desire to rig the referendum on the part of the government it would be on the side of staying in. But the British left has an almost irrational fear of the EU Referendum, akin to Boris Yeltsin's fears of a Communist victory in Russia's 1996 Presidential election, even though all polling and rational analysis showed support for that option topping out well below a majority and the odds against such an outcome so overwhelming as to be unimaginable. But the left in Britain has a deep-seated distrust of the electorate, bred not just in opposition in the 1980s, but also in an anti-nationalist attitude which manifests in almost pathetic obsession with national guilt - for colonialism, for racism, more recently for Iraq, and a belief that they(the left, Guardian readers, etc) are the only decent individuals in a nation of racist, sexist, xenophobic barbarians. This is a silly view, and one that makes often makes the Guardian's editorial section infuriating, but what makes it politically toxic is when it is expressed out-loud.
In this debate it has been. At the front is an argument that because the results of the referendum will "affect them the most" EU citizens somehow have an equal if not greater right to say than British voters. For those making this argument it seems sensible enough, but implicit in it is the suggestion that those born in Britain, those who immigrated and worked hard for citizenship, and those whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents sacrificed for the country have no more right to determine their own destiny than someone from Hungary who settles into a flat in East London six weeks before the referendum. In fact, it implies that the latter has more right to say, as the former will be able to remain and enjoy full rights in Britain regardless, whereas the latter's future freedom and rights will be directly impacted. Not only does this analysis involve telling voters that they have no more right to be heard and in fact less right to be heard than non-voters, which is a weird prioritization for a political party that wants to win a general election, but it implicitly embraces a different reality.
This different reality is one in which citizenship is arbitrary because nations are arbitrary. National borders are the results of random factors, the system of governments within them, the stability of said systems, the prosperity of their economies, all of these are also considered arbitrary. As such, "citizens" of a state have no more right to that nation's wealth or benefits than someone born on the other-side of the planet, because it was complete randomness that they happened to be born in their respective societies, and therefore discrimination of the most pernicious kind. The point is not to stress the plausibility of this argument. Rather it is to point out how absurd it appears to the average voter, to the average human being in fact. For the average British citizen, they have a sense of ownership - of their town, of their country, of their NHS, of their language. That citizenship is an objective category is a truism to most people and most societies, and the idea that non-citizens should be able to vote absurd on its face. In effect the argument adopted against the referendum, the issue the left of the Labour party has chosen to die on, is not whether Britain should leave the EU, or even vote on it, but whether or not British citizenship means anything, or whether or not British citizens have anymore entitlement to benefits or the NHS than say Ethiopians. And that argument, so mad as to be almost incomprehensible went put simply, is being promoted not as a truism without the slightest effort to persuade of the merits. You either buy it or you don't.
This has been an increasingly problem in recent years. One reason for the political weakness of the Pro-Choice side in the Abortion debates has been the abandonment of arguments in favor of legal abortion - the health risks of not having it, the concept of the individual as best informed to make the ultimate decision - in favor of sloganeering based on truisms that one either accepts or not. Hands off women's bodies! Reproductive Rights! These claims are worthless politically. Those who accept them already support abortion. Anyone who does not is likely to see them as little more than assertion. The movement for marriage equality has been saved a similar fate by the fact that the pamphleteers did not take over the asylum until the cause was irreversibly won.
In the case of the referendum franchise however, the debate is occurring on three issues where the Labour party has been at a disadvantage; the EU, Immigration, and Democracy. It is also being fought in a way that reinforces the existing weaknesses, The perspective that the Labour left cares more about foreigners than UK citizens is reinforced by the rhetoric that non-citizens deserve a say because they have more to lose.
As noted, I suspect that this controversy came to the Conservatives as a happy surprise, not as the result of deliberate planning. But it could hardly be working out better for them. The referendum will hold a lot of hazards for the Conservatives, but right now it is being fought not only on an issue where all Conservatives agree, but where the vast majority of the electorate not only agrees, but find the opposition argument incomprehensible. That is a pretty big achievement.
As for Labour, this debate makes clear that the challenge facing the next leader is not merely to mouth the correct centrist phrases. For better or worse, the Labour party's position is associated with that of its members, and of its supporters in the media. If they all express a view and Labour does not explicitly repudiate it, the assumption will be that Labour secretly supports. As such, the next Labour leader will have to look at how Bill Clinton and Tony Blair actively worked to denounce the crazies on their side, to make clear that not only do they disagree with suggestions that Britain is an arbitrary geographical term and citizenship meaningless, but that they find such claims as incomprehensible as does the electorate at large.