Labour, the European Union and the curious situation of the centre ground

First to say, I voted remain. I followed the line taken by Jeremy Corbyn and Yanis Varoufakis, the EU is not perfect but the risks of leaving were greater, we simply didn’t and do not know what life will be life outside of the EU. The orthodox economic models are complex and economists disagree over whether leaving is a good or bad thing for the UK economy. For me, a successful brexit will depend on protecting workers’ rights, human rights, the protection of the rights of EU immigrants in the UK, environmental protection, how progressive or regressive taxation will be and finally our trade relationship with the rest of the world. The situation is undoubtedly complex.

Yet last June’s referendum gave the result it did, and it is right we accept it. Sure, the reasons for having a referendum were flawed and it was evident that there was hyperbole and misinformation on either side of the remain or leave debate. But the referendum was constitutional and the process fair. Referendum campaigning instigated division, the outcome has exacerbated it and resulted in bitterness. I have heard brexiters caricatured as uneducated or as xenophobic and the remainer, a member of the (privileged) liberal elite. The reality is that people voted to remain or leave for different reasons. Probably the only unifying issue underpinning the leave vote was that it was anti-status quo or anti-establishment.

I have imagined what would happen if I surveyed the opinions of people on the EU referendum. I would use a single question: to what extent do you agree that leaving the EU is a good thing? Give your answer on a scale of 1 to 9, where 1 is totally disagree and 9 is totally agree. Now if I were to collate responses, I expect I would find the majority of answers in the centre, 4, 5 and 6. In other words the majority of people would be unsure whether it would be a good or bad, or would agree or disagree marginally. It might be that since people identified with a particular position, remain or leave, there might be substantial numbers responding 2 or 3, or, 7 or 8. However, statistically it is most likely that the results would form a normal distribution or bell curve, as shown below, with ‘5’ at the centre and ‘9’ at the right extreme and ‘1’ on the left. The majority is in the centre.

Normal distribution or ‘bell’ curve

In terms of Labour’s strategy for brexit, the centre ground strategy is the best strategy. I’ll come back to this, but let me make the distinction between political centrism and centrism in respect to a single issue such as membership of the EU. Political centrism, on a left-right continuum, has come to mean a moderate economic and socially liberal position. With the centre left subscribing to neoliberalism but with some measures for social justice and some commitment to public spending. The centre right is perhaps almost indistinguishable. This political centrism has become moribund because in the UK it has focussed on appealing to a small number of swing voters to maintain power. But meanwhile the constituency that are expected to vote for the Labour Party, for example, are largely ignored. Centrist politics excludes them. It is not unsurprising that when given the chance, these people revolt – at least in election terms – by voting for UKIP or coalescing around an anti-establishment anti-Westminster brexit vote.

In terms of ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ the centre ground is different to political centrism. It is the acknowledgment of the statistical likelihood of a normal distribution – that most views on leaving and remaining are not at the extremes, many people are equivocal. Even though it doesn’t always seem that way because the extremes are more vocal. The centre ground is a vulnerable position, but I believe it is the right choice: to accept and not frustrate the passage of Article 50 through parliament, to fight for maximum access to the single market and, additionally, to defend migration. It is vulnerable because commentators who are hostile to Corbyn – of whom there seem to be many – use it to say that Labour do no have a position. But they have a position, though it is not reducible to a pro-leave or pro-remain soundbite. It is leaving with a deal that is best for the 99%, for ordinary people who have not had a wage increase, who have insecure work, for young people who can’t get a house or go to university without taking on unacceptable levels of debt. For our public services – health and education; for our industry (what’s left of it).

While critics say that Labour are divided, in disarray and have not got a clear position, the reality is the Corbyn’s labour is steering a course where they can act and negotiate for the majority and importantly the more vulnerable in our society. They are trying to find a middle ground. The continued argument over who was right and who was wrong in the EU referendum, and even who ‘really’ won is just creating further division. I heard Jacob Rees-Mogg, on BBC Radio 4 Any Questions, in arrogant splendour, last night publically attacking ‘bremoaoners’ as unpatriotic. I have faced people who are unrelentingly pro remain: the vote was wrong, the information was wrong, brexiters were misled. Yet in all this division, neither staying in the EU or leaving it is a solution to the economic and social problems in the UK. But our relationship with the EU is important. And at least as important are economic reforms: government investment that gets to communities, tackling poverty and inequality, progressive taxation, a green and sustainable industrial strategy, investment in health and education. This is demonstrably the aim of Labour at the moment, to make sure Brexit is for all.

Meanwhile in the polls Labour are struggling. And there is good reason for this, the polls reflect the divisions – the debates over remain and leave continue. The government, if it can be described as popular, is taking an unequivocable leave position, on the other hand the Lib Dems are unequivocally remain. Labour have to navigate the middle ground and as a result are misrepresented in the press as being ‘unclear’ and ‘uncertain’. The fact is the party is demonstrating greater clarity, it is driven by the long term interest of the country. It’s bold and it is the right thing to do.

When Article 50 is triggered, the leave-remain dichotomy will subside and there will have to be focus on the ‘how’ of brexit. In this Labour are ahead of the curve.


About Steven Watson

Education research, critical maths, education policy, economics and politics @steve.watson10
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2 Responses to Labour, the European Union and the curious situation of the centre ground

  1. Iain says:

    Interesting Article – re. Thought experiment about distribution of opinions.
    To me it sometimes feels that there would be enough completely pro or anti extremists that the distribution could be tri-modal.


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