VE Day – looking back to look forward

VE Day – looking back to look forward

In 1995 the 50th anniversary of VE Day was commemorated in the UK, in the rest of Europe. I don’t remember the commemorations having the same profile as they do today, even though many more of ‘the greatest generation’ who actually fought against nazism were still with us(1). But that’s hardly surprising - the absence of any other events in these strange times when any distraction is welcome have heightened the profile of this commemoration.

It is right that VE Day is commemorated and it’s worth remembering the nature of that victory, the reality of what Britain and her allies were fighting against and what happened next.

For the second time in 25 years a leader of Germany, beyond democratic control, had plunged the continent into war through expansionist militarism. Just as had Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914, Hitler misjudged the likely response of Britain. And just as in 1914 the early period of World War II did not go well for Britain, the costs were great. Both Hitler and Kaiser Wilhelm had assumed Britain would sue for peace - but it didn’t happen. For 18 months after the retreat from Dunkirk Britain stood alone - more or less. As in 1914, Britain’s imperial territories contributed - but during the 18 months Canada, Australia, India and so on were a very long way away and had to look to threats in their own spheres. Civilian support from the United States helped keep the UK fed and supplied, but the battle was Britain’s alone.

Hitler never expected to need to invade Britain but, in truth, never really had the means. The RAF, including pilots and ground staff of many lands flying alongside young Briton’s, scored a strategic victory over the skies of South East England that proved not only that air superiority was beyond the reach of the nazis but that, given the technology of the times, it would remain so. That meant the chances of mounting an amphibious assault on Britain, given the naval superiority Britain also enjoyed, were slim indeed. Hitler got the message and Operation Sealion was cancelled (2). Nonetheless the road ahead remained long and difficult and victory a distant prospect.

The achievements and sacrifices of Britain’s people in those times are remarkable and should never be forgotten. They are part of the victory we commemorate - but it was a victory won by an alliance. The nazis doctrine of ‘lebensraum’ saw Hitler turn eastward, invading the Soviet Union and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the British dominions and imperial forces were joined, decisively, by the United States. The nazis occupied European territories with brutality and with the aid of local fascist collaborators but partisans and resistance guerillas made life as uncomfortable as they could and supplied intelligence to the allies. It in no way diminishes the achievements of Britain to say that the country could not have won the war alone - nobody knew that better than the generation who fought it and the politicians like Churchill and Attlee who led Britain and helped bring about the great alliance that saved democracy and freedom.

The commemoration of VE Day reflects these facts. World War II was won by an alliance led, in the end, by the USA which had by then become the world’s great power both economically and militarily and with colossal sacrifice by the people and armies of the Soviet Union. Today’s commemoration takes place all over the world and is followed by Europe Day (9 May), when the signing of the treaties designed to ensure the interdependence of Germany and France, which had fought repeatedly for hundreds of years, and the integration of the German speaking peoples into the structures of a wider Europe took place. We commemorate with VE Day and Europe Day a wider peace, the determination to build a better world and the continued existence of alliances of democratic states which went on to ensure the containment and defeat of communist dictatorship.

And what about the Germans? In Berlin a regional holiday today marks the 75th anniversary of the surrender of the nazi regime and 8th May marks each year the sacrifice of those who resisted the criminal regime. The great myth that is casually repeated, to prove what I know not, is that ‘Hitler was democratically elected’. I insist on debunking this because it is simply not true. Though they became the largest party in the Reichstag, the nazis never achieved an electoral victory that allowed them to form a government. Hitler was allowed into power by an inept and grossly naive collection of politicians who were soon brushed aside. Thereafter elections and referendums  were rigged and not voting the right way had consequences. Even flying the national flag we see today rather than the swastika could prove fatal. It’s of course true that a great many Germans were seduced by the nazi’s and bought into their racist ideology, but many were victims too and their liberation is part of what we mark today. Britain helped create the peaceful, free Germany we love, however rarely, to beat at football - it's an achievement to be proud of. None of our continental friends were more sad to see their British ally leave the European Union than the Germans.

Finally what next in Britain is also worth remembering. As well as the determination to create a Europe of co-operation and peace,the determination in Britain to create a country which did not repeat to the failures of the post 1918 settlement or return to the privations of the 1930s created a consensus around jobs and social justice led by Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 governments and followed till its collapse in the late 70s. The interdependence of peoples, the importance of multilateral internationalism and the rebirth of a genuine social compact that recognised the contribution of the many is part of Britain’s VE Day story. It can be part of our story in the future too - if we continue to uphold and put to good use the freedom successfully defended by the greatest generation.


(1) This included my parents. Their service was in the mining industry (my father passed his Royal Navy medical but the system tracked down his occupation before he got near a ship) and conscripted munitions (my mother). For my parents this was the defining time of their lives and while of course they looked back fondly to their youth and wartime courtship they were not at all nostalgic for the war itself. I'm constantly baffled why people younger than I talk about 'the Blitz Spirit' as if they were there. Interestingly my father told me that he wanted to sign up not just to fight the nazis but because he was bored witless - far from working at full tilt, the coal industry struggled along and he often only worked 2-3 days a week (other accounts I've read since support this less rose tinted view - see James Hamilton Patterson, "What We Have Lost", Ch 6, Head Zeus 2018). He didn't tell me he served as an ARP Warden - I found his papers after he died. It explains why he never found that character in Dad's Army particularly funny.

(2) Aside from the military disadvantages, Sealion was a very odd plan that ignored several hundred years of history and UK strategy. Common sense and geography as well as history suggests that the route into England from the continent was from the low countries through the cliff-free Norfolk and Suffolk coasts which then offered the advantage of relatively flat land across which tanks can move easily - as opposed to the downlands of Sussex and Kent. For a historic perspective on this see Brendan Simms, "Britain's Europe" Penguin 2016.  

Posted by John Howarth
A European call to action

A European call to action

Time to invest in strengthening EU’s capacity

First Published in Parliament Magazine - 5 May 2020

Pro-Europeans need to go on the offensive and ensure Euroscepticism doesn’t gain any ground during the current crisis, argue Seb Dance, John Howarth and Mike Buckley.


Anyone who’s agonised over a jigsaw during the lockdown, or attempted a particularly complicated Lego structure will appreciate the adage that it is far easier to destroy than it is to create.

What can take hours or even days to painstakingly put together can, in a matter of seconds, be pummelled back to a pile of plastic bricks. And there are those who get disproportionately more joy out of the destruction than they do from the creation.

What is true for Lego is ultimately true even for some of the things we might otherwise take for granted. The kind of things that, in normal times, sit quietly in the background underpinning the way we live our lives but without much fanfare or thought. One such example might be the European Union itself

It was not much of a surprise when Britain became the first member state to toy with the idea of leaving the EU. For sure, Euroscepticism exists in every Member State, even among the founders.

There are countries like Denmark and the Czech Republic which have their own entrenched opposition to key aspects of the project, such as its single currency.

But few thought that the most obviously Eurosceptic country of all, the UK, would actually opt to one day walk out of the club, albeit half-heartedly and without any real idea of where to go next. But it did, and the rest is, almost, history.

It would be a massive mistake to rest on the correct observation that Brexit has done more harm than good to Eurosceptic movements across the rest of the continent.

There is no doubt that longstanding opponents of the project such as Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen have changed the language they use.

Overt opposition to EU membership itself has been dropped in favour of a much more limited ambition; either leaving the single currency or simply dialling up the anti-EU rhetoric.

Some now even like to claim that the nationalist would-be leaders of their respective countries have actually changed their minds on the merits of membership.

It is of course not true. They want and need the EU to fail now as much as they always have. They are just a little smarter, perhaps, in the way they try to sell themselves.

The COVID-19 crisis has caused many people to wonder whether or not the EU might be on the brink of collapse. The rhetoric of those who had, in the wake of Brexit, retreated on some of their more strident calls has also, correspondingly, now become much harsher.

The sudden closure of borders – without coordination or consultation with neighbours, the lack of apparent solidarity from other Member States to countries like Italy, who were desperate for material and financial assistance in the early days of the pandemic, and the frustrating inability of the EU institutions to coordinate an initial and effective financial response has fed this feeling.

It’s not the first time we have been here. Tales of the EU’s death have been somewhat exaggerated over the years. It was supposed to have come under intolerable strain following the 2008 financial crisis and the terms placed on debtor countries by the infamous troika.

The perennial summer refugee crises were similarly supposed to put an unfixable break on the relationship between North and South. These crises have severely impacted on trust and perception of the EU’s strengths and competencies, but that strain has, for the most part, been temporary.

Majority support for membership of the EU has remained consistent even in countries like Greece.


For each of these crises, the answers are nearly always the same, though often realised in different ways. It is almost always a failure of the individual Member States to show sufficient solidarity combined with a collective failure to endow the EU institutions with the necessary powers to coordinate.

The curiosity of the nationalists’ position can be seen in the case of Salvini where he lambasts the lack of support from other countries whilst simultaneously decrying the weakness of the institutions to act.

He knows full well that one flows from the other, and that the inherent contradiction in his position can be covered up by bemoaning “the EU”.

Bit by bit responses to the crisis have improved and the direction of travel is the right one. But COVID-19 is a mega-crisis, and it’s probably not the only one that the EU will face in the next decades.

The EU has actually weathered its storms surprisingly well, largely because there is no credible alternative. But the immense changes that society is facing: from climate change, to automation and information wars mean that the challenges will only keep on coming.

If the EU can be imagined as an elastic band, each crisis stretches that band as a test of its capacity. Unsurprisingly, the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis is perhaps stretching it more than most.

As with any material, elastic has a limit to how many times it can be tested. The EU constantly reforms itself and adds additional capacity, but if the challenges come too thick and fast and the elastic is stretched too far, it can and will snap.

The way that progressives and internationalists defend and protect the EU is to get one step ahead, to anticipate the challenges ahead and to prepare the response.

We know the Right feed on fear. They understand that people want certainty, comfort and security. The easy answers that nationalists offer don’t provide anything like that; they provide only the illusion.

The threats that people face are real. Blaming them on others and proposing isolation as a solution is easy, but the reality is that we can never hope to face those challenges properly unless we do so together with the increased capacity that the EU provides.

Knocking down a structure might offer momentary satisfaction, but it is not worth the years and years it would take to pick up the bricks.

The EU took generations to build. It is slow, often tone-deaf and most citizens are a long way from feeling a natural affinity to it.

But how much better would it be to invest the time in building it up further, strengthening its capacity, developing its flexibility and enabling it to grow from each challenge to face the next with greater confidence. The choice is before us.


About the authors

Seb Dance and John Howarth are former Labour MEPs. Mike Buckley is Director of campaign group Labour for a European Future


Posted by John Howarth
Congratulations Keir Starmer – we have our Party back

Congratulations Keir Starmer – we have our Party back

So the bright confident morning finally arrived and Keir Starmer is elected Labour leader on the first ballot with 56% of the vote and a mandate from every section of the Party. The accidental leader at long last shuffles off to the allotment. After five years of catastrophe, it feels good.

Given the clarity of Keir Starmer’s mandate, Jerremy Corbyn will now appear occasionally to sit loyally on the back benches, meanwhile touring the circuit of eccentric lost causes to make the occasional vegetable related joke. He will leave the field clear for Keir Starmer to return Labour to electability. His former followers will either, honourably, absent themselves from serving under Keir, making the case for a Labour Government from the back benches or undergo Damascene conversion hoping for a slot in a Starmer Government.

Except he won’t and neither will they.

The unity which Keir Starmer espoused during the leadership campaign is an illusion that the Corbynite left will simply not allow.

Since, in the aftermath of the General Election Corbyn announced that he would stay on during the absurdly long election campaign, it has been clear that the minority faction is the same as it ever was. Momentum immediately declared their intent to “hold the leader to account”. Keir Starmer can expect and will get no loyalty from Corbyn. He will return to the backbenches to do what he has always done – believe in his own correctness and vote against the Labour whip. Starmer can expect the same loyalty from Corbyn that was shown to Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Brown and Miliband.

Far from following the convention that former Leaders have had their time and maintaining a dignified silence during the election of their successor, Corbyn in a procession of interviews has let it be known he would wish to serve in a Shadow Cabinet, would speak up, would generally fail to understand that his form of politics has proved catastrophic for the Party and the country. Staying on was not just narcissism, it was an exercise of positioning the remainder of the paleoleftists for their rearguard action.

Keir Starmer now has to deal with the far from ideal situation that confronts him. His choice is simple he has the battle now and wins while his stock is high then moves on with a viable Labour coalition, or he puts it off and has the battle closer to an election when the image of Labour disunity will do most damage. He cannot hope to straddle an impossible divide and neither should he. Unity will be based not upon changing the minds of those who have not changed their minds on anything at any time in their political lives and whose loyalties are determined by dogma.

I have little doubt of his determination to tackle the disgraceful situation over antisemitism, the perpetrators of which are members Labour doesn’t need, just as it does not need those joined from fringe parties with ideologies that were never part of Labour’s spectrum. In doing so he must be ruthless - the limits of unity are easily defined.

The NEC election results and that for the Deputy Leadership of Scottish Labour confirm the rejection of Corbynism. The two NEC gains and the three shadow cabinet NEC members should make it possible for Starmer to act decisively, beginning by showing the door to fellow travelers and enablers such as Murphy and Formby. I have pointed out before that it is a major mistake to assume that Corbyn was elected on the back of the votes of entryists alone. Far from it. ‘Soft left’ members, those simply unconvinced by the others on offer and disappointed by Ed Miliband’s disastrous tenure backed Corbyn - many should have known better. Those same people have now voted for Keir Starmer. The minority rump of paleoleftists is defined by the 17% vote for the hapless Richard Burgeon who must be quickly joined on the back benches by the vanquished Long-Bailey and a few more. Labour voters and those who want to identify that way need to see the signal of change.

Those who want to vote Labour also need to see an effective, responsible opposition, working both constructively with Government for the public good at a time of crisis and holding that Government to account when it is lacking. Keir Starmer has the unique opportunity of a ‘soft launch’ – his video statement set the right note which fighting a difficult format to carry off – the Government has more pressing things to do than go after the Leader of the Opposition who’s help they badly need.

But there can be complacency – it will be a tough road whenever a semblance of normality resumes. Labour has no right to exist. It has diced with death more often than I care to think. Rarely has it shown the determination to win and the ability to re-invent itself that has made the Conservatives the dominant party of British politics for the past two centuries. Labour will need new ideas, and a new clarity of purpose. That will not succeed based on attempting to recapture a past  long gone but by building a new coalition of support and a clarity of values fit for the modern world. It is not 1945, 1964 or 1997 - there is a world beyond Coronavirus where new social tensions and extensive technological challenges will require an approach that rejects the baggage and accepts that they are enemies on the left, that we are not all ‘basically on the same side’. Labour must become the champion of a free society of individual rights, collective solutions based on the contributory principle and for an economy where the injustices of unregulated markets are redressed.

I see no sign of this as yet but I live in hope - Keir is a fast learner. Today, I’m happy - for now, I have my Party back.

Posted by John Howarth
The strange appeal of Boris Johnson

The strange appeal of Boris Johnson

A long read on why 'decent working class folk" like the "big silly toff"(1)

(above) long ago at a Conservative conference far away


A side-effect of the Covid-19 catastrophe is, for some, the retreat even further into the bubble of self-affirming social media. Inevitably, and perfectly reasonably, a whole lot of people who could do with getting out more will be getting out even less.

In his inspiring speech to the people of Ireland the Toasheach, Leo Varadka, pointed out that “spending too much time on social media at this time is a very bad idea”. Nonetheless, people will  ‘go there’ regardless, largely into spaces peopulated by people like themselves. From my personal social media feeds I would be forced to conclude;

  • that the great majority believe Boris Johnson is making a terrible horlicks of the current crisis;
  • that the UK electorate would prefer just about anybody else in the job; and
  • that Dominic Cummings is the malevolent spawn of Satan.

I would be wrong. While the third point may well be true, the conclusions on Mr Johnson are wildly at odds with those of the population at large.

That rather more objective source, YouGov, indicates that, despite Boris Johnson’s visible discomfort, stumbling communication and lack of clarity on key issues, around 50% of UK voters think he is doing just fine. It was a view confirmed by other polls even before the Coronavirus crisis hit and as the unlockdown becomes more of a lockdown Bozza’s approval rating rises further (2). All this seems to make Labour people incandescent with rage - how on earth could decent Labour voter back this appalling man? Of course Mr Johnson is still aided by comparison to the Ghost of Corbyn Passing - who’s personal ratings soundly underpin the idea that he has been on the right side of history and has been entirely vindicated by events since he won the argument in December and confirms every single thing he had ever said about anything.

At some point that we cannot yet foresee the events of the past weeks will be the subject of enquiry, formal or historic, but whatever the rights and wrongs of the government’s handling of events, Mr Johnson’s appeal remains an asset to the Conservatives. Unless Labour comes to terms with that uncomfortable fact and attempts to understand Johnson’s perverse popularity it has little chance of taking him on effectively.

So what might explain Boris Johnson? On the face of it Johnson’s appeal is strange indeed. Self-deprecation, a bit of humour and some basic oratorical tricks can get you quite a long way among a field of cloned mediocrity and media semi-savvy. But Prime Minister? Winning lots of Labour seats? Really? There are those, and I have good reason to believe them, who contend that ‘Johnson the Joker’ is all something of an act. In private, these accounts go, he is altogether more serious, randomly grumpy and not at all affable. But so what? Does it matter? Clearly not much. As politicians we put on our uniforms, don our public persona and go to work, we come home peopled out, take off the suit and chill (3) - it’s how you stay sane.

The uncomfortable fact is whatever the private Boris, those who voted for him and approve of his actions thus far find him ‘relatable’ in a way that other politicians are not. Boris Johnson is different to ‘them’ - he’s more like ‘us’. Labour activists find this inexplicable - how can ‘working class’ people believe that this rich old Etonian be remotely like them? Simon Walters, writing what is essentially a fan piece in The Spectator, nonetheless sets some uncomfortably good points about the basis of Johnson’s appeal to non-Tory voters. Walters is certainly on the right track – but in my view doesn’t go the whole way.

King of chaos

Boris Johnson is not a smooth operator. He is permanently at war with his clothes, his hair is a mess (these days covering up a few gaps), the tie is too long and a lot wrong, the suit doesn’t fit, it’s all a bit off. Boris doesn’t really know his lines. He ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ during his delivery, he struggles to remember - or appears to. He contradicts himself and he reverts to whatever the slogan of the day might be. At times he doesn’t appear to know what to say. Slick it is not.

During the election campaign, in the one debate for which he showed up, he did well enough. He repeated his central messages but he hardly dispatched his feeble opponent anything like as easily as he should have. Political commentators and observers see a lazy, poorly prepared performer getting away with content-lite bluster. Voters see someone who isn’t putting on a show, someone who is flawed and human, someone who doesn’t necessarily have answers and someone who is not rehearsed, coached or polished.

That said, Boris Johnson is believably ‘brainy’. He displays his cleverness by coming out with the occasional bit of Latin or some factoid from the Trivial Pursuit Ancient Greece Edition. Spectacularly pointless knowledge this may be, but it displays the notion of the ‘good school’ trustworthiness that British votes have always found mildly impressive whether from a Labour or Tory leader. But at the same time Boris Johnson, who could easily be a Geoffrey Willans character, puts out there the dismal English disdain for the ‘overly clever’. The “Cameron is a girly swot” incident was too good to be true – spin of the first order putting out the a mild mistrust of those who try too hard. Middle class, educated liberal folk, especially the massed ranks of Labour schoolteachers, find this reprehensible - but the constituency to which he sets out to appeal laps it up (4). They mostly hated school. To the degree-free, Boris Johnson’s ‘brainyness’ is not intimidating - and not a threat to their manhood.

Lad or Cad

Not that many years ago a potential Prime Minister with more domestic baggage than Terminal 5 would have been inconceivable. In some ways I hope Johnson getting to No 10 represents an irreversible shift away from the days when private lives terminates public lives though somehow I’m not so sure. Boris Johnson seems to get away with more than many, and certainly any woman, would be allowed. There is some polling evidence that Mr Johnson’s appeal is skewed somewhat away from women - hardly surprising, his ‘track record’ of fidelity is not strong. I can’t see that through a woman’s eyes but I’m told it doesn’t play too well. But then he doesn’t pretend - and perhaps that is why many forgive it or just dismiss it as irrelevant.

For many men, however, it is more simple: Boris Johnson is reassuring. He’s a bit of a state, he’s a bit overweight but he’s still got a girlfriend young enough to be his daughter - all of which says ‘if he can any man can’! Men like that, honest. He doesn’t seem to know how many children he has and he doesn’t seem to be a terribly dutiful father - which for those who inhabit the same space, and there are quite a few, it confirms that it’s all OK – don’t mug yourself. The mistresses and the affairs all appeal to a very basis male instinct - like it or not, biologically men are not wired for monogamy. Humans have not evolved so far as to leave behind the primal male instinct to breed. To men Boris’s love life is confirmation that their instincts are OK - and it doesn’t really matter whether its a man who acts on their urges or not; its either confirmation that its OK to behave like him or you can tell yourself that you behave better than him. The chaotic life of Boris Johnson excuses his privileged background, it proves that underneath he is ‘just like us’. Many people, men and women, have chaotic lives it’s reassuring that Boris doesn’t apologise for being a personal screw up - in fact it of makes it OK for the rest of us.

Plain speaking

It is hard to explain to people of the liberal left just how offended and alienated many ‘ordinary working class’ folk are by ‘political correctness’. Alienation with a side order of confusion about what it is and isn’t deemed acceptable to say these days (5). These are not, for the most part, hideous racists, not closet gay-haters (6) and neither misogynists. They certainly do not think of themselves as such. I can recall numerous occasions where the everyday language of everyday people has been condemned as unacceptable. I’ve watched people react to it feeling belittled and inferior - it isn’t pretty. At the very least the condescension confirms their false victimhood. These people, as often as not, are - or at least were - the people who vote Labour.

Boris Johnson says things that are wildly condemned by liberal left activists or by Labour MPs but are often the things that everyday people say or think. Attacking Johnson’s calculated use of language, which always generates copy, is understood by those people who would unthinkingly say the same things as an attack on them. There is not much does him more good that a good spat of outrage – and, yes, damned if you do and damned if you don’t, that’s the elephant trap.

To those over the age of 55 (they vote), who remember the seventies, this is a particularly problematic. In the past 40 years the boundaries of acceptability in popular culture and the media have moved massively and quickly and it is another aspect of the changing world with which many people struggle. I hear this reflected in conversations all the time - in bars, on trains, at football grounds and beneath it is a frustration with “who decides” whether this term or that term is unacceptable? This is probably where the maligned ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ are most resented. Terms are unacceptable because the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ say they are unacceptable and those people - the school teachers, lecturers, social workers, assorted lefties and so on “look down on  people like us” and not only that, “they think they are better than us”. Boris Johnson, chaotic ‘morally flawed’ individual that he is, is in no position to look down on anybody - even though we all know he’s posh - he says the things others don’t say - to an extent. Outliers like Farage appeal only to a minority, Johnson reflects a wider frustration and provides a contrast to a deeply unpopular aspect of the left - its self-righteous moral superiority.

Posh boy

Boris Johnson is a posh boy. Eton and Baliol followed by a mixed career in journalism. He’s got plenty of money. What is there with which ordinary voters could identify? This is an area that the left has rarely understood. People, outside of Labour Party meetings and trade union rotten borough committees, really don’t care about the background of their public representatives and they couldn’t care less if they are wealthy or not. Because you know what? They would quite like to be wealthy themselves. They like a bit of glamour, a bit of bling. Here again is the contrast with Labour and the liberal left personified. Labour’s solidly middle class base seems to sneer at best and viscerally hate at worst the notion that people might ‘get on’ in life. Johnson’s obviously moneyed background, of which he makes no secret, is more acceptable than the perceived hypocrisy of the left - who “all have money but pretend they don’t”, “you lot say class shouldn’t matter, but it seems to matter to you” or even, “he can’t help being rich”.

Keep smiling through

British humour isn’t unique - but it is both distinctive and widely appreciated. Boris Johnson reflects that. Not only does he do self-deprecation pretty well, he is unafraid to look entirely ridiculous. He knows this will get reported and he knows it will be fine as long as he doesn’t show the slightest embarrassment. Once again, his opponents rarely get it – far from being a disaster, getting stuck on that zip wire was one of the best things that ever happened to Bozza.

Here again the contrast with the humourless, self-righteous politically correct left couldn’t be greater. Boris Johnson’s leadership followed a period when British politics had been unremittingly miserable. Every forecast pessimistic, every likely outcome worse than the status quo, every scenario gloomy - things can only get worse. That isn’t what people what from their leaders - the successful leaders have known this. McMillan, Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Blair - all won on optimistic platforms. The pious and the overly serious are rarely winners, the utterly miserable always fail. Every single Labour speaker I have heard over the past few years has started trotting out the same grim litany of how dreadful life is under the Conservatives, failing to realise that is often not how those to whom they are seeking to appeal see their lives. Boris Johnson provided optimism - an upbeat view of the future that contrasted sharply with the immediate past and the hair-shirted hypocrisy of Corbynite Labour.

Crisis, What a Crisis

How does all this square with Mr Johnson’s handling of the current Coronavirus crisis? First and foremost his looking uncomfortable and awkward is entirely in tune with his ‘being real’. It would be really worrying if he was reveling in it. When he says that he doesn’t want to tell people to stay at home, he doesn’t want to tell them not to travel, he’s entirely believable – for once he doesn’t have an issue with telling the truth. His tone on his broadcast to the nation was wrong in places but his reluctance to impose otherwise illiberal controls on movement and activity, seriously limiting fun, aids the view that he is genuine, “doing his best”. The Government - in my view - has cleverly nudged public opinion in such a way as to see a series of limitations on personal freedom positively welcomed by the majority. Meanwhile in the darker recesses of Twitter the rage demons celebrate his contracting the virus (7), peddle insane conspiracy theories that it is all a PR stunt or tut at his inability to follow his own government’s guidelines. Seriously? He's a politician, meeting people is the job!

Putting it all out there

It’s all out there. Boris John’s life is in the papers, on the TV, on Twitter. Like his personality or loath it, you cannot deny that at least he has one. He set out to be a celebrity long before he had an elected role and he is comfortable being a celebrity in a celebrity age. He seems to play to the rule that the more you put out there the less there is to dig for – and if they find something, who cares? Don’t apologies, don’t explain. Those who disapprove of reality shows tend also to disapprove of Boris Johnson. Reality shows are, however, rather popular.

I have asked quite a few people their view of Boris Johnson, or if they could explain why they voted for him. The response, more often than not, was framed in reference to the alternative on offer in December. The contrast with Corbyn, for some Johnson was the best of an unacceptable choice on offer, for others the justification for backing a man they know, instinctively, to be somewhat disreputable, others, as always, made it their justification for voting Tory when they know their own party is less than ideal. The contrast for all of them seems to be also about the world they would prefer: free speaking, uncontrolled, optimistic, not overly clever, comfortable with how they are and not having to justify themselves or apologise for what they think.  Boris Johnson is somebody they would be comfortable chatting to or having a drink with without being overawed, who would take a selfie with them whether they were going to vote for him or not. Labour’s next leader will almost certainly be a different proposition. But they will need to understand the nature of Boris Johnson’s appeal and find a brand of their own to contrast but with which voters can feel at least generally at home. Whatever the new leader does they should understand that playing the man against Boris Johnson is futile – it will simply play into his hands.



(1) So said the great Billy Connelly. He's allowed. Meanwhile it is worth considering whether these supposedly 'working class' people even think of themselves that way. Now, or in fact, ever.

(2) Fair to say that just about every leader's ratings across the globe have risen in this context - except Kim Jong Un's which were already +250%

(3) Although I don't imagine Gordon Brown did this.

(4) Always remember that elections in the UK are swayed by 20% of voters in marginal or target seats. There are plenty of people who vote Tory who find this view appalling, work hard and press the importance of education on their children. But they were largely going to vote for Johnson anyway.

(5) I meet genuinely nice, intelligent people who really are baffled by it all - and that's not even mentioning the 'trans' issue. It has never been clear to me how berating them, calling them racist or sexist or whatever is likely to persuade them of your case.

(6) I have a problem with the word (whatever)phobic - I think is excuses prejudice by giving psudo-psychological terminology.

(7) Very bad karma.

Posted by John Howarth
I’ve voted Keir Starmer 1 Lisa Nandy 2

I’ve voted Keir Starmer 1 Lisa Nandy 2

Keir Starmer is the clear front runner in the never ending election of the Leader of the Labour Party. Despite reservations about a number of his ‘pledges’ and declared policy positions I have voted for Keir because I believe he is the best candidate and has the best chance on taking Labour on the journey it needs to follow once gain to have the chance of winning. 

Nominated by more than twice as many CLPs as his nearest rival, with the bulk of Labour MPs supporting him, important support for affiliates and the polls with the best track record confirming his lead, Starmer looks an odds-on favourite.

But the Labour Leadership contest is far from over. The timetable extends a ludicrous 114 days since Oh Jeremy Corbyn announced he would step down. Concerns exist over missing ballots. Though I have little doubt that if the Stalinist clique who surrounded Corbyn could facilitate the election of St Jezza’s successor they most certainly would, my instinct leans to incompetence rather than conspiracy. There has, after all, been a surfeit of incompetence from that crowd.

So why Keir, after all he stuck with team Corbyn when others walked away and he isn’t exactly vocal on their manifest failures? 

I remember well the last time Labour sought to turn its fortunes round after a disastrous period of poor leadership, implausible policies and infighting. What distinguished Neil Kinnock was not his policy agenda, nor his desire to resolve Labour’s internal disputes - it was his desire to get Labour back to winning ways. Keir Starmer’s most obvious asset is that same determination. The understanding that without power not only Labour’s policies but its very existence is meaningless is the X-factor from which everything else follows. Starmer’s campaign has demonstrated that same uncompromising will to win above all else and that bodes well.

Secondly, Keir Starmer is the clear choice of Labour voters. He is the candidate more voters can see as a future Prime Minister. He is the most likely potential Labour leader to attract back to the party those voters who for one reason or another deserted the Party. That matters more than the sensibilities of Labour members - including mine.

Third, as an MEP I saw Keir Starmer operating as shadow spokesman on Brexit. He commanded a level of respect well above any other Labour front bencher. He was taken seriously in every EU institution, learned very fast and was comfortable in the most difficult imaginable brief. Once of the centeral criticisms of Labour’s last two leaderships has been their manifest incompetence - Keir Starmer is visibly competent. That really matters - through the media and to people who vote. 

Those three reasons ought to be enough and for me they mark Keir Starmer out as the best candidate - but in this a very different election where the issues facing Labour are much more difficult than any in living memory. So let’s deal with the key criticisms of Keir.

I took the Labour MEP mandate when Mr Corbyn was Labour Leader knowing I would never positively endorse him. I took the view, however, that allowing one of his supporters to take my place would not do any good and that I was fleet of foot enough to dodge the bullets on my personal view of Corbyn*. I was prepared to bury my view to have the platform to campaign against Brexit and for the outcome of negotiations to be put back top the public. That could only happen with Labour onside. The greatest issue of my lifetime took precedence over my view of Corbyn as incompetent and ideologically bankrupt. So I was glad Keir stayed in post when walking away would have been so much easier. His decision was akin to my own, politics is rarely about ideal choices - you do you best in the situation in which you find yourself.

In 1983 some saw Roy Hattersley as the better choice - a clearer, faster break with Labour’s disastrous stances. But whatever his merits, could he have delivered the chance that was needed? I doubt it. Kinnock may have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in 1992, but he delivered the changes that made it thinkable.   

During this contest Lisa Nandy has, as I suspect was her intention, written herself into a major role in Labour’s next phase. She was never going to win, but her performance on the hustings has been excellent - demonstrating ability and a refreshing directness. It is so much easier to be direct and honest when you are not likely to have to justify the view as leader. That, and my view that Lisa made the wrong call at a key point in the Brexit catastrophe, means that she was my second preference. If there was any logic to Labour’s leadership election, Lisa would become Keir’s deputy. She may not hold the title, but de facto I expect she will be.  

A few words on the titular Deputy Leader. I nominated Rosena Alain-Khan and accordingly she received my first preference. Her energy, back story and undoubted ability is persuasive - Rosena is a true force of nature. I could, equally, however have voted for Ian Murray, who articulates a convincing case and gets Labour’s plight. He was my second preference, at number three, I backed Angela Rayner - who will probably end up winning. I like Angela and it is important Labour has working class women among its leadership, but she has not put sufficient distance between herself and the disasters oif Corbynism to get my direct support. Finally I gave a pointless fourth preference to Dawn Butler - pointless that is other than indicating that in a direct choice with the lamentable Richard Burgon it wouldn’t even be close. 

Labour can’t start its journey from where we would like it to be. We are where we are and it is not a good place. There are people on the train who have no business being there and who’s preferred destination is not one in which right thinking people wish to buy a ticket. As the driver Keir Starmer has the best chance of getting Labour on the track to reality. Fighting every battle at once would probably lead to derailment. 

Politics is about priorities. The top internal priority for Labour is dealing effectively with the crisis created by manifestations of anti-semitism. Sadly but entirely understandably, many Jewish people will never forgive Labour, but without firm action on this toxic issue the Party cannot move forward. On that Keir Starmer has been very clear. The next priority is to demonstrate an effective opposition. This inevitably means holding the Government to account on Brexit where national self-harm is reaching new levels. Keir Starmer is best placed to do so both that and to develop a plausible European engagement policy for both Labour and the country.

Many more members seem to have understood the existential nature of Labour’s challenge. It the Party savable? I’m really not sure. Is it, under Britain’s prehistoric electoral system, easier to save Labour than to start again - clearly it is. For the people who need Labour and for ther best chance of turning from the far right populists, I’m prepared to play the percentages and give Keir the chance to prove anther future is possible.

JH 12.3.2012


* In the event I was. I didn’t make any direct public criticisms of Mr Corbyn till the polls were closed on 12 December. When asked by broadcast media I was always able to deflect, address the policy questions and was still able to address issues like the manifest collective failure on antisemitism. I made criticisms of the collective failure of leadership after the European Election polls had closed but I chose my words carefully. My reason was simple - it wasn’t going to do any good. The stupid, doomed, knee-jerk challenge to Corbyn’s leadership in 2016 had sold the pass and strengthened his position.

Posted by John Howarth
Building peace in South Asia requires a settlement for Kashmiris

Building peace in South Asia requires a settlement for Kashmiris

John addressed a seminar at the Pakistan High Commission in London on Kashmir Solidarity Day 2020 (above), below his op-ed for The Brussels Times:


The human rights situation in Indian controlled Jammu and Kashmir is self-evidently intolerable for much of the local population. The state of ‘lockdown’ that has applied since August has removed the ability of Kashmiris to communicate with the outside world and removed the gaze on international opinion from the actions of the Indian security forces.

The tactics used in the name of ‘supressing terrorism’ have been well documented in the United Nations Human Rights Council report of June 2018. The conclusions of the report remain disputed by the government of India yet that same Government fails to facilitate independent international observation of the territory. Surely it is self-evident that if the claims of widespread and systematic abuses of human rights are ‘fake news’, as the Government of India claims (and, by the way, as its representatives have claimed to me in person) then opening the whole of Jammu and Kashmir to international observation would reveal the truth.

It is nonetheless hard to see why anyone would wish to invent such claims, nor why any state would lock down part of its territory in this way other than to hide from the world something it did not wish the world to see.

The actions of the Government of Narendra Modi since the Indian general election of 2019 suggest the wind is not blowing in the direction of a consensus-based resolution. Instead the ground has been laid the ground for ‘settlement’, ‘resettlement’, ‘colonisation’ – call it what you will. Seeking to alter the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir and the provisions of amendments to the India Citizenship acts demonstrate a discriminatory mindset at the heart of Modi Government singling out Muslims. These actions are a blow at the heart of democratic secular India and, with its actions in Kashmir, damaging to its international standing.

The reactions of the international community thus far have been limited and ineffective. A United Nations position of the status of Kashmir has been in place for more than 70 years, however, it has not proved an effective tool in producing a sustainable settlement. However, the UN HRC report of 2018 was effective in drawing new attention to a problem that, were it elsewhere in the world with different natural resources, would doubtless command greater attention. Unfortunately the UN, the USA (despite a fleeting intrusion into President Trump’s attention span) and the European Union seem happy to ignore Kashmir.

In the context of the European Union’s approach specifically, it is important to understand that the issue of Kashmir was more keenly felt in the UK, the home of two thirds of Europeans of South Asian origin, than elsewhere. Without the UK in the European institutions voices advocating action are now much weaker. The EU, however, still has a potentially productive role to play in nudging the situation in the right direction. First of all, and more obviously without the UK involved, the EU was not part of the imperial power that created the problem, the EU has a limited Kashmiri and South Asian diaspora but it also has a vast and wealthy market to which South Asia nations seek to gain greater and greater preferential access. The leverage of progressive trade agreements and their benefits to emerging economies is significant. EU trade agreements have sought to improve working conditions, apply tests of fairness and look to progress against international conventions and agreements. The GSP+ agreement with Pakistan due for renewal this month has been one such successful agreement that has brought progress and new jobs for Pakistanis, and new export benefits for the EU.

The EU should not hold back from using its economic leverage with the Indian Government and in any new arrangements respect for human rights and conflict resolution must have their place. My fear is that different standards will be applied to the emerging Indian economic superpower than are to its smaller South Asian neighbours. Progressive MEPs need to understand the importance of not doing so and comprehend the dangerous nature of the Hindu populist nationalism of Narendra Modi.

The EU as a leader in the international community should be demanding observer access to Jammu and Kashmir, making clear trade agreements will be conditional on respect for human rights and using its voice to promote conflict resolution.

Two truths remain clear through the fog. One: a sustainable settlement to the Kashmir issue would remove a key barrier to both lasting regional peace and accelerating economic development. The other: a sustainable settlement in Kashmir has to be based on the consent of the Kashmiris.


first published: The Brussels Times, 5 February 2020

Posted by John Howarth
As Jess Phillips withdraws John Howarth MEP backs Keir Starmer for Labour Leader

As Jess Phillips withdraws John Howarth MEP backs Keir Starmer for Labour Leader

After Jess Phillips withdrawal from the Labour Leadership contest on 21 January, John issued the following statement:

“I nominated Jess Philips for Labour Leader in the forthcoming election and so am of course disappointed that she has made the decision to stand down.

“Jess has a different approach – honest and straightforward. She speaks as she finds, something I ​believe is essential we have more of in our politics. She enjoys a good level of support among young people, which is a valuable asset. I also thought Boris Johnson would find her a real challenge at the ​despatch box. I’m sure she will continue to make a unique and significant contribution to public life

​“Of the remaining candidates I am happy now to endorse Keir Starmer for Leader. It was always a difficult choice between very different people.

He is someone I, and I believe Labour voters, can see standing on the steps of Downing Street as their new Prime Minister. Keir is manifestly competent. Over the past three years I have watched him, listened to him and he regularly met with Labour MEPs and listened to us.

He ​has the forensic ability and experience to hold Boris Johnson to account. Brexit is not going away. Keir is hugely well informed on the subject and best placed to make the arguments against a disastrous no deal which will be catastrophic for our country and hold the Government to account.”

Posted by John Howarth
Arguing to rejoin the EU is not credible right now

Arguing to rejoin the EU is not credible right now

2020 needs to be a year of realities

After the general election the political landscape has changed significantly. In this artile first published on LabourList, John looks forward to the next stages of Brexit, the approach that the UK needs and for which the Government needs to be held to account. The prospects aren’t good.

Since 2015 Britain has been fantasy island. Our politics have been mired in a series of unrealistic Brexit centred constructs.

At 10:05pm on 12 December 2019 with the Lost Decade creaking to its close the landscape changed. The certainty of the UK’s exit from the European Union’s institutions on 31 January demands political reality from Government and opposition alike. Pragmatism must become the prevailing ideology in the coming months. Too many people have too much to lose should our elected leaders fail to tack towards seeking a sustainable, economically manageable outcome to the UK’s departure. It is time to get real.

Brexit is now a fact, but it still won’t be good.

The acceptance of reality does not mean those who have opposed the UK leaving the EU “getting behind Brexit”. Boris Johnson’s victory is a fact, but it doesn’t change the facts: the UK’s exit from the EU remains a grave mistake. Whatever future relationship is defined it will be inferior to that which we have till 31 January. Britain’s influence in the world as it evolves will be diminished and many of our commercial interests will be weakened. Decisions over standards and markets that affect the UK will still be made in Brussels, just without the UK at the table. The impossible promises made during and after the referendum will not be delivered. The fantasy white knight of ‘free trade’ - with the Commonwealth, the ’Anglosphere’ or any other ‘global partners’ - will not charge to the rescue, the freedoms and rights we acquired as European Union citizens will be removed. These consequences remain unavoidable - there is no good Brexit and it remains unclear what it is the leavers have actually won.

Boris Johnson and his English nationalists should be called out and made to own Brexit’s ongoing failure. Unfortunately making that stick will be another matter. Johnson’s ability to transfer blame is proficient and well-rehearsed and the mood music is unfavourable. The Government holds all the best propaganda cards and understandably, as the general election perfectly illustrated, the public has had enough of Brexit.

A deal during 2020?

Though the difficulties are not to be underestimated, a ‘deal’ of some sort will probably be concluded between the UK and the EU during 2020. Perhaps a deal not terribly good for the UK, perhaps an extension to the transition just called something else, but that avoids the deferred crash out on 31 December 2020, buying time and diverting the attention of a bored and disinterested public. Brexit still won’t be done - but few will any longer care.

For those who care to, it will however, be another “wonderful deal” dressed up by Downing Street as a political triumph. Boz and Dom both understand that nothing succeeds like success - and as nobody actually knows what success looks like, it will be whatever they say it is.

Rebadging will be the order of the day - starting with ‘not the extended transition period’. When, for example, the UK accepts reality and pays over the odds to participate in EU research programmes with no control over their terms. We’ll be told that the country will have secured “a leading role in ‘global’ scientific partnerships” - or something similar that doesn’t say ‘EU’ to make acceptable that element of selling out their ERG zealots. Whether or not things will go as far as the “not the customs union customs union”, and the “not the single market single market” trailed in Mrs May’s political declaration it remains to be seen. Mr Johnson has indicated otherwise but has got the new problem of a bunch of Tory gains in places that will be hit hardest and earliest by a ‘no trade deal’ on 31 December. We know he would re-brand bacon as “delicious vegan goodness” if it serves his interests. After 31 January all things are once again possible for the first electorally successful Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher.

Calling out failure will be difficult

If a disruptive end to 2020 is avoided - and no responsible UK politician should wish the consequences of ‘no trade deal’ and our people - calling out failure becomes difficult. Other than the chaos of ‘no deal’, it was always wrong to paint Brexit as an overnight cataclysm. The economic consequences will unfold over many years, though will in all likelihood remain grim. Even so waters will be inevitably muddy and the forecasters will be ‘wrong’ - even if they are 80% right. That’s how economics is, that’s how markets are, businesses will find ‘a way’ - more costly, less efficient and fundamentally constrained but ‘a way’. Short and long term deflection will be easy for Government; too many other issues will be around to pin whatever may happen solely on Brexit even when it is true. So, while pointing out inconvenient truths has to be part of any credible ‘fact based’ politics, ‘carrying on the fight’ as a matter of principle is a nonsense unlikely to get a hearing.

A credible European policy

After 31 January the UK needs a credible European policy based on engagement with the EU as a third country. While I firmly believe that eventually that will be once again as a member of the European Union, arguing the UK should ‘rejoin’ is simply not credible politics for a serious political party in the 2020s (I doubt it will be in my lifetime, though I hope I’m wrong). Keeping the flame alive matters, many will do so and some of us will be Labour members, but it cannot be the Labour Party’s aspiration right now. Just as there has been no contradiction, nor any betrayal of principle, in arguing to remain while seeking to mitigate the worst aspects of Brexit. Neither is there any contradiction in working for the best outcome we can achieve outside the EU, while knowing that the best interests of UK citizens lie in co-operation and doing business with our neighbours. Campaigning for rights removed and diminished by the appalling Withdrawal Agreement will be ongoing and will remain a duty. Pointing out that we would all have been better off had Brexit never happened, a continuing obligation.

Neither is it healthy for pro-EU politicians to delude ourselves that we ‘won the argument’. Yes, we came close to stopping Brexit, but there is no ‘moral victory’. Losing is not winning. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that battles were won - that’s how wars go. Analysis of the history will continue; understanding of Brexit is far from complete but the outcome will not change. Ironically, the largest pro-European movement anywhere in the EU28 is now that in the UK - it will keep the flame alight but channelling pro EU sentiment into a coherent political direction will be a challenge, though few who went on those demonstrations or signed those petitions will forgive the Conservatives any time soon.

A credible European policy will recognise uncomfortable truths for both pro-Europeans and leavers. The UK is to become a ‘third country’ without the hard power that comes with a 14% block vote, 10% of MEPs and the clout that’s comes with a major budget contribution. It is remarkable how many people I meet on either side of the argument have yet to even grasp that we will not have MEPs. The EU will now make decisions that are in the EU’s interests - or at least that they believe to be. Most of those decisions will affect the UK to some degree. The interests of the EU will sometimes coincide with the interests of the UK, sometimes they will not. Sometimes there will be conflicting interests and the EU will not always recognise mutual interest over self-interest but, as a rules-based organisation, it will not act to subvert its own rules. The object of UK policy should be to ensure that mutual interest is recognised and acted upon as often as possible and to identify how this can happen without undermining the rules. We should not be surprised however if for the next few years it is hard to get a hearing.

Recognising mutual interests

To have any chance of success in this the UK-EU relationship will need to step beyond the rancour of the last five years. This will be as difficult for the EU as it will be for the UK - the overwhelming desire is to ‘move on’ - which in the short term really means ‘move off entirely’. National interests will also come into play without the means of mitigation for the ‘common good’ (just when you needed that seat at the table). At present it is hard to see a dynamic to negotiations that is not adversarial, however, maybe it will dawn on Mr Johnson that it will be in everyone’s interests to change it. An early necessary move from the ‘nothing is agreed till everything is agreed’ big single agreement to a series of staged agreements would help build a culture of success. Early wins matter. If Johnson fails to take the initiative on phasing (which the EU may well resist - they would be very wrong to do so) then it will indicate a lack of ‘strategic genius’ in Downing Street.

Where we are right now is still a bad place for all concerned. A phased timetable is a first step toward a better place, but in substance, changing the prospects for a sensible outcome requires leadership of the sort that has been in short supply. Resetting the terms of the debate requires a shared vision, not total agreement but common ground. Can the UK and the EU agree that there is an active threat to democratic institutions; that there is a direct threat to the security and freedom of Europe as we have known it; that we have common interests in combatting organised crime; that co-operation around climate, medical and scientific research continues to make sense, that co-operation around a common study area is a mutual benefit? An early big picture declaration of common interest as the basis for re-building relationships is essential. The current political declaration does not meet the test.

Brussels fudge is past its sell-by date

The EU and the UK each need, for their own good, to recognise the failures that got us here. The EU didn’t initiate Brexit, but it failed and continues to fail to respond effectively to the challenges that helped Brexit come about; history will judge the Juncker Commission harshly. The reality of significant democratic change in the EU was never communicated. The evolution of EU institutions toward a recognisably transparent form of governance has been painfully slow. The high-flying rhetoric of federalism persists within the bubble while the conflicting reality of a club of member states with shared and competing interests prevails. EU institutions remain poor at democratic accountability. The budget process institutionalises conflict. President Macron’s demands for change as legitimate as they are essential, what they will deliver is less clear and it must go beyond institutional to the reform of political priorities. ‘Blaming Brussels’ for all our ills isn’t just a British affliction. The complacency that runs deep in the mainstream political currents has been shaken but little action has been stirred. Brexit should have been the catalyst for change. It could yet prove so once the UK has gone but the signs are not hopeful. The realisation that a new proactive socioeconomic settlement is required to combat populism is taking too long to dawn. The EU usually ’finds a way’ - but muddling through is no longer enough.

You can’t eat nostalgia

For the UK the problems run deeper. The UK/Britain/England - there’s the problem in a nutshell. The rapid decline of Empire, the avoidance of military defeat and foreign occupation, ending up on the winning side at enormous cost in 1918 and 1945 and the dominance of the English language all masked the need to build a new purpose for the UK as a large European state made up of several nations. Britain, uniquely, has failed to nation build for the modern era. Not surprising that the Scots, the different Irish traditions and Wales have carved out post-imperial identities based on differing social movements. Entering the EU in an act of desperation without a clear sense of what modern Britain might become delivered on many levels, but has proved unsustainable. Outside the EU the UK, especially England, will be forced, finally, to come to terms with itself and understand its real position in the world. That at least might be no bad thing.

John Howarth MEP - 2.1.2020

Posted by John Howarth
10 Resons why the People’s Vote movement failed

10 Resons why the People’s Vote movement failed

In many respects the People’s Vote movement was a remarkable achievement. The campaign in the UK to reverse Brexit through a second referendum became the biggest pro-European movement in any member state by a country mile. It mobilised a couple of million people on the streets of London over four demonstrations - without doubt among the largest ever seen, with millions more persuaded to back petitions or to send emails to MPs. Little before or since mobilised so many into political campaigning, it was mostly very pleasant too, yet in the end it failed.

Here are ten reasons why, stating with the three most important:

  1. Failing to recognise the result in 2016

Too many people were far too quick to call for a second vote after the 2016 debacle. In doing so they undermined their own ability to hold the promises of the leave campaign accountable and prepare the ground for the call to vote again.

  1. People just didn’t want another one

There is an inherent sense of fairness among many people in the UK. Part of that is the notion of accepting the result of the match, the race or the referee’s decision. Actually people who follow sport dispute the result all the time - but just know there is little that can be done about it. However it was more than that. The referendum had been rancorous and divisive, vitriolic and nasty. Many decent people, including many who voted to remain, just didn’t want all that again. Others, including key leading politicians, doubted the wisdom and consequences of a second vote. While many felt cheated by the 2016 vote, the peoples’ vote campaign failed to convince enough that it was worth going through it all again...

  1. Fear of the same result

... especially if the result may well be the same. And though the Peoples’ Vote tried to present itself as open minded, in reality was it was about stopping Brexit and everybody knew it. Though the polls showed a moderate but consistent shift toward a remain majority and the demographic trend had killed off the ‘leave’ majority by February 2018, there was just not enough evidence that the outcome would be different or sufficiently decisive to be worth taking the risk of backing another vote.

An inability to change minds

These are the three most important reasons, but why did the Peoples’ Vote fail to change minds in sufficient numbers? Four factors here:

  1. No leaders

Back when the ill-starred, badly branded, ineffectual, self-aggrandising ‘British Influence’ organisation was established to make the argument for EU membership, Ken Clarke and Peter Mandleson were wheeled out as front people. I observed in my newspaper column at the time that credible and committed to the cause though they were, Ken Clarke was even then very old and had failed more than once to become Conservative leader whilst Peter Mandleson (who I personally admire as a communicator) was a former EU Commissioner and never exactly Mr Popular with the wider public. Along came the remain campaign proper which opted for a businessman who rapidly disappeared in a cloud of mediocrity never to re-emerge. Nothing had been learned - no leader(s) meant no personality, no personality meant less media time, meant no leadership. Nothing to identify with. Certainly not for those for whom the charms of David Cameron remained a mystery.

  1. No recognisable strategy

Not only was it never clear who was in charge, it was entirely unclear where the campaign was going and by when it would do whatever might be next. Some of the campaign decisions were inexplicable and despite great success that got noticed there was a consistent failure to anticipate the approach of the Brexiteers and how their arguments might be countered. While we were arguing for the second referendum Farage and his friends were fighting it. There may have been a plan, but it wasn’t transparent and it certainly wasn’t clear how minds would be changed.

  1. Cranks and flags

In many ways the Peoples’ Vote movement was both pro-European and quinticentially English - eccentric and, well, harmless. However it all had the feeling of a very large choir preaching to itself. Having no especially defined imagery, the images of EU Flag waving, hat wearing, face painting were loved by the converted. These ‘remain ultras’ seemed to have no idea how the the symbolism of their European identity was regarded as foreign and threatening to many who see themselves as patriotic and proud to be British. To be fair, many running Peoples’ Vote and the other ‘remain’/second referendum campaigns would acknowledge this but had no idea how to brand it. It was symptomatic of twains not destined to meet and exactly what the Brexiteers wanted.

  1. Defending the EU Status Quo

The core of the Peoples’ Vote movement were ‘believers’ - people who felt the EU was of itself a ‘good thing’, rather than makers of a pragmatic, patriotic case for UK involvement to serve the best interests of UK people and to bring about change. Whatever the intent the movement came across, especially given the imagery, as defending the EU ‘warts and all’. Not only that, the EU was ‘better than Britain’. The need to re-butt lies and Eurosceptic propaganda kept pro-EU campaigns on the back foot. Again exactly what the Brexiteers wanted.

Politics as usual

But despite all this the People’s Vote movement came very close to achieving a Parliamentary majority for a second vote. By February 2019, the Government’s Brexit strategy was in tatters. Brinkmanship took the process close to the 29 March deadline and the largest demonstration took place in London. Then out politicians failed the movement:

  1. The EP elections

Nobody had expected the European Parliament elections to take place and nobody had prepared for them - except Nigel Farage. Elections have a way of shattering coalitions. The desire for party political advantage pulled apart the defacto remain alliance that had emerged. That division destroyed the potential to defeat Nigel Farage and thereby sealed the fate of the second referendum - despite results that told a different story.

  1. Labour

The failure to defeat the deeply unpopular Nigel Farage was ultimately Labour’s failure. I have written on this elsewhere. However this was not Labour’s only failure. Opposing HM Government’s flagship policy can only be carried out effectively by HM’s Loyal Opposition. Labour failed so frequently throughout the process that in the end it was not surprising that it missed the opportunity to get the nation, the political centre and its own leadership off the hook by backing the Kyle-Wilson amendment giving conditional approval to Mrs May’s Withdrawal agreement but making it subject to a second referendum. Labour was, as always, Labourist. Self-defeatingly tribal in its policy evolution and actions, deluding itself that the election of a Labour Government could somehow resolve Brexit around a less damaging deal despite all evidence to the contrary.

  1. Liberal Democrat’s (and the SNP)

The Liberal Democrats drove the final nails into the coffin. Peddling the dubious notion that a vote for them alone in the European Parliament elections could ‘stop Brexit’ when the decision resided as Westminster was fundamentally dishonest. Their successful use of the Peoples Vote machinery to make give partisan ‘tactical’ voting indications in a PR election guaranteed to unseat remain supporting Labour MEPs. This undermined the remain case within Labour and eliminated the chance of knocking Nigel Farage out of first place. It was a massive tactical error which in the end did the LibDems no good.

Even more baffling, having done rather well with a simple message, the LibDems moved to a complicated and implausible message around the democratically unsustainable policy of ‘revoke’. The approach lost support and undermined the notion of taking the issue back to the people.

However the ultimate crime perpetrated by the Liberal Democrats was gifting Boris Johnson the election he always wanted just on the point when the option of removing the Govenment had not been pursued. Their belief that they could win 100 seats was always a fantasy. It denied the logic of both first past the post and their history as a protest vote. At a European election ‘stop Breixt’ was a neat protest - at a general election it prompted the question ‘how’?

The SNP also deserves a mention. They too gifted Mr Johnson his election. They too put their party interest before the national interest. Though at least in their case it is not a nation they believe in and their expectation of gaining seats and votes turned out to be correct. It was pretty cynical stuff, but the clue is in the name - independence is the priority.

Heroic failure

Though politicians failed the people’s vote movement it isn’t the whole story. The movement failed to convince the public. MPs simply did not have the evidence that sufficient minds had changed to take the risk of backing another referendum. The judgement of MPs was in some cases flawed or gutless or both, but in others it was heroic. MPs who deserted their long-held pro-EU views to fit the pro-Brexit result in their constituency got no credit for it - in many cases they did less well than those who argued for what they believed in. Phil Wilson, Anna Turley and their like-minded colleagues left Westminster with their self-respect intact.

Posted by John Howarth
Labour’s choice: visible change or terminal decline

Labour’s choice: visible change or terminal decline

After its worst result since 1935, Labour has only one chance to get back into the zone where it could dislodge the Conservatives from power in 2024.

Yes, 2024 – it’s a truly depressing thought, but that’s when we are looking at the chance of winning an election (1). In the meantime those who need a Labour Government most will suffer the most.

On Thursday night as the exit poll (those things the cultists tell us we are not meant to believe) accurately set out the horror that was to follow, the proprietor of the Momentum company and Labour NEC member, Jon Lansman, said:

“Democracy gives power to people, “Winning” is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves.”

For Mr Lansman, a wealthy individual, taking a 30 year view of “winning” is probably fine, but for many of us “winning” is the big bit that enables Labour to deliver for the people it seeks to represent.

The greatest betrayal of all, the most objectively right wing act for a party that seeks social justice, is to lose and so remain powerless to deliver. This is why every Labour Prime Minister will be objectively further to the left than Bennites like Mr Lansman – because they did what was needed to win and deliver for people. If Labour consistently fails to deliver the people who need a plausible alternative will look elsewhere and Labour will shrink toward irrelevance.

So only one chance to realign ourselves with realistically seeking power. Elections are only partly about policy. Perhaps they should be entirely, but they are not. They are also about fitness to govern, economic competence and the quality of leadership – especially the potential Prime Minister on offer.

One chance. Labour can not go into an election with a leader so manifestly despised by so much of the electorate as was Jeremy Corbyn. In some respects it doesn’t even matter why Mr Corbyn was despised – but anyone who knocked on any doors at all knows all to well that this was the case – even if they choose to deny the reality publicly. But failures in politics are rarely individual, Mr Corbyn’s colleagues in the shadow cabinet knew very well how much of a drag on the party their leader was. It was clear at the European Elections that the game was up for Mr Corbyn, his credibility destroyed by successive defeats in local and European polls and fatally undermined by the antisemitism affair. At that point the comrades in grey should have made clear that a dignified exit would be his best service to Labour’s electoral prospects. I did not call for Mr Corbyn’s removal because, coming from me, it would have served no purpose – only those close to him could have dealt with the problem from Islington North. By indulging continued failed the Bennite leadership failed their duty to the party the country and the people who’s interests they claim to serve. Now there are those who would say that Jeremy Corbyn was unfairly treated by the media. I agree – he was – but it isn’t as if we didn’t know the nature of most of the media. It isn’t as if every Labour leader is not demonised by two papers in particular and the rest frequently. Deal with it or lose – but to deal with it the raw material has to be plausible. Jeremy Corbyn was not.

Fitness to govern amounts to many things. Divided parties rarely win – but in 2019 both the main parties appeared divided. However Conservative messaging was far superior. Their central, most plausible if dishonest message, “get Brexit done”, chimed with most of those who voted leave and to many who were simply so tired of the whole thing they were prepared to vote against their instincts in the hope that it would go away. Labour by contrast had started in the wrong place on Brexit, shifting position uncomfortably and ending up a perfectly reasonable but largely unpresentable policy. Brexit was and will probably remain for some time the greatest issue of the day. It is simple not possible for the Leader of the Opposition not to express a clear view on such a crucial question. Clarity from leaders is everything.

Those who attempt to pin the blame on Labour’s support for a second vote are wrong. Lack of clarity and shape shifting was the problem. Labour damaged itself on Brexit over years not weeks. Without ambivalent leadership and the resulting confusion of the Labour vote at the referendum Brexit probably would never have happened in the first place. The imposed whip in favour of Theresa May’s premature declaration of Article 50 sold the pass when an abstention would have made sense, the wording of the 2017 manifesto and the lack of strategy in holding the Government to account made things worse. By the time we got to a second vote Labour was no longer trying to persuade, it was simple seen as driven there by fear of the Liberal Democrats.

It should have been clear from the start. A leadership of known ‘lexiteers’ who professed a member-led party faced an overwhelmingly pro-European membership. It was never possible to unite Labour around ‘leaving’ – two out of three of Labour voters, most MPs and MEPs and four out of five members simple wouldn’t allow it. The fudge proved unsustainable and was respected by neither leavers nor remainers in the country. The view that Labour’s leader did not believe in the party’s position further undermined any notion of trust. His unwillingness during the campaign to express a view was the final blow. (2)

Fitness to govern also requires a plausible programme for Government, that demonstrates economic competence. Labour’s manifesto did anything but. Ruinously fiscally irresponsible and politically undeliverable without a very large majority, it lacked any notion that the economy even matters;  that wealth must be created before it can be distributed. There was no recognition of the role of business nor what a Labour government would do to ensure firms could prosper and deliver the taxation that we should rightly expect of them. Instead the notion seemed to be that the economy would be driven by state intervention. That has simply never worked. Neither were there priorities – everything seemed to be ‘free’ and everything seemed be a priority in a programme that would have been ambitious over three terms of Government let alone one. Taken one by one many of the policies may have been popular (though some clearly less so) however as a programme for government it was absurd and not worthy of trust.

The election should have been entirely winnable (3). Boris Johnson was widely understood to be a proven liar, the Conservatives were divided, their own programme was also fiscally irresponsible and based on promises not believed, they had failed on their management of Brexit. However Labour was thought to be worse and the leader of the opposition less even less trusted than the proven liar.

So we have one chance to put it right. It involves a visible willingness to change, electing a plausible leader, a coherent programme that establishes economic credibility, ensuring the government is held to account in a way that has not been the case, that every election is taken seriously and what is necessary to win is done.

The alternative is a continuation of Corbynism without Corbyn and the terminal decline of Labour.

John Howarth MEP

(1) December 2024 assumes a five year Parliament – but it’s a pretty good bet that the Johnson Government will scrap the Fixed Term Parliament Act, giving back to the PM the choice of election date – I’d expect a poll in May or June 2024 at the very latest.
(2) The progression of Labour’s shambles on Brexit is abridged here – there is a lot more to say.
(3) The election actually should never have taken place.

Posted by John Howarth