We need to talk about how to fight a Brexit election

Although we don’t know the exact date or circumstances in which it will occur, it’s almost certain that we’re going to be having a General Election at some point within the next few months. With the Johnson Government watching its majority crumble away and no other alternative likely to command a stable majority in the Commons, an election with Brexit as the key issue is going to look like the only way out of this situation.

Now, there have been plenty of words written by me and many, many others about how the parties might organise themselves for such an election and various other matters. Would one side or the other of the Brexit split end up divided? Could electoral alliances work? What steps do we have to take to remove the government to have an election? How do we have a Government of National Unity?

These are all important questions, but the frantic activity to find an answer to them is obscuring an even more important one — what message will we fight an election on? What’s your response going to be to voters when they ask about something other than Brexit, or just want to know what happens when we’ve finally Stopped Brexit? Because without that in place, we’re heading perilously close to running the 2016 referendum campaign all over again.

Whatever happens, and whatever the circumstances of the election, the side fighting for Brexit will be doing it with all the bullshit, bluster, and blather they can manage. They’ll push a grand vision of everything being wonderful if we all just believe in Britain, speaking a message of patriotic flag-waving, schools and hospitals and everything else fully funded thanks to the amazing deals we’re going to make with rapacious trans-Atlantic disaster capitalists, and any arguments against will be dismissed as Project Fear or the wailings of an unpatriotic bunch of evil metropolitan Remoaners who want Britain to fail.

And what’s going to be our message to compete with that?

It’s too easy to imagine us spending a lot of time building an intricate web of parties and candidate on a Stop Brexit/People’s Vote platform and then forgetting to give them anything else to talk about. For all we might like to imagine that this would be a single-issue election, that would be a delusion on the same level as imagining that the referendums we’ve held over the past decade were debated purely on the issue at hand, and didn’t become proxies for wider arguments. If you think this election is going to be solely about the process of Brexit, I’ve got a battle bus you can hire at just £350m a week.

One not-so-careful owner

If we’re going to fight an election around Brexit, then there has to be a bigger message and a bigger vision to rival the message from the other side. Yes, “Stop Brexit” needs to be an important part of it, but it can’t be all of it and it can’t just be part of a “let’s just pretend this never happened” narrative either. “Stop Brexit to go back to 2015/2012/2008” isn’t going to work, and neither’s “Stop Brexit, maybe change the voting system, have another election and then we’ll decide what to do next” or its other constitutionally-obsessed variants. Stopping Brexit can’t just be a promise of returning to the status quo ante or part of a message that everything else is pretty much OK and we don’t need many other changes.

What we need are messages of “Stop Brexit and” or “Stop Brexit so we can” linked to positive messages, backed up by evidence. “Stop Brexit and we can invest in our infrastructure”, “Stop Brexit and we can properly fund our schools/NHS”, or something much more catchy written by people with more talent than me. We have to recognise that the Brexit vote happened and that it revealed that there are major problems with the country that need to be addressed before we can move on and the only way to do that is to make clear in any election that stopping Brexit is just step one in the process of making Britain a better place, not the end of it.

We have to be ready to fight an election on vision and values, not on process. If we’re going to do that, then we need to be putting together that vision and those values now, not hoping they’ll magically turn up or that we can do without them. Stopping Brexit is too important for us to think it can be the only message we need.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Former politician. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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