From Mandelson to millionaires with vested interests, the People's Vote campaign is run and funded by those who want to destroy the left, argues Martin Hall
There have been two main avenues of attack on Jeremy Corbyn in the period following the vote to leave the EU in June 2016: the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum and the attempt to smear him and the left as antisemitic. More recently, articles on both topics, and not only in the liberal corporate media, have featured a side order of ill-informed and mendacious attempts to paint opposition to Nato, Trident and imperialism as part of a reactionary world view that is in contrast to being politically progressive. Just today, in an eye-watering piece of government-funded anti-left research, allegations of the potential for violent extremism have been levelled at the left.[i]
As the general crisis intensifies, with a new and unelected Tory leader about to become prime minister, attacks on the left are increasing and taking on a particular tone. Therefore, as part of a general response to this, it is worth considering just who and what constitutes the People’s Vote campaign. What are the political positions of the people who started it? Who funds and runs it? What is the size of its operation?
First of all, as argued on this site last year, the People’s Vote campaign represents the continuity Remain position favoured by the large majority of the British ruling class. It is not in any sense a Remain and Reform operation, whatever readers may think about the efficacy of that position. That is a first principle and should be considered by all socialists attaching their flag to its mast. People’s Vote, founded in April 2018, is an umbrella group comprised of a number of organisations, if not the ‘grassroots campaign’ its website purports it to be. The organisation is run by Open Britain and has a registered address at Millbank Tower, the erstwhile heart of New Labour. Open Britain was incorporated at Company House on 16th June 2015, the day after the nominations for the Labour leadership race to replace Ed Miliband closed, initially as The Interim Campaign, then The In Campaign, then during the referendum campaign taking on the mantle of Britain Stronger in Europe, which got the gig as the official remain campaign.
While there is no evidence to suggest that its founders – more on them later – thought at that point that Jeremy Corbyn was going to win, it is the case that the changes in the election rules brought about by Ed Miliband did mean that the situation was much more volatile than it had been in 2010, when the process had last taken place. More to the point, David Cameron had pledged a referendum on the EU in the Tories’ 2015 election manifesto, which meant that pro-EU forces in and around the political centre – then dominant – were taking steps to organise.
Open Britain’s current registered officers include Peter Mandelson and Will Straw, son of New Labour’s Jack Straw, while Damien Green and Caroline Lucas number among its former officers. Peter Mandelson, backer and shaper of the war in Iraq and a man who has gone on record regarding Jeremy Corbyn as saying that ‘I work every single day in some small way to bring forward the end of his tenure in office’, is not someone who has Labour’s electoral chances in mind when he speaks. Yet electoral chances are relevant here, as arguments made by those who support a second referendum and the People’s Vote campaign often claim that a turn towards remain is the key to electoral success. The remainder of the directors and officers listed at Company House is a who’s who of millionaires and vested interests. The cost of the office space alone - more than £6000 per month - is more than the total income for the vast majority of actual grassroots campaigns.
People’s Vote also has a lot of celebrity backing, including Gary Lineker, Delia Smith, Tony Robinson and Patrick Stewart. Funding has come from a variety of sources, including from Superdry founder, Julian Dunkerton, who donated a massive £1m to the campaign. It is difficult to think of another campaign that purports to be built from the bottom up as a grassroots organisation that could attract such sums. It has used funding on this level to organise a series of marches and rallies, with coach travel to London coming from celebrity donations. It has also advertised them handsomely, including a wrap in the Evening Standard. Furthermore, it has grossly exaggerated the numbers on these marches: in October 2018 it gave a number of 700000 and claimed a million in March 2019. A variety of estimates from the police, Full Fact and researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University suggested between 250,000 and 450,000 for the first one, and 312,000 and 400,000 for the second.
It is very difficult to estimate how many people are employed by the group, as it is an umbrella organisation, as stated above. The funding level is clear, though, as are the political aims of its backers, which are to recalibrate British politics and move it back to the centre, at a time when the corporate media is doing its best to misuse the term populism to tar both left alternatives and far right ones with the same brush.
Moreover, how do the People’s Vote campaign see their wish for a second referendum coming to pass, when there is very clearly no majority for it in the House of Commons and therefore no obvious way to it happening? The logic of the campaign only makes sense if we see its main aim as shifting Labour’s position, and damaging the Corbyn project. This, of course, has happened, with Jeremy Corbyn confirming both that the party seeks another referendum on any Tory deal and that it would back remain if it were to go ahead. Thankfully, he has not said that Labour would back remain in the event of a general election before Brexit, leaving open the possibility of Labour putting its Brexit plan to the people. Still, the People’s Vote campaign has clearly contributed to this change, even if the path to it happening remains as obscure as ever.
As the summer goes on, the twin attacks over Brexit and antisemitism will continue, buoyed by the now regular conflation of antisemitism with anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism that only exists in the heads of its authors. In the US, we have the sight of Donald Trump telling black female Democratic representatives to ‘go back to where you came from’, leading to the nauseating sight of his supporters chanting ‘send them back’. Jeremy Hunt, the supposedly more liberal Tory candidate for the leadership, won’t call Trump a racist. Figures from the Labour right who spend all their time trying to damage Corbyn and the left via attacks on Brexit and antisemitism are quite happy when it suits them to add their names to the fight against fascism. If a second referendum happens, Labour backing remain would allow the far right here to paint themselves as the defenders of democracy. If you don’t trust these people on issues of racism, why would you think their Brexit positions are in the interests of the working people of Britain? Moreover, what of democracy? Mandelson is an unelected lord, and a signatory of the statement against Corbyn over antisemitism. He’s in no position to give lectures on democracy, seeing as how he and others are trying to overturn the EU referendum, and unseat the twice-elected leader of the Labour Party.
[i] An indicator of the researchers’ position is the idea that anti-imperialism rests on the work of John Hobson, and is therefore at its core antisemitic. Of course, Jeremy Corbyn’s foreword for the 2011 edition of Hobson’s book on the topic was cited in one of the more recent attempts to brand the Labour leader an antisemite, despite its existence in every university library as a set text on relevant courses.
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