From The Lobby 56

From The Lobby 56

IPSE’s Simon McVicker looks back at the European Union referendum campaign and the broader political landscape.

After years of bickering, arguments over money, affairs of state, falling out of love, we just drifted apart. Now we are to divorce. The referendum may be over, Johnson, Gove and Co may have triumphed but now stand by for a summer of recrimination, accusation and retaliation.

What disappointed me most was that the voice of business was never really heard in this EU referendum campaign. Despite an initial focus by the ‘remain’ camp on the economy, the whole debate became overshadowed by concerns and arguments over immigration and sovereignty. Important, yes, but it is a slight worry that the business view became largely ignored.

The process of government came to a halt as soon as the referendum campaign began. A lot of important consultations were side-lined until after the dust had settled. This was incredibly frustrating for IPSE and many other business groups who were remaining neutral and just trying to get on with their work.

The campaign was an unedifying slanging match worthy of the school playground. There are not many highs to take away from it all, but there are a lot of low points. British politics has not come out of this with grace or dignity.

The tragic death of Jo Cox cast a dark, dark shadow over the referendum. It made many worry where our democracy, our politics, indeed our country was heading.

History will reflect that the heart-breaking events in a small West Yorkshire town were a defining moment. A moment that politically we should never forget. But ultimately, did not affect the result of the referendum.

The campaign was an unedifying slanging match worthy of the school playground

On the same day Nigel Farage posed in front of the poster showing refugees winding their way into oblivion. It was an ill thought out political stunt and lost him much credibility in the eyes of many people.

From the very start of the campaign, the public had absolutely no idea which side was telling the truth, as day after day random figures were seemingly plucked from the air and then just as quickly shot down by the other side accusing their opponents of lying.

There was talk of Armageddon, Hitler, economic catastrophe and mass movement of immigrants sneaking into the country under the cover of darkness! There was so much confusion that when people went to the poll booth they ultimately had to make a gut decision. The segment of the population most affected by the referendum result, the under-30s, was largely ignored with neither campaign able to reach and engage them at all. It will be incredibly serious for our democracy if this continues.

The biggest problem of the whole campaign trail was that the debate seemed to be about the future of the Conservative Party instead of the future of Britain. This EU referendum is up there with the great Tory bun-fights in history, over issues such as the Corn Laws and Tariff Reform. It was a fight for the soul of a political party. Instead of being a defining moment for Britain as a nation, it became a redefining of the Conservative Party.

Make no mistake, there will be no making amends with an ‘all is forgiven’ reshuffle now. The divisions in the Tory party will take years to mend. And considering the majority of Conservative grass-roots are for leaving the EU, I would not be surprised if the leader in 2020 is someone who was a Brexiteer.

The campaign trail has turned a lot of people off politics and I can’t see anything changing their minds in the near future. In fact, you can find this public discomfort with politics happening all across the Western world – just look at the disquiet in the United States, France, Germany and Austria. People are getting fed up with how the current establishment are handling serious issues.

The Main Players

I don’t think the two faces of the campaign can come out of this with their heads held high. Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London, made a calculation, not, apparently, on what he thought was best for the UK but on what was best for his career. So he went for it, campaigning to leave, and burned many bridges in the Conservative Party along the way.

The Prime Minister backed himself into a corner by promising a referendum in the first place. He led most people to believe he was for ‘leaving’, but this was never the case. He went to the EU in Brussels, secured a non-deal and came back a crusader for Europe. For many voters this just didn’t wash. Rightly or wrongly, he has certainly been the subject of a lot of people’s anger during the whole campaign as a result. Who succeeds him in No. 10 will now be the next big political question.

Looking across at other public figures who have been campaigning, there is Michael Gove, the Tory MP who probably came across as the most sincere in his arguments; however, I doubt whether he resonated with the British public. He certainly wasn’t held in high regard by the people during his time as Education Minister, and his favourability ratings outside of Conservative home voters are dire. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s half-hearted campaign was either because he doesn’t have the political energy or he was being disingenuous.

There were a few honorary exceptions: London’s new Mayor, Sadiq Khan, MP Alan Johnson and Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. Apart from them, the Labour Party has been completely absent in the debate – it needed to demonstrate that it is important and that its opinion does matter.

The trade unions did more to point out the positives of both remaining in and leaving the EU – something neither of the official campaigns did well at all.

What really saddens me the most in this campaign is just how personal it all became. Some of the attacks on Boris Johnson and the Prime Minister were outrageous – and the attack on US President Barack Obama was disgusting and completely unnecessary. To descend to this level of politics in 2016 is unacceptable. Play the ball not the man!

The Media Coverage

The national press did not report the campaign very well at all. Many tabloid, and even broadsheet, papers pulled every scare tactic out the hat to push their own agenda. They were just not being honest and covering the debate fairly.

However, the BBC was good, with its Reality Check finding the truth in every claim – although by trying to be balanced it covered every outrageous comment made. Perhaps it’s because we’re not used to a referendum in this country – and so the media has been trying to cover the story as a general election. But it’s not an election, it’s so much more than that – so it’s even more important to get the facts right.

Throughout the whole campaign IPSE provided information and guidance to our members which focused on the evidence and facts behind what both sides were saying. We hope this helped.

May Elections and a Queen's Speech

While the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ campaigns were fighting it out, a few important events in the political calendar took place in the UK: the May local elections and the State Opening of Parliament.

There were no real surprises in Scotland with the SNP losing its overall majority but remaining the largest party by some distance. IPSE has good working relationships with the party and that will continue. And we’ll be working a lot closer with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson – who is becoming a very significant figure in politics. Labour, however, remains in dire problems north of the border – if it can’t do better soon it won’t be able to win a general election for a long time.

Mr Khan won the London Mayoral election with a pro-business campaign. We wrote to him soon after his win to offer our congratulations and look forward to working with him to ensure London’s freelancers have the right support.

The Queen’s Speech was the great non-event of the year and, as a programme for year two of a government, very disappointing. IPSE had wanted to see some recommendations from the self-employment review in Bills. But there was nothing which begs the question: when is it going to happen? All the good intentions are there, so we will keep working closely with the Department of Business to get these policies acted upon, and to create a better working and living environment for the self-employed.

Of course, we are also facing another consultation on the reform of the IR35, this time in the public sector. It totally ignores the value of freelancing in the public sector and the economy as a whole. It seems IPSE and its allies have yet another fight on their hands.

Putting the doom and gloom aside, IPSE held a hugely successful policy conference in April – discussing the value of self-employment to the UK. The conference highlighted why self-employment is at an all-time high – with freelancers now contributing £109 billion to the UK economy, creating real wealth in the nation.

Like all divorces there will be a price to pay and around two years working on a settlement before the decree nisi. In these two years, IPSE will be the voice of the self-employed community.

Au revoir EU!

Image by Gary Barker