There was a noticeable silence at the anti-Brexit march in Brighton over the Labour Party’s conference weekend. All the commotion was at the front headed by prominent Remain supporting MPs, Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry, as the rest of the procession shuffled quietly under placards headed with the unironic slogan ‘Trust the people’. This was a show of support for a second referendum, which 70% of the local population already agree with, as did the political party hosting its annual conference nearby. Occasionally a cheerleader would instigate a chant of ‘Bollocks to Brexit!’ which echoed across the cool afternoon but was never repeated by the marchers more than once. In the cold light of day, it seemed almost too rude to interrupt the everyday goings-on of the weekend metropolis. A heavily groomed man in a party of four emerged from a ‘bottomless prosecco brunch’ and staggered towards the temporarily blocked road, upon which he proclaimed, “This is meaningless!” A voice perfectly audible across a large section of the crowd, and as such, embarrassing for everybody present. 

Not those people, these people

At the conference a couple of days later a great deal of focus had been placed on a competing set of motions, the motion favoured by Jeremy Corbyn put forward by Labour’s National Executive Committee to avoid committing to back either leave or remain in any upcoming general election, and a motion to adopt a position of campaigning to remain in the EU. 

The NEC motion was passed by a show of hands. A result which caused remain supporting attendants to immediately call for another vote counted by cards to give an accountable record of the difference, which was denied by the Chair. 

The Remain motion, which stated that, “Labour must reflect the overwhelming view of its members and voters, who want to stay in the EU. Labour will therefore campaign energetically for a public vote and to stay in the EU in that referendum, while recognising the rights of those members who want to argue another view”, failed to get enough votes from members and associated-members to pass.

The result of these two votes prompted accusations of ‘fence sitting’ by activists heavily invested on either side of the Brexit camps, especially Remain supporters who had been campaigning to get Labour behind their position. 

Fence sitting

The decision to adopt a neutral Brexit stance in an upcoming election has been cast as a cynical attempt to pursue both halves of a nation divided. The idea that the nation is divided into leavers and remainers, requires some scrutiny. For example, by looking at the surprisingly low turnout for the 2019 European Elections, which was 37%, up only 1.4% on the 2015 European elections. This suggests that there are a great number of people for whom Brexit is not an issue worth coming out to vote for, 63% of the population by this measure. 

The political metaphor of ‘fence sitting’ is by its nature divisive. The image conjured is two spaces, divided by a fence. People populate one of two defined areas with no space between. There are many divides, many identities: there are fences between leavers and remainers, socialists and conservatives, ecologists and industrialists, nationalists and internationalists. Within the metaphor of fence sitting, we soon find ourselves entirely isolated, staring at nothing but fence. In the case of the EU, where ultimately, we are either a full-member state or not, the leave/remain divide lends itself to this sort of language.

As local Labour supporter, Chris Anthemum, put it, “Some people will never be satisfied and are obsessed with Brexit to an insane degree, on both sides.

“The EU will not build social housing, fund the NHS, cap rents, improve education, renationalise the railways or solve any of the other dire problems which led to the Leave vote in the first place. Brexit won’t solve any of these problems either.”

The neutral position adopted by Labour may be an attempt to pursue the largest electoral demographic, those for whom Brexit is not the biggest political issue. There is still a heavily populated path open between the camps of leave and remain. In fact, the path is bigger than the two camps. Walking this road requires careful considered language and respect for both sides. It means acknowledging that invoking ‘the people’ also includes people with whom you disagree entirely, and those who just don’t care. 

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