“The whole country — the whole world — can see our rotten parties have failed us. The parties ally with the civil service to keep new ideas and people excluded. SW1 has tried to resist the revolutionary implications of the referendum but this resistance has to crack: one way or the other the old ways are doomed. The country voted for profound change in 2016.”
Socialist Worker? The Morning Star? Counterfire?
No. It’s from an article on the Dominic Cumming’s blog. He was the intellectual driving force behind the Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum and is the central character in Channel 4’s drama Brexit: The Uncivil War which is currently available to watch on the channel’s streaming service if you live in the UK or are savvy enough to use a virtual personal network in other countries.
Cummings is played by the omnipresent Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor who closed his Barbican performances of Hamlet by asking audience members to make donations to Syrian refugees. We can assume that he doesn’t share the racist attitudes that motivated the majority of Brexit supporters.
As a glance at Cumming’s highly technical blog reveals, he sees himself as a disruptive intellectual out to overthrow conventional political wisdom and smash the Blairite consensus. Certainly, the facts that he is married to the deputy editor of the Spectator, is the son in law of Sir Humphry Wakefield of Chillingham Castle in Northumberland and was Michael Gove’s chief of staff confirm his credentials as an anti-establishment rebel.
There are three significant insights in the play.
The first is the use of data and social media to identify Leave supporting voters. Facebook users were lured by adverts offering them a chance to win £50 million making predictions about football and then responded to a series of questions which allowed more targetted messages to be almost personalised for them. Funding for this hugely expensive operation came from a billionaire called Robert Mercer who also donated $25 million to back Trump’s campaign. Mercer is a friend of Nigel Farage.
The second insight is that the data harvesting allowed Vote Leave to identify the most demoralised, reactionary and racist sections of the working class. Cummings’ big secret was that he worked out that the communities which were worst hit by austerity, hadn’t properly recovered from Thatcherism and were revolted by Westminster politics tended not to vote in elections but could be turned out in big numbers for a one off vote which allowed them a cry of rage.
He knew he was creating a monster. He was willing to let Farage and Arron Banks be the most aggressively racist voice of the pro-Brexit movement, but he honed the messages of “taking back control”, £350 million for the NHS and the prospect of the entire population of Turkey moving to England. The far-right extremists who’ve been abusing Owen Jones, Faisal Islam and Anna Soubry outside parliament this week are the fruit of the Leave campaign as surely as was the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox.
The third insight was that a Remain campaign which was widely seen as being fronted by people like David Cameron and Peter Mandelson had absolutely nothing to say to many of those voters who saw them as the reason for their miserable situations. A successful Remain campaign would have also required some form of radical programme which offered to change people’s lives for the better. The political class which delivered austerity wasn’t in a position to do that and yet the bitter irony is that it is the most right-wing sections of the Tory party which found a way of articulating that rage, albeit in a filthy, reactionary way.
Labour is now confronted with a major challenge. No one watching the drama can be left in any doubt that Brexit’s architects were some of the most anti-working class people active in British politics. 88% of Labour members would vote to remain in the EU in the event of a second referendum and 73% of the party’s voters think Brexit is a mistake. We can learn from Cummings and make Corbyn’s Labour the leadership of the anti-Brexit movement and equip it with the radical ideas that will appeal to the people who feel that they’ve been left behind by the likes of Cameron and Mandelson. If we don’t, we are handing them over to the right-wing populists hanging around outside Westminster this week.