“Victory for the Leavers will be a victory of racist reactionaries and those who want to divide us”
“When hatred is preached, when bigotry is legitimised, then that gives permission for hate and bigotry to become commonplace, to become acceptable.”
I wrote that more than two months ago and I take no pleasure in having been proved right. Weeks after the Referendum and the Perfect Storm hasn’t finished its work.
The roller coaster is still in motion. The political plates have shifted. The world is turning upside down.*
A campaign based on falsehoods and lies, on racism and fear, is claiming its victims.
There was a 57% spike in reported hate crimes in the first 10 days after the Referendum.
The media report the statistics and the more horrendous of the attacks. But the everyday bigotry – the looks, the mutters, that feeling of a shift in community cohesion, the suspicions of neighbours, a sense that we don’t have to make everybody welcome any more – that goes unreported. But it’s there. It’s real. And as it becomes commonplace so it’s no longer newsworthy.
The murder of Jo Cox has been all but forgotten. The unprecedented political assassination of a Labour MP by a right-wing extremist has been brushed under the carpet.
We should be enraged that this has been allowed to happen, that the media have been allowed to move on, that Nigel Farage was allowed to say “We have done it …without a single bullet being fired” just a short week after Jo Cox’s murder, with barely a voice raised in criticism or condemnation.
The referendum campaign didn’t just condone violence and hatred. Its tone coarsened our political discourse – just as the tone of the Trump campaign in the US has coarsened it there. A Breaking Point poster here; an “I’d like to punch you in the face” there. It has allowed insulting those with whom we disagree whether within political parties or society at large to become routine and unchallenged, particularly on social media.
Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly argued for a kinder form of politics, where we respect the other person’s point of view. But most of us aren’t very good at sticking to that and none of us is immune from the prevailing mood and tone of our society. I’m certainly not. But we can change that. And we must, starting with challenging and condemning all threats, abuse and intimidation. As someone who’s been on the receiving end of threats and abuse in my time I know how nasty things can get, how it can quickly get out of hand, how charge and counter-charge can escalate until the truth vanishes; but, while we can challenge and condemn where we have some influence, let’s not forget where the perpetrators of such threats and abuse are most commonly to be found – in the ranks of the far right. They are the ones who issue death threats. They are the murderers and assassins. They are the ones whose ideology is based on political violence. They are the ones who are delighting in the current political turmoil.
We should be enraged that the petty ambitions of a small group of political charlatans who whipped up the lies and falsehoods we witnessed throughout the campaign have resulted in a generation of young people in tears of anger and despair as they watch their plans and aspirations disappear, their ambitions restricted to the confines of a small island off the continental mass looking backwards to an imperial past and a much smaller world.
The speed at which our society has gone from one of tolerance and diversity to narrow-mindedness and fear has been breath-taking.
I am of the generation which predominantly voted Leave. But I don’t understand them. I have rejoiced as my life has moved from the limitations of the grey post-war fifties to one where horizons expanded, technology raced forward, the marvellous blue planet we first saw from space in 1968 became accessible, where all cultures and races could come together. The corruptions and exploitation of global capitalism and corporatism notwithstanding, how anyone can want to narrow their horizons, build walls and barriers, is beyond me. Being part of the EU isn’t about being part of a capitalist trading bloc; it’s about being part of the wider world and being able to use that trading bloc as a cultural and social stepping stone to building a better world.
As I’ve said before, revolutions can come from the right not just the left. And that is what is happening. And it’s not good. Right-wing Tories have thrown all aspects of our lives up into the air. And not just ours. The decision of the UK to leave one of the most important trade blocs in the world will deliver a seismic political and economic shock to the global economy over coming months.
A prime minister has been brought down: a chancer who took one risk too many lost big-time. The rabble-rouser-in-chief has gone on holiday to cultivate his moustache. The rest of the demagogues who played to the crowd have either run from the scene or been swept aside – with some told to work out how to clear up their Eton Mess, others sent home with just a large ministerial payoff to help them get through those long summer days of gardening leave, and the Clown to the exile of the Naughty Step – or, as it used to be known in the days of pomp and circumstance, when Britain ruled the waves, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
And 172 Labour MPs chose this moment to go on strike and trigger a contest for the Party’s leadership.
We now face the most right-wing government we have seen for decades – and I say this as someone who lived through the Thatcher years, fighting her every inch of the way. The Tory Party may have backed away from allowing its membership to elect the hard right’s candidate, Andrea Leadsom, but it is that hard right who are in control. Warm words about ‘a country that works for everyone’ are as meaningless as ‘we’re all in it together’ were. They are the words of a Tory, and Tories always know which class they are in government to protect and serve. If it’s to work for everyone, Mrs May, then where’s the restoration of welfare cuts? The additional NHS and local government funding? The repeal of the Housing Act? The abolition of the bedroom tax and the benefit cap? The end of zero-hours contracts? Are you going to give back all those stolen mobility cars and scooters? Will schools be restored to local democratic control? Will Philip Hammond cut VAT or will it be corporation tax? And can we keep our human rights, please?
Instead, as Brexit means Brexit (does anyone know what that means?), so the economists’ predictions are coming to pass – Project Fear wasn’t a fantasy, it was Project Fact. The pound has plummeted, prices are rising, jobs are starting to disappear as investors look elsewhere, factories and corporations are looking around for more amenable – more profitable – locations, foreign holidays and flights already cost more. And, irony of ironies, farmers warn of a dearth of British fruit and vegetables. Kent apples will rot on the trees while we pay more for French Golden Delicious! Painful as it is to say, George Osborne’s warning of a self-imposed recession, of economic suicide, was no bluff. And let’s make no mistake – the people who will suffer from that recession, who suffer from any recession, those who will lose their jobs and be unable to pay the rent and will watch helpless as the NHS and our other public services are cut and cut and cut again, as the libraries and play centres and parks disappear to be replaced by the property developers’ and asset strippers’ glass towers, and whose benefits and pensions will be cut more and more, will be those people whose lives have already been so blighted by deindustrialisation, globalisation and austerity that they despair of politicians ever making any difference to their lives other than to make them worse, and believe that leaving the EU (and sending the immigrants back) will give them control over their lives.
It is clear that nobody – not the Tory Leavers or Remainers, nor any wing of Labour, nor the civil service, nor the think-tankers, nor the City financiers, nor the British Establishment, not even Sir Humphrey – has a real plan of what to do next because nobody thought it would happen. Commentators and economists are producing disparate to-do lists based on wild guesses. What trade relationships, if any, does the government want with the EU? How impenetrable will the immigration barriers be? Human beings are being used as bargaining chips – we’ll let your Polish plumbers stay as long as you keep our Costa del Sol ex-pats and take back those Bulgarian Romani families – like a stack of divorcees’ CDs, as pawns in their game. The Tories may have covered up their divide for the time being but this does not mean that the fault line between their modern-day Peels and Disraelis has suddenly healed over. Whether it re-emerges by the time of their Party Conference is yet to be seen. At the moment minor turf war squabbles seem to be the order of the day. But Mrs May is going to have to spell out her position very soon. August doesn’t last for ever.
So, has Labour seized the opportunity of this Tory-generated disaster to take the lead? Like hell it has!
The temptation to write about the Leadership campaign is great but I want to restrict myself to the implications of the Brexit vote. But I must just say, firstly, that, like most ordinary Party members, I am enraged that the Tories have been gifted this distraction, thereby allowing them to realign themselves and keep a tight and ruthless grip on power; secondly, that I believe that those forces within the Labour Party wedded to neoliberalism will not easily cede power or control – despite all the evidence from across Europe and the developed world that, at a time of the kind of political polarisation we have experienced since the 2008 crash, centrist social democracy will struggle to survive (as James Galbraith puts it “The center-left cannot hold; its day is past.”); and, thirdly, that I believe the current Leadership contest will not resolve matters. I am not alone in thinking this (see Paul Mason “Every signal from the Labour right appears to point towards a second coup against Corbyn, once he wins the leadership election, which will make Owen Smith’s current effort look like a sideshow.” )
Because Corbyn’s opponents used his less than passionately fluent performance during the Referendum campaign as a hook on which to hang their rebellion, he has been pushed onto the back foot over Brexit. It is essential both for his campaign and for the electoral future of the Labour Party that he seizes the initiative, pushes the issue to the fore and stops allowing Smith to make all the running on it, by using the remaining rallies and hustings of the Leadership contest to set out what Labour’s clear and principled positions must be.
The balancing act for any Labour leader at the moment is to bridge the gulf between the urban, educated, young Remainers, whose support will be crucial if Labour is to speedily return to government, and the alienated Leavers in Labour’s mainly northern heartlands – the ‘left behinders’. We have a duty not to turn our backs on them and hand them over to the forces of UKIP reaction – which getting it wrong will do.
Although it was elderly, middle class, Tory suburbanites who provided the core of Leave voters, it is undeniable that the vote exposed the profound alienation felt by millions of working class families, an alienation that has its roots in the deindustrialisation of the Thatcher years and the globalisation of the 90s, in the neoliberal policies embedded under Thatcher and followed on through the New Labour years, policies pursued in one shape or another across the world, including by the majority right-wing governments across the European Union.
We see its effects in the rise of inequality, the destruction of the NHS through cuts, privatisation and PFI debts, the failure to build public housing, the disintegration of our community education system and our universities, the shocking employment practices which have been allowed to spread and the drip drip drip attacks on benefit claimants, people with disabilities and migrants.
And we see its result in the resonance the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan had on the vote.
Corbyn’s Ten Pledges are clearly seeking to address that alienation by developing the basis of a strategic vision to rebuild and transform Britain. But they need to be linked to Brexit – spelling out how major policies such as those on climate change and taking action on tax avoidance still need to be cross-European, emphasising the links with socialist and progressive forces across the EU and stressing that international solidarity starts with our closest neighbours. Campaigning speeches are more than just rallying calls; they are the source of political education for a whole new generation, and not mentioning Brexit is a missed opportunity, it is selling young people short not to even mention one of the most defining moments in recent political history, one which will have such a profound effect on their lives.
As a passionate, albeit not uncritical, Remainer I emotionally responded to the calls for a Second Referendum in the days following the result – after all, the people had been lied to, conned, treated with contempt by hard right populist charlatans. But that is insulting and patronising to all those working class people who so desperately want nothing more than a decent and dignified life for themselves and their families.
Owen Smith’s current call for a Second Referendum, while initially attractive, at the end of the day carries little credibility because while, he says it should be on the basis of the outcome of negotiations, he doesn’t say on what basis those negotiations should take place. They are negotiations that will be carried out by the Tories, by the Tory hard right. What are his demands, his red lines, his principles? He is startlingly uncritical of the European Union. What are his views on its democratic deficit, its austerity punishment of Greece, its attitude to refugees, on TTIP? Millions of young Remainers support free movement; millions of Leavers oppose it. What is Smith’s position? The hard right are demanding reduced tariff regulations, markets opened up to cheap Chinese imports, trade deals giving corporations preferential rights and powers. Where does Smith stand? Analysis of the Leave vote, particularly in working class areas, shows that, although immigration is frequently raised, in fact the more pertinent issue is one of control.
Does he recognise that hostility to immigration is but a symptom of that deep alienation, or does he see it asthe problem to be sorted using limits and controls? I have listened closely to what he has said and searched his website but his Twenty Pledges include not one reference to the EU and no promise of that Second Referendum, let alone on what basis he would negotiate. I find this strange for someone who likes to declare his passion for the EU at every televised opportunity. Perhaps his sponsors do not share his enthusiasm?
Putting himself forward as a potential leader more in tune with the political views of the British public than Jeremy Corbyn, he seems to be poorly attuned to the way political and social currents ebb and flow – indeed, despite his own, one must assume, hyper-energetic campaigning for Remain, a majority in his own area voted to Leave. So exactly how does he plan to win that Second Referendum? It would be good to know. Because what is the point of it now unless you know you are going to win next time? And that means understanding and addressing the reasons why people voted the way they did in June.
While I would like to see much more detail and a specific pledge in respect of the Brexit negotiations, Corbyn’s Ten Pledges do at least include the following commitments:
- We will put the defence of social and employment rights, as well as action against undercutting of pay and conditions through the exploitation of migrant labour, at the centre of the Brexit negotiations agenda for a new relationship with Europe.
- We will defend and extend the environmental protections gained from the EU.
- We will guarantee full rights for EU citizens living and working in Britain – and not allow them to be used as pawns in Brexit negotiations.
Now he has to put flesh on them, including demanding places at the negotiating table for Labour, the devolved nations, London and the TUC.
John McDonnell spelt out five economic red lines in a speech on 1 July:
- First, our aim must be to ensure freedom of trade for UK businesses in the EU, and freedom of trade for EU businesses in the UK.
- Second, no EU citizen currently living or working in the UK will have their residency rights affected. No UK citizen currently living or working in the EU will have their rights affected.
- Third, existing protections at work provided by the EU must be maintained.
- Fourth, the UK’s role in the European Investment Bank should be maintained.
- And fifth, the rights of UK financial services companies to win business across the EU must be maintained.Any path through the negotiations that does not respect these guidelines will be liable to have severe consequences for jobs and protections at work. Again, flesh is needed, in particular a much stronger commitment to the free movement of people because, notwithstanding what I have said earlier about concerns about immigration being but a symptom, the main thrust of the hard right’s Leave campaign was around migration, their red negotiating lines will undoubtedly be around this issue, and Labour – particularly the Corbyn supporting left – must take a firm unequivocal line on this. Otherwise we are giving in to the xenophobes and bigots of Reaction’s Carnival rather than challenging them at every opportunityIn fact, it will be impossible for the UK to meet McDonnell’s red lines without endorsing all the EU’s four freedoms – the free movement of goods, capital, services and people – and this needs to be spelt out. These freedoms are fundamental not just to membership of the EU but also of the European Economic Area (the EEA), many left commentators’ fall-back position as the least worse option even though it means having no voice (neither MEPs nor ministerial) in decisions with which the UK will have to comply and pay towards. I also think it’s important that Corbyn addresses many of the non-economic issues which are so central to why young Remainers feel their lives have been irrevocably changed for the worse and why so many of us perceive Brexit as a retreat from the world. Many of these are small – such as the cheap flights and those health insurance cards which enable us Brits to be those health tourists we so deride; others much more substantial – the Erasmus student exchange programme, academic, scientific and medical research (and not just the funding, the more important cross-European collaboration), cultural interactions of all sorts, the implications for Scotland and Northern Ireland, not just employment rights but also human rights, environmental agreements and action around climate change. The Brexit vote has to be put in context. We live in a globalised world and, much as many little Englanders may wish to avoid it in much the same way as US survivalists do, we are not immune from what happens elsewhere – and a lot can happen across Europe let alone the rest of the world in the next two or three years which will make any decisions taken now irrelevant – next year’s German, Dutch and French elections for starters. The reality is that, whatever the triumvirate of Tory Brexiteers may say, the pre-negotiations to the formal negotiations of article 50 will not start until after those elections have taken place. We Brits have become so inward looking we rarely take regard of the potential impact of Brexit on the EU itself. Already in crisis as the effects of its neoliberal policies alienate its citizens and as it grapples with the greatest movement of refugees and migrants since the end of WW2, nothing about the EU can be predicted with any certainty. To what extent can the ‘contagion’ from Brexit be contained? What effect will it have on the future of the Euro? Will it be the impetus that forces democratisation or will the Eurozone collapse under the weight of its own contradictions? All this means it is far too early to know what approach to how we relate to the EU and to the rest of the world will be the way forward – and certainly what form the decision-making on that should take. But one thing we do know. Populism and right-wing forces are on the march across Europe. The future is dark if they are not stopped. Labour’s approach to Brexit can play a large part in what happens next if we get it right. And that means having the right principles, policies and approach. Labour’s membership has grown rapidly under Corbyn’s leadership. It has the potential to become a mass movement, linking up with socialist parties and progressive movements across Europe not just to challenge the despair and alienation neoliberalism’s austerity has brought to millions but to do something about it. Whether Corbyn and the left can seize the moment is a moot point. But together we can be stronger. Together we are stronger. Another Europe is possible – a better world is possible – so let’s not mess it up!
* The World Turned Upside Down is a phrase and song associated with the Diggers and the Levellers – our radical forebears. It’s appropriate here – but let’s not leave it in the hands of the forces of reaction. Let’s stop the right-wing revolution in its tracks.
is Chair of Kennington Park Estate Tenants Association and former Leader of Lambeth Council.