Optimism, idealism, and realism. It’s a lot to ask. In the middle of a referendum campaign that feels more like a zombie apocalypse (Boris always looks like a bit of flesh is about to drop from him, whilst Gove seems prematurely mummified), optimism, still less idealism don’t come readily to mind. And as for realism? Let me eat cake – I don’t want to think about this stuff.
So I wasn’t in the most positive frame of mind when I went along last night to the Another Europe Is Possible rally. It had been a day of polls suggesting a movement of opinion towards the ‘Kill The Foreigner Party’, and I’d frankly had it up to here with Daily Mail headlines and the Today programme. In my battered head I was screaming, “I’m a Nonentity, Get Me Out of Here!”
It is traditional at this point to say cheering, uplifting things about the packed rally, and how it lifted my spirits and renewed my resolve to make a difference. As a hack, I can craft stuff like that pretty well. So I won’t.
Experienced campaigners make well-crafted speeches – so what? The venue wasn’t surrounded by OB vans, and those arguments that might move people are being drowned out by shriller, better-funded voices with a direct line to the media.
Cynicism? Not exactly. What I got out of the meeting was a shock of cold, clear realism. And in a good way.
A man stood up to speak from the audience. From where I was sitting I could see him clearly. An everyman no one would look twice at in a crowd. He said that he had a son of 25. His son had children, worked as a van driver for a delivery company, and had the problems of the age – difficulty getting the kids into the same school; difficulty finding affordable and secure housing. The son’s ‘job’ was, as is so often the case now, technically defined as ‘self-employed’, meaning devoid of secure hours, sick pay, holiday pay, pension, and all the other ‘rights’ we used to take for granted in a British job. The man’s son was inclined to vote ‘leave’, as he was persuaded by the argument that immigration pressures were responsible for his difficulties.
The man then brought his own experiences as a young man into the frame. He had voted ‘out’ of the EEC in 1975, on the advice of Tony Benn. Had he been right then, and wrong now?
This, in a nutshell, is the problem of the left. Working class young men in 1975 could expect to have a job with decent and rising pay, a home to rent or buy, and educational opportunities for their children from infancy to graduation without worry or cost. Moreover, that security, and involvement with the trades unions that underpinned that safety, made it easy to be politically active.
In 2016 the ‘working class’ works hard, gets a smaller share of the national cake, and lives in ways which are atomised, individual, removed from collective consciousness. The things we once didn’t need to worry about are now a constant, gnawing anxiety. This is called a loss of power. And powerlessness is by definition, not empowering. It is corrosive and destructive. Hard to reach, hard to organise.
The Leave campaign have a well-embedded narrative to sell to the atomic poor. They say that faceless, arrogant, powerful people in some distant place are responsible for their plight. That those people are sending ‘floods’ of ‘migrants’ to devour our jobs, and homes, and resources.
That these tales are lies is irrelevant. They appear to make sense. A picture of an inflatable on a beach in Kent on the cover of a newspaper is worth more than any demographer’s graph.
The Brexit right have institutions to underpin their stories and to reach out to millions. Money, newspapers, pliant broadcasters.
Our institutions are poor and they have ever more limited social reach. Trades unions, political parties, social movements, campaigning groups, they need to make connections to challenge the power of elites. To connect together, to make the whole greater than the parts, but also to connect across national boundaries to build solidarities that Murdoch and his ilk cannot easily disrupt.
That’s why the man who spoke from the floor about his son was the most important speaker of the evening. He described our problem. Now we’d better get serious about fixing it, starting with getting all this Brexit nonsense out of the way.