Fighting Brexit With One Hand Tied Behind You

Last night’s meeting of the Another Europe Is Possible‘s tour to promote a left opposition to Brexit was a strange, melancholy affair.  One had a sense of people, honest, decent women and men of the left, who understood and despaired at the catastrophe that is Brexit, who could see how it is not one in a shopping list of ‘issues’, so much as an existential crisis which puts everything else, up to and including democracy itself, at risk, and yet somehow were holding back, fearful of the fight.  Why?

The first speaker, Ravi Subramaniam, West Midlands General Secretary of Unison, put it clearly. We were all, he said, “of the left”, the people in the hall, and those outside who voted to leave the EU, and on everything else could and would continue to work together, as on the picket line at at dispute of low paid care workers he’d recently come from.  And on one level, that is true. Yet the statement felt suffused with bathos.  This man from a union movement which mostly stayed neutral during the referendum campaign, despite TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady’s spirited performance in one of the televised debates, felt he had to hold back, even as he stood on a platform pledging support for a People’s Vote on the final ‘deal’. The tone was simply wrong, and it wasn’t his fault.

The two speakers from other EU countries, Dr Lorenza Antonucci, and Marina Prentoulis, were not constrained by this very English reticence. Antonucci made a point which perhaps resonates more in her native Italy, yet ought to ring alarm bells here, when she urged us to look to the detailed polling data, and to reject the narrative that Brexit had much to do with ‘the working class’. Brexit’s bedrock vote was the middling sort of people seething with resentment at others whom they presumed to be doing better than they were at ‘milking the system’ – in other works, the social group that historically has always anchored authoritarianism – and fascism.

The youngest speaker (who made that point herself), was Aimee Challenor, the Green Party’s Equalities spokesperson.  But she was speaking to an audience of the middle aged and the elderly.  Where were all the young people who have most to lose from Brexit?  The Labour Party’s hundreds of thousands of Remain-voting teens and twenty-somethings?

Labour wasn’t exactly the elephant in the room, because people were actually talking about it.  The ghost at the famine, perhaps?  A spectre haunting our Europe debate?

Zoe Williams tackled the subject head-on, and with some passion.  An active member of the Vauxhall CLP now locked in a battle with its disgrace of a ‘Labour’ MP, UKIP’s Kate Hoey, Williams must be in the thick of it on an almost constant basis.  It was Williams, in a reference to the previous evening’s meeting in Nottingham, who gave a glimpse into the problem.  There had been a stand-up argument with an angry Momentum activist, but one had the sense that many of the Another Europe Is Possible campaigners were in almost constant battle with people whom they exasperatingly thought ought to be on the same side.  Nor was there even any sense of why all these mostly Remain voting people thought the 2016 vote had acquired an almost sacred quality demanding the utmost respect.  Well, there was. It was all about “Jeremy”.

A women in the audience, Labour and Momentum member, who spoke later made it plain.  She was as desperately anxious to stop Brexit as anyone else there, but she was also in almost palpable distress at what this might mean for “Jeremy”.  How could they be so cruel as to push “Jeremy” to do a U-turn? Wouldn’t it make him look weak at a general election they just had to win?

Zoe Williams responded that all the evidence was that Tory/UKIP leavers voted on the basis that Brexit was the number one issue, subsuming all others, whereas for for Labour Leave voters, in any case a minority of Labour voters, Brexit was about fifth in their list of priorities.  Labour, Williams said, had more to lose by alienating Remainers.

Williams also made the point that time was short, little more than weeks, really, and that realistically only Labour,  through a change of heart, and of strategy, and increasingly of parliamentary tactics, could stop Brexit.  We had no other vehicle.  As she put it, “these are the institutions we have”.

What I’ve described is an angst-fest where sincere, mostly Labour lefties railed against their own side, who ought to have been packing the Town Hall to the rafters, and marching, scarlet banners aloft, on Downing Street, but who instead had chosen to expend their energies on backing slates for the NEC, or compositing motions on buses for conference.  There were a few lone cries from the audience for a campaign proper – for doing practical things.  One woman stressed the need for cross-party work, which everyone knows is true, but daren’t say it, because the “Jeremy” people think this a betrayal of the purity of the project.  John Bloomfield, the mildest of men, with a lifetime as an activist and writer of the left, heckled from the floor, and eventually spoke, to list the alliances we needed to make with every section of the economy and society if we were to build support of a new vote. But this wasn’t a place for that kind of practical argument.

Perhaps the best point was made by Marina Prentoulis, speaking of the 3 million EU citizens in the UK denied a vote in the 2016 referendum.  There is something deeply offensive to democracy, when the people most sharply affected by a vote are excluded from participation.  Add that to the lies, and now the fraud, and the covert meddling of foreign powers, and the sanctity of the referendum vote starts to look indefensible.

And so the meeting ended unsatisfactorily, neither a rousing call to arms, nor with a practical plan for what ought to be a busy summer.

On the bus going home afterwards I thought of Tim Shipman’s book, All Out War, on the Brexit campaign.  It is suggested there that David Cameron lost his referendum gamble because he prioritised the post-referendum unity of the Tory Party over the national interest.  Unlike his opponents (in his own party), be fought with one arm tied behind him.  Ironically, that’s where we are now, a left itching to fight, but gagged by its own side.

This crisis is too big for us to accept that.  Labour must be pushed, this conference season, into long overdue action to stop Brexit.  It is its historic duty.

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