Kier Starmer had whipped his MPs to vote for the government’s trade deal with the EU before he had seen it. Symptomatic of Labour and Brexit, some of his front bench, also before they had read it, said they would rather resign than vote for it. For Starmer it is an attempt to begin to win back the Red Wall seats Labour lost this time last year. For the rebels, it’s another two fingers up to the majority of the participating electorate and working-class voters in particular, once but no longer Labour’s heartland constituency. Starmer also recently all but declared himself a patriot, understanding that the ground he needs to make up is as much cultural as it is economic. In the end he may well be successful, it’s too early to tell. Voters can be pragmatic: the 1970’s midlands car worker, who voted communist for shop steward, Labour for his local council and Conservative for parliament, oft-quoted by sociologists comes to mind. But my guess is it will take a lot more than grandstanding to rebuild trust in Burnley and elsewhere. Starmer was the architect of Labour’s second referendum policy, he went to and fro from Brussels to advise Barnier, to do what exactly? In all probability to suggest the EU construct a no-deal scenario whilst his colleagues back home, led by Hilary Benn, were proposing a bill for parliament that they vainly hoped, would make no-deal illegal. He did everything he could to stop Brexit and it is naïve to think this will quickly be forgotten.
Much more than this, Leave voters, Labour or otherwise, have endured four-plus years of vilification, insult and disenfranchisement. The BBC transmogrified itself into a Stalinist news agency shoehorning anti-Brexit features into everything from Countryfile to The One Show. Host, warmly spoken Matt, was forced to qualify in one edition, ‘Here at The One-Show, we would like to say that not everyone who voted Leave did so with hatred in their hearts.’ Subtext: a lot of them did. On the radio there was a quip about throwing battery acid at Brexit campaigners passed off as comedy and Terry Christian, who publicly welcomed the death of elderly voters, was repeatedly invited on to our screens. Polly Toynbee kept count for The Guardian. Cheery Jeremy Vine rang elderly people to tell them they shouldn’t be allowed to vote, since voting or counting votes at least, suddenly became optional in the UK. The story of Brexit is not the referendum, it is the backlash. It began before the referendum itself with mostly northern, working-class voters harangued in TV studios and Obama telling us we would have to get to the back of the queue, like some presidential dinner lady. It began as mere snobbery, but after the result, became class hatred of Victorian proportions. The establishment and the middle classes were furious, they had lost control of the political agenda. Indeed, so gratuitous was the response that it ended up stiffening the resolve of Leave voters and possibly drew people into the camp. The calumny helped achieve Brexit.
In the summer of 2016, myself and other writers and artists were interviewed for Radio 4 after we launched a group called Artists for Brexit. The interviews were broadcast late into the night, close to the shipping forecast. Not long after, one of the interviewees found himself out of work because of it, and I was told by a previous poetry publisher that I should send my work elsewhere. Since the referendum, I have come across 4 people who were effectively sacked for voting Leave, and I wasn’t searching them out. Small potatoes in terms of political oppression but what is more significant, when I’ve mentioned this to ardent Remain supporters, many shrug their shoulders in a ‘they had it coming’ kind of way. Some folk have irreparably hardened.
When Corbyn’s leadership was challenged by Owen Smith, I went to my local Labour party branch and spoke in support of Corbyn. He was at that point claiming he would respect the referendum result. I pointed this out and was booed and referred to by a gap year member as ‘Tory scum.’ I doubt whether there was anyone in the room who was familiar with the Left, the democratic case, against the EU or had heard of Peter Shore. I spoke up after someone, who introduced himself as a counsellor, described how sorry he felt for Leave voters, because they would suffer the most – essentially for their own stupidity. I’m about to read Paul Embery’s Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class. It could easily be entitled Pity: Why the Modern Left Feel Sorry for the Working Class. I first joined the Labour Party in 1976 when I was 16 and left it soon after for the SWP, to return about ten years ago. It is now run by and for middle-class people, utterly managerial in outlook, lacking any threads that link it to the labour movement of the last century. That movement of the past achieved so much, it set its sights on convincing people of its cause. Currently, those that won’t conform are met with aggression and summarily dismissed as brainwashed and racist.
Polls suggest Starmer has hoovered up Lib Dem support but Labour Leave voters will be much harder to shift. Party politics in the UK has become ossified in Leave/Remain trenches with the referendum being re-fought daily through the realm of what pundits call the ‘culture wars.’ Regardless of the personnel involved, Labour’s opposition to Brexit, in particular its attack on working-class voters as gullible stooges, is a move to the authoritarian right and an affront to democracy. It was largely imposed on Corbyn and it was obvious that he didn’t believe in the disastrous second referendum policy. The space of left opposition to the EU is now vacant and desperately needs occupying. Someone in the Commons needs to demand that Boris Johnson, now free of EU interference, re-nationalise rail and water; that the House of Lords be abolished once again, and replaced with an elected second chamber. And someone needs to put the breaks on excessive flag-waving.
Patriotism, as Orwell argued, can be used to revolutionary effect, but nationalism never. French workers, fishermen included, are not our enemies. Leaving the EU, we need to remember and revive a spirit of internationalism. It is a tradition that was once very strong in the British labour movement, particularly during the Spanish Civil War, when thousands of men and women went to fight and to nurse for the Republic in its struggle against Franco. Internationalism is not the supranationalism of the EU, it is working people of one nation supporting working people of another involved in similar struggles. It is predicated on the belief that Cornish fishermen have much in common with French fishermen and there might be mileage in negotiations between them, rather than resorting to gunboats. They might even find they have a case in combining on particular issues. It was once a cornerstone of social democratic parties, but has long since vanished and sadly now no one seriously expects the TUC to support the Yellow Vest movement in France, to attempt to replicate it amongst low paid workers in the UK. Wouldn’t it be something to have our own Yellow Vest protestors in London addressed by French and Dutch activists? Brexit was kept alive by ordinary people who were driven by a desire for democracy. Though the deal is done, it isn’t over, for that energy is still there. There is a discussion in this country now, about the meaning of democracy, of sovereignty, about who we should trade with. It’s exciting. Working people are involved because they are suddenly closer to political decision making, as Tony Benn put it, ‘we lend our power to MPs.’ The situation frightens some and they call it populism. But is only what the Levellers, the Chartists, and the Suffragettes gave their lives for. It’s just history, labour movement history in part, catching up with us. That the Labour Party is unable to see this, tells you how remote it has become from the tradition that created it.
“I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.” Leveller MP Thomas Rainsborough, Putney debates 1647
Michael Crowley’s latest book is Baghlan Boy.