After the Deal, Where to Next?

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.

What is the Point of the Labour Party Now?

The reason why the Labour Party cannot come to terms with its catastrophic election loss is the reason why it happened. They continue to believe their own propaganda – a narrative that exists not for the electorate but for its own membership, from cadre to foot-soldier.

‘It was the media’. The media cut the Labour Party a lot of slack, particularly over its NHS claims and the majority of complaints to the BBC have been about bias against the Tories. Since the 2016 referendum campaign BBC Brexit coverage has consistently been framed through a Remain lens and they have shown themselves to be wholly hostile to Boris Johnson, a mouthpiece for Tony Blair, and Andrew Neil apart, tolerant of Corbyn and over indulgent of the Lib Dems and the Greens. But the underlying assumption of the accusation is that the plebs can’t think for themselves – that voters are a suggestable mob prey to slogans on the side of a bus or a Russian bot. The respectable well-worn term here is ‘populism’ but if you look through it at the 2019 election, the more populist party was Labour with trillion pound promises the electorate wasn’t buying. Furthermore, despite or rather because of the relentless pro-Remain media campaign for the last three and a half years, in 2019 just as in 2016 the electorate made up their own minds. In the UK it is not so much the voters who are volatile as the political class.

At the end of it all Labour tried to wash their hands of any Brexit policy. John McDonnell appeared at the end of his drive in the early hours of the morning inside a luxurious cardigan to regret that ‘we just couldn’t get past Brexit’, as if someone else had parked a second referendum in his manifesto. He reasoned that Labour had tried to respect both leave and remain voters, a position which Blair described as ‘comic indecision.’ Except it wasn’t. Rhetorically Corbyn pretended to be neutral this time, in reality everyone knew Labour was for Remain and their duplicity, their political cowardice was a major cause of their defeat.


The party is now undertaking ‘a period of reflection.’ From The Guardian manifestos we’ve seen up until now the most far-reaching conclusion likely to emerge will be ‘if it hadn’t had been for Brexit….and if it hadn’t been for Corbyn, we would have won.’ But the decision to support a second referendum  (according to Steven Kinnock MP ‘the worst policy decision in the history of the Labour Party’) and the huge support for Corbyn inside the party were not aberrations, they were historical outcomes decades in the making and very in much in keeping with the Labour Party that emerged post Blair. Corbyn was elected leader twice; on the second occasion by a greater margin. The party wanted him, many adored him and significantly many still do. His support from those in the party is only matched by the antipathy from large swathes of the electorate, particularly working-class voters. Likewise, the decision to support a second referendum was in keeping with its largely millennial, metropolitan, graduate membership – folk who see any alternative to open borders as racist – who’s politics are more utopian than pragmatic, who are uncomfortable with the notion of national identity let alone sovereignty. The support for globalist politics in the supposedly left membership is matched by the right in the PLP in the shape of Hilary Benn and others. Labour is increasingly estranged, not just from its former heartlands but from much of the electorate; it has a one member one vote system and an activist membership. The next leader will have to appeal to that constituency – and consequently it is unlikely that they will be electable to the wider public, more crucially – the new leader will be unable to undertake measures to make the party electable, for Labour have made for themselves a social and intellectual base that effectively imprisons the party in opposition.

The end of the miner’s strike in 1985 effectively meant the end of the labour movement as a national force in British politics. It took a decade for the penny to drop and there were further skirmishes but most knew it was all over. Blair’s Labour came to terms with it enthusiastically whilst Corbyn’s Labour runs on rage and pity about long ago lost battles that never were. It’s not an attractive look unless you are embittered which shows in the temperament of many of Labour’s new recruits. In the wake of the election Kier Starmer and others have made public statements about how desperately sad they feel for working class people who will now have to endure a Tory government – one that many of them in previously rock-solid Labour seats, former mining seats even, voted for. Starmer is oblivious at how insulting his patronage is indeed there is a wider routine lack of sensibility or dignity even amongst current Labour politicians. Another leadership contender Jess Phillips recently tweeted a photograph of her child nephew dispensing alms to a homeless man in Birmingham.

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Feeling sorry for people as a political drive leads to virtue signalling as a political strategy resulting in the crass exploitation of those at the bottom of the pile. My guess is, many people find this repellent and one cannot imagine Johnson or May, Cameron or Miliband behaving like this – it came with Corbyn and should leave with him. It has to be said that bestowing victimhood on the working class is decidedly un-Marxist; they are the agent of change in the supposed march of history and Engels famously said The emancipation of the working class is an act of the working class itself, not … an act of bleeding hearts. Labour’s silence on the year long protests and now general strike in France is telling. Likewise, Labour’s appeal to people as members of ‘oppressed groups’ with unique grievances fosters social division when the abiding hunger is for social solidarity. The labour movement once called itself ‘the hope of the world,’ now it’s an ever growing sub divided list of separate identities.

In the meantime Corbyn has announced that Labour will act as the ‘resistance’ to the Tory government. On election night he defiantly announced to the cameras ‘our time will come’, a republican slogan usually asserted in the Gaelic ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá.’ Corbyn’s Labour is keen on the toy soldier vernacular and they are not shy on the language of physical force either. It accompanies their fantasy that we are now living under a far-right regime, that Brexiteers are racists if not fascists and it is only they – the thin red/rainbow line – that can save the planet. They are not about persuading they are about combating, so banning speakers, verbally and otherwise attacking opponents fits the bill. Many in the Corbyn camp do not expect electoral success – are reluctant for office. They see the system as too rigged and it’s not the point of their involvement anyway. It’s this logic that enables Jezza to declare ‘we won the argument’ even though we are back to the 1930’s in terms of seats. Whilst they persist in appealing largely to students, ethnic minorities and the metropolitan middle class they are likely to remain in this territory.

What is to be Done?

Stephen Kinnock has suggested that Labour admit the second referendum policy was a mistake and apologise to Leave voters. They won’t. And Leave voters won’t forget and forgive the calumny as easily as Labour imagine. The next leader of the party should not be from Corbyn’s inner circle; again this is unlikely and the reason why Corbyn is delaying his departure. The internal organisation Momentum needs to be removed from the party. However, if anything Momentum will be instrumental in choosing the next leader. It is more nebulous than Militant was in the eighties and I think will have more longevity. I left the party four years ago and I’m still getting texts from them. It has support on the NEC and among some MPs.

Rather than embracing woke politics Labour should begin to distance themselves from this tribe who are not as large as they seem to be. Class is no longer an indication of how people vote, culture is and Labour need to pick up the flag they planted in the camp of those who are between unpatriotic and hostile towards Britain and plant it among those who have affection for the country and its traditions. They must seize the national narrative. They should hang on to their ambitions regarding taking into public ownership transport and utilities.

We shall see how one nation Boris Johnson’s government turns out to be. What the UK doesn’t need is to be a one party state, it needs a competent opposition. I spent New Year’s Eve round a table chatting to a former printer – one time the youngest SOGAT father of the chapel on Fleet Street who went through Murdoch at Wapping – or maybe it was the other way round. He said he thought that the Labour Party was an institution that had outlived its purpose. At the time I thought that was true for his generation but not otherwise. The response of the party to its electoral defeat thus far has made me wonder.

The Labour Party is in trouble because it’s relationship with the people who it was created to represent is broken. Despite or rather because of its mass membership it will find it difficult to rebuild trust in many communities or even convince sufficient numbers of voters that it values democracy. It is an institution that has existed since 1905 and it has been a vital part of British history. Although twice as many men have walked on the moon than have been Labour prime ministers, people not just in Britain are indebted to its past achievements. It is not excessive to suggest that its achievements of office might henceforth remain in the past.

What Rough Beast Is This? How Fanaticism has a Grip on British Politics

There is a fanaticism at the heart of Corbyn’s Labour Party and Corbyn’s thinking; a blind adherence by his followers and an absolute certainty in the righteousness of their cause to the detriment of truth, decency and parody. Corbyn himself exudes a smugness, a self-righteousness in interviews that makes his supporters dewy eyed and the rest of us cringe – his uninhibited followers brim with moral superiority whilst pouring bile on those with whom they disagree. The Spectator journalist James Bartholomew invented the term ‘virtue signalling’ to encompass the routine displays of piety, which whilst not being confined to the contemporary liberal left, are its custom and practice. Such a demeanour infantilises its exponents as well as the electorate. Recently, Corbyn told the Evening Standard that if elected he would move a homeless family into Chequers and then told a television interviewer that on Christmas Day, he likes to visit a homeless shelter to, “listen to how the government can improve people’s lives.” (Cue the twinkled-eyed half smile). It’s off the grandstanding charts and up the narcissism graph. This was not the character of Blair or Kinnock’s Labour Party, of any Labour Party I have known, nor even the Communist Party of Great Britain and the crass gesture politics and zealousness is also out of our national character.

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Corbyn’s doctrinal politics is recognisable in a brand of Trotskyism exemplified by the Revolutionary Communist Group. The RCG’s take on socialist revolution was and still is, that the British working class is incapable of forging itself into a vanguard because of its historical ties to imperialism and the monarchy and that fundamental social change needs to be led by ethnic minority communities. Its weekly newspaper is called Fight Racism Fight Imperialism and has an international perspective supporting national liberation struggles across the globe. Corbyn has never been a member of the RCG or any other Trotskyist party but his political devotions have followed the same path. All ills, all terrorism are the result of American, British or Israeli imperialism. He supported the IRA throughout the Troubles and steadfastly refuses to condemn them to this day. Rather as a get-out he chooses to condemn all violence…. everywhere. If one were to receive a condolences card from Corbyn it would say ‘I am sorry for your loss as I am sorry for everyone else’s loss.’ One of the reasons he is popular with the young is because they have no memory of the barbarity of those times. Take any day…this day in 1972, when the IRA murdered William Bogle, 28, a married father of 3. He was an off-duty member of the UDR and fired on outside Killeter post office. His wife went into post office leaving William and the 3 children aged 3, 4 and 8 months – in the car. Though he rushed out of the car to save the children William died in his wife’s arms. This kind of atrocity was commonplace for thirty years and Corbyn was no mediator for peace, he was in no position to be that, he didn’t want to do that, he wanted the Provos to win.

Support for the IRA has been less of a problem than his support for anti-Semites. This running sore for Labour has two sources: Corbyn’s support for the Palestinians and wider Arab nationalism as well as an opportunism concerning British Muslims. His support for Palestinians is admirable and necessary, few in parliament are prepared to make the case, but it is not necessary to share platforms with, embrace and describe as friends – members of Hamas, Hezbollah, holocaust deniers, purveyors of the blood libel and other Salafists – people who believe gays and women should be stoned and Jews ‘wiped off the face of the earth.’  Corbyn is singular amongst the pro-Palestinian MPs in keeping such company. Part of his thinking is that such people can be won over to socialism but they never are; he thought that about the Provos and he thinks that about British Muslims which is why he has turned a blind eye to their prejudices inside the Labour Party. The Labour Party’s special relationship with the Muslim Council of Britain has always been a one-way street and now the chickens are coming home to roost.

I recently interviewed a long-standing member of a Greater Manchester CLP and he told me how in the last few years there had been an influx of Muslims into the branch, including senior members of the local Muslim community. His view was that ignorance regarding the Holocaust was widespread amongst this influx and there was no education in the branch. They were just pleased to have their support. When I worked in a jail I came across anti-Semitism amongst Muslim prisoners. Admittedly it was a jail and unrepresentative of wider society but the notion of a conspiracy – that Jews control the media and everything said about Islam is a lie was widely held. Myself and other staff took the initiative to get Muslim prisoners to help organise Holocaust Memorial Day which on the face of it seemed a great success with Muslim prisoners working hard to get a big audience in the library to listen to the talk and watch a film. But when I spoke to a number of lads afterwards, some were still sceptical whether the Holocaust had really happened. At the root of this is the Koran not the plight of Palestinians.

In the wake of Corbyn’s leadership ex-Trots have made their way into the party. The notion that Israel has no right to exist is commonplace among the harder left both in and outside the Labour Party. The logical conclusion of the premise is that it would therefore be acceptable if the state was destroyed – the stated position of Iran and Hezbollah. No one ever asks how many people would have to be destroyed along the way. One of the solutions to Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis would be to make it an expressed condition of membership that one accepts Israel’s right to exist and for those that don’t accept that to be shown the door. But then that’s an admission that something institutional is amiss.

Despite all the youtube interviews, the social media posts against Jews by Labour members, councillors, an MP – the footage of Corbyn on Iranian state TV and elsewhere, not to mention the evidence of the Jewish Labour Movement to the Human Rights Commission – there are ample numbers of people on the left who believe the entire saga is a smear. Not that there are a few bad apples – but the whole is thing has been constructed to deflect criticism of Israel. An element of that is the reluctance to accept that you might be in the wrong tribe after all, which can impact on family and friendships – but it also smacks of an irrational devotion and that is fanaticism. See here for a video version.

At the end of November Labour held a press conference regarding a 400 page document pertaining to trade talks with the US. Corbyn held up a few pages of the document and pronounced, “Imagine opening a five-figure bill for your cancer treatment. Imagine paying to give birth. Paying to have a check-up at the GP…. etc etc.” Despite that he and others were later forced to admit that the pages and the wider document didn’t refer to any such thing, that this was essentially a scam as crafty as the Zinoviev letter, many desperately hang on to the accusation and repeat it even if they do not believe it themselves. They do this because of their devotion to their tribe and as such people learn to love the lie.

The refusal to accept the democratic mandate by the Remain camp has inevitably fostered a fanaticism in the UK – it is by its nature a fairly extreme position to take and over the last three years an ugly desperation has been incubated. People have gone from ‘make them vote again’ to ‘these people are worse than Nazis’, from ‘they didn’t know what they were voting for’ to ‘throw battery acid at them’, from throwing milkshakes at the Brexit Party to death threats. David Starkey said that when he heard people (Polly Toynbee) using the death of supposed Brexit voters as a reason to negate the mandate it reminded him of Hitler talking about Jews. Fanaticism is not confined to black and white footage of Nuremburg. It begins with the ordinary folk in the video link above, holding placards condemning bigotry whilst spouting racial malice. It seems embedded north of the border, how else would you describe Nicola Sturgeon’s one-track solution to every problem, her same answer to every question?

I’ve been researching the International Brigade and the Spanish Civil War and recently came across a three-page letter by Orwell at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. The letter concerns the suppression and murder of Anarchists and members of the POUM (a Marxist militia) by Stalinists during the conflict. Orwell wrote an article about this at the time for the New Statesman but they refused to publish it, in fact the left press merely repeated the Stalinist line that these people were on the side of the Nazis. What you can see in the letter to Henry Brailsford is Orwell’s recognition that Communism was no answer to Fascism, a recognition later articulated in Homage to Catalonia and Nineteen Eighty-Four, that the choice to be made is between freedom and tyranny. The choice we currently have in the UK is between EU globalism and neo-liberalism and neither are appealing. What is more unappealing is the growing fanaticism on one side of the argument.

The closing submission by the Jewish Labour Movement to the EHRC is available to download here.



Who Cares About Democracy?

In a series of indicative votes in the Commons, 184 MPs voted to revoke Article 50, to simply ignore the biggest democratic mandate in the country’s history. What is even more shameful is that 111 of those MPs were Labour MPs. At the recent EU elections, the Liberal Democrats ran on an aggressive ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ ticket. In effect, bollocks to democracy, to all you 17.4 million Leave voters. The Labour party, always covertly a party of Remain seems set to publicly link arms with them. Ask a Leave voter if they believe in democracy and they invariably reply unequivocally: of course, that’s why I voted leave. Ask someone who post the referendum result still thinks we should Remain the same question, the reply is often equivocal at best: yes, but it depends…etc. It is perhaps a little reassuring that few people including politicians, won’t openly declare they are opposed to democracy per se, but in practice increasing numbers of people, at the behest of the political class, are taking anti- democratic positions, not just in relation to Brexit but in relation to banning and closing down points of view they disagree with. Democracy is suddenly not the article of faith it once was, it is has instead become one of a number of competing values.

Among its new foes is also its oldest: profit; currently in the shape of global capital. Amazon naturally prefers to deal with one set of regulations and tax arrangements as opposed to twenty- seven. Coincidentally its UK Chief has predicted there will be riots on the streets if Britain leaves the EU without a deal. For their part the EU are considering moving to a ‘harmonisation’ on corporation tax across its member states. Hard on the heels of the economics comes the politics. Cameron’s and Osborne’s mantra during the referendum campaign was that there would be dire economic consequences if people voted Leave. When we did there wasn’t, but then they could hardly argue that people should vote Remain in the interests of democracy. The interests of the economy have always been put above questions of civil liberty. For two decades William Wilberforce’s bills before parliament on the abolition of slavery were voted down in the interests of trade. In 1804 it should be noted, by the Lords alone.

What it new of our times is that anti-democratic politics is growing among people who think of themselves as left wing or liberal, who claim to stand in a tradition associated with the struggle for democracy, but who clearly do not. In the UK a contemporary self-declared progressive would likely be ambivalent, hostile even to the concept of national sovereignty, lazily equating it with nationalism. In France Macron refuses to allow a referendum on EU membership because he is worried he will lose it. He sees no contradiction in calling himself a liberal whilst keeping his country locked into an empire he thinks they want to leave. Just as in the UK, he smears political opposition as racist. To do so de-legitimises opponents no matter how much support they may have, no matter how many votes. Democracy as a value, as an ethic is now not only competing with the interests of the economy, it is held up against notions of political correctness, most notably allegations of racism, much like an individual tried in the court of social media. It is the Labour Party that has most vociferously slandered Leave voters as racist and more recently as supporting the far right by voting for The Brexit Party. Some have compared us to Nazis. They want to demoralise and demonise people who support democracy but it is also how they give themselves the moral authority to ignore the mandate; the accusations are as much for themselves as for us.

Recently the refusal to accept to the referendum result migrated to the result of the EU elections. Many in the media and on the left claimed that we witnessed a ‘remain surge.’ One wonders if this trait will continue to future elections. Acceptance of electoral defeat is fundamental to democracy, or as playwright Tom Stoppard put it, it’s not the voting that counts, it’s counting the votes that matter and some in the establishment are happy to present the numbers creatively. Much in the discourse of the last three years is reminiscent of the Victorian era when extending the franchise was denied on the grounds that working people were too irresponsible, to ill-informed and impressionable to be trusted with the vote. That and the paternalism of Victorians that pitied and feared the poor in equal measure. There is something of Dickens’ self-righteous Mr Bumble in so many of our politicians who preach one thing in manifestos and then practice the opposite in office.

Democracy is important not just as a civil liberty but because of the responsibility it endows us with. How we vote affects others, it encourages us to think of society as a whole, notions of equality around race and gender followed on from this most basic equality; we are all equal before the ballot box. Although it is a private act it is also a collective act and it was won through collective action. If the referendum result is negated it will not only destroy what little trust remains in government but it will break a connection that exists between citizens cooperating together to improve their lives peacefully through the ballot box. Fewer people will vote as a result, it will induce apathy as well as anger. It was once unthinkable that a politician on the left would do such a thing as to vote for the revocation of Article 50. Indeed, the origin of the division between left and right comes from the very birth of the struggle for democracy in Europe, for during the French Revolution Robespierre and others who demanded universal suffrage sat on the left of the assembly and the Girondists who wanted to keep political power within the nobility, on the right. But now in the UK the left so called, sit where the right once did and many who are thought of, and think of themselves as on the right, are for democracy.

At heart of the confusion is the way politics is used by many as a personal brand. Many on the Remain side see the EU as a more attractive brand than Leave, which they see as old and uncool. They do not consider how or whether the institution is steadily de-democratising Europe. The left is generally more vocal about their brand, uncontrollably self-righteous at times. And for all of us social media has diminished the space between private and the public spheres. The practice of keeping a diary developed during the Reformation when people would privately examine their conscience against the demands of living a Christian life. It was an entirely personal matter. Does anyone believe that Alistair Campbell kept a diary during the Blair years for any purpose other than publication?

Those of us in support Brexit will continue to be denigrated and lied about and I expect there is worse to come. However, for the last three years the Leave electorate has remained incredibly resilient and it now has a party to vote for, if only on this issue. It may not be perfect but at this point, it alone stands for democracy. The political establishment may have most of parliament, the judiciary and much of the media on their side. It seems daunting. But we have hundreds of years of struggle to inspire us and our forefathers overcame far greater obstacles than we are facing. We owe it to them to stand our ground.

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A Very Real British Coup Why Britain is no longer a democracy

In Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel A Very British Coup, left wing Labour prime minster Harry Perkins and Member of Parliament for Sheffield, is overthrown by a conspiracy of spooks, capitalists and media moguls. For many of us in the UK it feels like we are living through a coup ourselves. Except it is not one executed by a secret state against an elected government, rather it is one conducted by a government against its own electorate. And at the heart of the conspiracy is a Labour Party which is apparently left wing from top to bottom. Its role in this, the anti-Brexit coup, has been a canny one. During the referendum campaign its leader, not Harry from Sheffield but Jeremy from Islington, was somewhat ambivalent. When the result came through he called for Theresa May to trigger Article 50 immediately. During the 2017 election campaign he promised to honour the referendum result (see page 24 of the manifesto) and then after securing the biggest increase in seats since Atlee, very quickly reneged. Labour is now the party of Remain.


The party’s coup against an overwhelmingly working class leave electorate is justified to itself on the grounds that the electorate is right wing and most of all racist. The party sees itself as internationalist and the EU as the same, it sees the Leave vote as backward. It isn’t the kind of internationalism of French trade unionists burning coal lorries bound for Dover during the miners’ strike, nor of the International Brigades. It is the new internationalism of global markets and open borders, providing skilled and inexpensive labour straight to a workplace from a labour pool of 500 million and rising. The left idea of internationalism was hijacked by neo-liberal ideas a long time ago and Corbyn and co are on board to the degree that they think British workers are obliged to have their wages lowered and their jobs taken by workers from lower wage economies. If you complain you are defamed as racist. This is the twentieth week of the yellow vest protests in France and I am yet to hear of a statement from anyone in Labour in support of those workers. Despite all the street cred they are more Macron than gilet jaune. It is this ethic that underpins Corbyn’s determination to keep the free movement of labour, regardless of the consequences to the poorest workers. That and his gormless narcissism that compels him to declare his pious anti-racism with every sound-bite. “Many Congratulations done to our diverse England football team.” Just watch the match and give it a rest.

The wider coup began the day after the referendum result when the political class as a whole began to turn on the electorate. They have been supported by the judiciary, the media and a significant section of the middle classes. Despite it being a very British coup it is also chilling how unsubtle it has been. Cash bunged Gina Miller whose lawyers handed the decision back to a Remain parliament; Bercow and his precedent from James I; the Jeremy Vine phone-in cheerily explaining to the recently retired why they should lose the vote. Within a week of the result the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg was pushing the demographics as if who is really why. Leave is old, white, uneducated ergo angry. Nothing to do with the possibility that older voters may value democracy more than students, having had parents who had to fight for its survival, who can remember the tanks rolling into Prague in ‘68. The BBC created a Leave archetype, gave a platform to Terry Christian, among the most vitriolic of elitist Remainers who has publicly called for Leave voters to be thrown out of work. The BBC, the state broadcaster, gave its permission for a bigoted backlash.

Polly Toynbee of The Guardian made a count of the dead until she could announce there were now more Remainers than Leavers alive. The liberal’s Pravda has always been Janus-faced; the bleeding heart social worker and vicious reactionary. During the miner’s strike they backed Thatcher and McGregor then ran a full page article after the miners’ defeat insisting there should be no victimisation – as 200,000 redundancy notices began to be issued. They supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq and were then strident about the need for an enquiry. The want to block Brexit, disenfranchise millions of working class voters, at the same time as running opinion pieces about how parliament must listen to the north.

Out in the Remain constituency revoking Article 50, calling the whole thing off, is a casual click away. Nice people do it. 111 Labour MPs voted to revoke Article 50. This is in effect supporting the end of universal suffrage, for the right to vote is not just the act of putting a cross on a piece of paper but having the vote mean something. What the electorate is currently faced with is soviet democracy – different candidates with the same politics. If 52% of a 72% turnout doesn’t mean anything to some, what does? It’s more than Atlee achieved, Thatcher or Blair. And there has never been a plebiscite where it has been clearer what we were voting for. What do they imagine we thought leave meant…leave the pencil on the string? Atlee didn’t mention in advance he was going to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy, Thatcher de-industrialise at a rate just as fast, Blair invade Iraq.

As we have approached the wire the temperament inside the Remain camp has become hysterical and fascistic. Saving the electorate from themselves has become saving the country from a horde and parliament is duplicitously refusing to implement Brexit. Britain has ceased to be a functioning democracy. We are living under a parliamentary dictatorship.

The current MP for Sheffield was born a year before Chris Mullin’s novel was published. He was elected as a Labour MP but now sits as an independent after an unseemly expulsion. There is no sign of a by-election. Sheffield, like the rest of the country, voted to leave the EU, yet their MP wants a second referendum. What does one do when you wake up to find you’re not living in the democracy you once thought you were? What can one do in a two party system both of which have proven themselves opposed to democracy? One can easily give up. The turnout yesterday in the Newport West by-election was 37%. In 2017 it was 67.5%. It’s a Leave constituency by a significant margin. The new Labour MP got just 39% of the 37% turnout but will now join parliament to help block Brexit. Let’s not pretend the political class are disappointed with low turnouts. In elections mathematics are morality and what’s occurring is wicked.

Coups come on the back of plebiscites that don’t go as planned (see Spain, Chile, Turkey) and always authoritarians use the cover of ‘the crisis’ ‘saving the country’ ‘the national interest’ to shut down democracy. In truth though this is a specific moment, it is also acceleration in the longer term direction of travel. Local government long since had any autonomy worth voting for as more and more services were contracted out. National government has followed suit, in part that’s what the EU membership is about, the contracting out of economic and political decision making. And let’s face it, we were an unresolved democracy to begin with an archaic unelected second chamber.

Historically the situation reminds me of the great betrayal of 1832 which led to the Chartist movement of 1838 to 1848. A new charter is needed. Whatever happens to Brexit, British politics is never going to be the same. Parliament, the mainstream media and the judiciary have been exposed as corrupt, contemptuous of the electorate; sections of the middle classes contemptuous of democracy. Millions of working class voters are without a home. Thatcher laid waste to industries and communities, Blair stole their party, Corbyn sold out their vote. Tragically this is where the far right like to come along to pick up the pieces – and it doesn’t help matters if everyone has been calling you a right wing racist for the last three years. For my part I have just joined the SDP. It feels like a new start whilst at the same time being part of a history play, reliving something that happened a century and a half ago.

The Word Turned Upside Down. The strange death of the Left’s opposition to the EU

If the Labour Party had accepted the referendum result, had embraced it, we would have left the EU by now and might also have a Labour government. There would also be less social division abroad than is currently the case. But they have reneged on their election promise of 2017, perpetuated and fed off the social division and set their teeth against Brexit from the Momentum foot soldiers up to the leadership. They now campaign for a second referendum, against a no deal option and there isn’t a deal they would vote for save their own which would leave us in the customs union and the single market, i.e. in the EU. In doing so they have not only betrayed their overwhelmingly working class leave constituency but democracy itself. And it’s a historic betrayal, not only in the sense of its magnitude but also in the narrative of the wider labour movement’s struggle for universal suffrage beginning at the Putney debates and spanning the centuries to the suffragettes. It is a rejection of the principle that ordinary people should strive to exercise political authority through the vote. We have now a Left in Britain that likes to toddle off to see Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo and then despair in the pub afterwards at the poor of 2019 who voted for political independence.


In the Labour movement that I was part of from the late seventies until a few years ago opposition to pan European economics and government was mainstream. Now it is extremely marginal, virtually extinct. By the very definition of the term (see the French Revolution) the Left side of politics is about widening access to political power and the Right is about the narrowing of authority. The EU by definition is a project of the Right. At my final Labour Party branch meeting I was roundly booed for saying I had voted leave and was called ‘Tory scum’ by a member who looked to be in the midst of retaking his A levels. Many in the room were completely unaware of the social democratic case against the growing power of the EU, nor were they aware that until very recently Corbyn had been an opponent of the EU for all of his career, hanging on to the coat tails of Tony Benn. I went to see Corbyn at Leeds during his first leadership campaign. Half way through he told the more than 2000 assembled, ‘…if the EU isn’t delivering for ordinary working people we will consider our membership.’ I wasn’t the only one who stood up to clap. Now the serial rebel is imposing the whip on MPs to stop Brexit. So how did he and the rest of the labour movement learn to love the oligarchy?

In Corbyn’s case it is because he has become increasingly opportunist and sees frustrating the Brexit mandate as a means to force a general election. It seems obvious to him to put party above country, above democracy. The Left has always been a curious cocktail of principled stands and popular posturing. I joined the Socialist Workers Party at the time of punk and the Anti Nazi League, a lot of teenagers did. Initially I didn’t understand why thereafter ‘the party’ made a virtue of unpopularity. But Corbyn wants power. To his credit he is far more serious about it than Miliband was. He and his shadow cabinet appeared so intoxicated by the scent of it during the 2017 general election that the following morning he repeatedly proclaimed Labour had won. What was darker was his response to the atrocity of the Manchester bombing which took place during the campaign. I was in Sydney at the time and was aware that the Prime Minster had called a halt in campaigning. We switched on ABC to see Corbyn proselytising to reporters that Britain’s foreign policy was to blame for the murder of 22 mainly teenage girls at the Manchester Arena. The fact that the bomber was the son of a refugee taken in by Britain is only part of the point here. What I saw was a politician so desperate to make ground he was prepared to exploit an atrocity before the names and scale of the victims were even known, during the nearest this country ever gets to mourning. Corbyn has put in a shift on the back benches and now at last he feels cometh the hour. The 2017 manifesto was an un-costed utopian basket case that had students queueing to have their debts written off. Now he is mapping every move back and forth across the Brexit board game. A former comrade said to me “Jezza is playing a blinder on Brexit.” The most radical domestic political event of our lives isn’t something Labour leaders should be playing with.

To explain the wider Left’s opposition to leaving the EU, even after the referendum result, you have to go back to the Thatcher years, from 1984 onwards. After the defeat of the miners and a second Tory election victory the Left had to reconcile themselves to the fact that the emancipation of the working class was not an act of the working class itself, but was something that the council might do on their behalf. Then Thatcher’s legislation and Kinnock’s purge put paid to that so they looked to Brussels instead. Whilst in Britain workers were reading tabloids, crossing picket lines and buying Filofaxes, the French and other continentals were electing socialists. Europe was cool and was providing European law to protect workers in Britain in place of the unions. There was TUPE for when you were privatised, the working time directive when you needed a break from your VDU. I was a shop steward during this period and was sent on day long courses by my union to gen up on European health and safety law. I became a full time irritant to management not because I had a militant workforce behind me but because I had a handbook of progressive regulations to quote from. A Bleak House version of Scargill.

In the face of declining working class support the Left became managerial in outlook and the Labour Party increasingly a party of managers in spirit if not in occupation. Fast forward to Corbyn’s Labour Party and the influx of numerous ex Trots in mid-life, a lot of young people and an aggressive form of identity politics. Prioritising and defining all things by race or age or gender etc is inherently managerial and undemocratic. It is not hard to see how the party membership gets behind the House of Lords, John Bercow or Gary Linekar to support what is in effect an anti-democracy movement.

Democracy has never been something the Left has valued for its own sake. The very idea has always been viewed as a sham. Believing instead that the real contest lies in the power relations of capital or as Corbyn refers to it ‘a rigged system’ doesn’t lend itself to respecting the result of plebiscites. Furthermore one is taught early on that the voters are rigged as well, that they possess a ‘false consciousness’. In short everyone who disagrees has been brainwashed. Politics for the Left and the managerial classes is not a matter of opinion, of real and perceived interest, it is a matter of right and wrong. Throw in the Left’s new Stalinist handbook that states unless proven otherwise white working class people are racist and leave voters are obviously nothing more than malign and stupid. A discussion with them regarding the merits or otherwise of the EU goes nowhere. If you want to end the free movement of labour because it suppresses the wages of those in unskilled work, you’re a racist. If you’re concerned about unprecedented and unsustainable population growth in the UK, you’re a racist. If you think people should be governed by consent, you’re a Tory. In many ways the contemporary Left bear many of the hallmarks of the far Right. They are censorious to the point of banning speech, books and removing paintings; they make a virtue of segregation based on race and gender and many loathe and fear the working class. The Guardian ran an article in the wake of the referendum arguing that voters should pass an intelligence test; the very same strategy that was used to disenfranchise black people in America.

“Intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history, etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side.”

George Orwell.

The vilification of the leave constituency has been unprecedented and the vast majority of the barrage, indeed the worst of it comes from the Left. In many of the missives if one replaced the words leave voter with Jew, Muslim or Gay there would quite rightly be outrage. But there isn’t. A colleague of mine who works in arts production was hounded out of work when he spoke up for Brexit. I know others who work in the media, including the BBC, who realistically fear being sacked if management find out they voted leave. Some remain voters I speak to think this is fine. My impression of much of the wider remain vote is that it was based on fear of economic catastrophe. Much of the Left’s motives boil down to a matter of self-image, of virtue signalling as being anti-racist, pro-immigration for its own sake rather than any analysis or understanding of how the EU operates and what it means for democracy across the continent. For if Britain cannot leave the EU, a wealthy island with a commonwealth, then how can the landlocked?

Corbyn will lose votes in Leave constituencies, he may well lose constituencies. He knows this but has decided to throw his lot in with the pro EU middle classes. Brexit was a working class revolt. Labour’s betrayal of its election promise feels like a watershed but there is a much greater schism upon us. Millions of us have come to the conclusion that the UK is no longer a democracy. The system is rigged and it is Labour who have helped to rig it. They have run to the House of Lords to Macron and to the EU to prevent Brexit. The Speaker of the House, a man who has a Bollocks to Brexit sticker on his car bumper has today found a caveat from 1605 that says we can’t leave the EU. Corbyn happened because of Iraq; Brexit happened because of Iraq. The electorate do not trust parliament, politicians are self-evidently not people of their word and they are impossibly remote. I predict a riot and I predict a sharp fall in turnout at the next election, if as it seems, we don’t leave the EU. If voting doesn’t change anything, why vote? People will find other ways to make their point.

The hope here for me, as Winston Smith put it, lies with the proles. Despite approaching three years of EU propaganda from the political class and the state broadcaster, the leave constituency hasn’t buckled, if anything it has grown as many who voted remain have become disgusted with the behaviour of the establishment. I suspect that increasing numbers of people want to leave the EU, want the House of Lords abolished. All the advances toward universal suffrage were as a result of demands by the people. It may be that we will have to revive the struggle once more. But while I no longer think politicians can be trusted I still think the people can.


Is the Genie out of the Bottle? Brexit and the future of democracy in Britain

One cannot help but feel that democracy is in trouble here. It’s not on the ropes but it is getting the pounding that could leave it bloodied and reeling, ready for the count. It has many assailants: the Judiciary, the House of Lords, faithless politicians, television and radio, all scurrying to try and undo the biggest political mandate in British history. After Parliament asked the demos a straightforward question, congratulating itself for placing such trust in the people, the wrong answer came back. Since then, much of the political class have done little else bar seeking to have the question asked again, or advocating the answer that 17.4 million people gave, be ignored. Lately Leave voters have been treated to the undignified seething contempt of Vince Cable, a contempt that I suspect he and his kind have held much of their lives.


The over reaction to the referendum result cannot be divorced from who voted which way and the most likely indicator of how people voted, beyond geography and race, is class. As someone in north Manchester told John Harris of The Guardian, ‘If you’ve got money you’re in, if you haven’t you’re out.’ Bradford, a famously multiracial City, voted Leave. It’s a predominantly working class place, and it’s in the north, which is why that happened and why you won’t have seen that mentioned in the TV debates. It is the factor of class above all others that drives those that now stand opposed to the implementation of the mandate, and in truth to democracy. The BBC and indeed many Labour politicians repeatedly remind us that it was the ‘less educated’ who voted Leave. Dianne Abbot wasted no time in describing the Leave vote as a racist vote.

There is so much in the saga that is depressing and injurious for our democracy, our civil society. The Gina Miller shenanigans, liberals and the Left cheering on high court judges and their new found comrades in the House of Lords, the perpetual exploitation of Jo Cox’s murder, the routine vitriol heaped on working class Leave voters by politicians who are handsomely paid to represent them. But arguably the worst of it is this: the voice of chattering class Remain voters proclaiming that there are more important things than democracy. This increasingly outspoken and growing authoritarianism is a new phenomenon, or perhaps an Edwardian one reborn, and one that emerged prior to the referendum under the managerialism of the Blair years. Politics is no longer a matter of belief or opinion, it is about being right or wrong and the technocracy always knows best.

your decision

The more important things can be broadly divided into ‘the economy’ and increasingly ‘racism’ or more precisely, the necessity of avoiding any accusation of racism at all costs. That George Osborne’s economic forecasts for the aftermath of a Leave majority have proven to be nonsense, is apparently besides the point, project fear is constantly renewing itself and we are in the words of Sadiq Khan, about to fall off a cliff. Again. The argument follows that the referendum result is meaningless because the point of voting,  the point of the electorate, is to serve economic growth and any decision that doesn’t do that is technically off side. Leave voters being less likely to have attended a university is in this argument, both cause and result: economic failures turning their backs on economic opportunity. You don’t have to go far on social media or elsewhere to find that people who voted Leave are morally and intellectually inferior to ‘the rest of us,’ and to hear that some of them, particularly older people, should have the right to vote taken off them. When I first heard this said on Radio Four, I was shocked. Now the Liberal Democrats say it at press conferences. Neither is it unusual to hear members of The Guardian club question whether ‘the uninformed’ should be allowed a say in such important matters, by which they mean removing the vote from the poor. The progressive discourse is moving fast, it’s now moved on to who gets to decide who doesn’t vote. And all this, in the centenary year of the Representation of the People Act of 1918.

Brexit is racist

The other trump card played alongside the first, is that those who oppose unlimited and indefinite mass migration from the EU are motivated only by racism. It doesn’t matter what they say about sovereignty, about being a socialist since you were seventeen, you’re a little Englander. Indeed the Brexit backing Morning Star itself was described as such, the Stalinist handbook rewritten to be used against its very authors. The upshot is, that the denunciation alone invalidates the referendum result because racism now has the position that original sin once did; unless proven otherwise we are all damned by the worst of all offences. All white people that is. The paranoia around racism and the accusation of it, is corrupting public life and personal lives, as well as trivialising people’s very real experiences of racial discrimination.

In the last couple of days, a news story has broken about child abuse and related murders in Telford , grave crimes that have continued for decades involving children as young as eleven. The victims were and are white working class girls, the perpetrators Pakistani men. It is the latest, and it appears the largest of many such cases across England. Like in so many of the others, police and social workers are reported as looking the other way because they were frightened of being accused of racism. People more worried about what that would do to their reputation than the sexual exploitation of children. This is where the power of identity politics ends up, shovelling obscenity upon obscenity at the graveyard of human decency. Telford stands out because of its longevity, the number of children, the murders, the magnitude of the suffering. What’s also fast become a related secondary story, is that two days after it was on every other news channel and even in The Guardian, BBC coverage was scant and MPs were not talking about it much either. Indeed, on the day after the story broke, MP Caroline Lucas took the opportunity to ask an emergency question in the commons to discuss harassment and bullying of MPs by other MPs.


Caroline Lucas’s emergency question is where self-regarding bourgeois feminists end up: thinking that an MP touching another MP’s knee warrants an emergency question in Parliament, instead of the largest and longest case of child abuse in the country’s history, one that has lasted for nearly forty years and has finally got the authorities’ attention. Lucas’s response to criticism was inevitably that people were using Telford to ‘whip up racial hatred.’ If the alleged sin of racism can make the police blind, MPs deaf and the BBC silent, it can and is being used to undo the referendum result and undo democracy. I’m 60 next year, I’ve never been called racist in my life, not until I voted Leave, and now I’m running out of fingers to count on. I do take it personally but often it isn’t meant as such. It is just part of a paradoxical narrative that believes the vote to leave the EU is part of a far right surge in British public life, that the white working class are a pogrom waiting to happen and the only way to stem this is to put democracy on hold. Historically, authoritarianism in Europe and fascism in particular, was borne from a fear of the working class power.

The notion of Leave voters’ racism and mass stupidity is not merely abuse, or mythology, it is for some a cast iron belief, a fact as real as the moral and intellectual superiority of the Remain case. Such certainty is dangerous to democracy and if you want an historical example, you should read Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain, an Everest of a book. It is a mosaic of personal accounts from interviews with 300 participants of the conflict from either side, skirmish by skirmish. One is faced with common enmity and humanity on facing pages. Fraser takes us right inside both camps listening to how people lived the war. Leave and Remain need to look at the facing pages of the referendum, look into each other’s camp, and I have to say, Remain more than Leave because switching on the TV or radio these days is like listening to Pathe news for the EU. Whether we exit the EU or not the managerialism that has become authoritarianism will not leave the scene. It has found its feet in the anti-Brexit movement and I fear has them under the table at the Labour Party. From proposals for all women train carriages to the no platforming of speakers, the banning of newspapers on trains, the media witch hunts to the undermining of the biggest popular vote in our history, something rotten, something deeply reactionary is abroad. If the vote to leave the EU is betrayed it will inevitably undermine the legitimacy of future governments, for no one, not Atlee, Thatcher or Blair, gets 52%. And each of those in their way, made greater changes to this country than leaving a free trade outfit. Even if we do leave the EU, the authoritarian genie is out of the bottle.

But there are other movements afoot as well. I went to the first meeting of Artists for Brexit last week in London. There were some great artists there, including novelist Helen Dale, songwriter and former Culture Club member Phil Picket, and painter Michael Lightfoot. We’re not re running the debate, we’re bi partisan, open to Leave and Remain voters and looking at very practical issues like visa regulations for artists post Brexit. This is in regard of both EU artists and artists from elsewhere, who are currently disadvantaged. We will be contacting the Department of Exiting the EU with our proposals. We have a mission statement, the last few lines of which reads, We want to continue to live and work in a society that, even when the decisions to be made are difficult, respects democracy as our most important value. A country that is tolerant and politically independent, innovative in its art and ideas, reaching out and welcoming to the world. We are Artists for Brexit.

If you’re an artist and you want to get on with the future, no matter how you voted, you should think about joining our growing network. There is work to be done so that artists can get the best deal out of Brexit, and Britain post Brexit, gets to see wonderful artists and their work, from the EU and the rest of the world. Get in touch on Twitter here. 





How Did It All Go So Right? Labour, Brexit, and the Arts

It was 1983, I think, South London. As usual, I was in the front row of the audience. On the stage behind the canteen table were Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Ted Knight, and someone I’d never seen before, on such an esteemed platform. He was young and tatty, I thought, some social worker or polytechnic lecturer there to tell us about his strike. The rally was dominated by Benn’s oratory, in particular on his increasingly chosen subject of the Common Market. It was he argued, merely a cartel for capitalists, a means to maximise profit, one enormous  market designed to offset overproduction and to which all else, democracy, the power of national parliaments, the very existence of national sovereignty would be subordinate. It all sounded a bit overstated I thought, but rallies are often part the utopia and part the apocalypse, and I was quick to get to my feet and applaud. This was a full decade before the emergence of UKIP and nine years before the EEC became the EU. Opposition to the European cartel then was a given on the left, even among the soft left of the Tribune Group. At that time, there were four million unemployed and it was understood that this was no tragedy but merely a tactic, a government policy to instil fear in those in work and restraint in their trade union representatives. And it worked like a charm.


Resurrect Benn today and he would describe the free movement of labour in similar terms; as a means to weaken the bargaining power of labour in relation to capital par excellence. Thatcher’s mass unemployment of the early eighties was temporary, he’d argue, but the EU’s reserve army of labour is limitless and permanent. He would point out that it is far from a coincidence that wages in the UK have fallen faster in recent years than anywhere in the EU other than Greece; it is in fact in EU terms a success story, because that is its raison d’etre. That, the stubborn low productivity and the casualisation of the UK workforce are symptomatic of the condition: why invest in workers or machinery, why give them a permanent contract, or any kind of security, when there is always another worker behind in the queue? Why train apprentices at all when the time served can be enlisted from elsewhere? The EU’s case, Tony Blair’s case, is that the international workforce brings skilled labour straight to your door, already trained, highly motivated, increasing profits and therefore investment. And he’s right, it does. But Benn would also be right in saying, because the labour supply is endless, wages never get to catch up. 1983 is here to stay he’d say, and it’s become known as the ‘gig economy’, as if we were all doing stand-up routines just for a chance to be a compere. That Benn and Blair are both right about the economics of the EU is no contradiction. As anyone who has a copy of Marx for Beginners will tell you, there isn’t one economy, there’s two; one for capital, another for labour.

Benn and Bennism is dead and buried, and the man whose jumper didn’t reach to his wrists or his waist that day, the newly elected Jeremy Corbyn, isn’t quoting his mentor anymore. I queued for an hour in Leeds during his leadership campaign, there must have been more than two thousand in the hall waiting for him, and when he hunched in, with a self-effacing smile and a beige sports jacket, the seated joined the standing in applause. At last…at last, something was happening. The EU came up briefly in his speech. And if EU membership isn’t working for working people, we’ll look at our membership. It was almost an aside, he took a hopeful double take at the audience to see how it had gone down; at least I clapped. Few anticipated that within twelve months the question would be answered for him, or that the reaction of the Labour Party to the referendum result, would be what it has been; so confused, debilitated, and frightened.

I had been in and around the left and the trade union movement for many years before and after 1983. I re-joined the Labour Party a few years ago under Ed Miliband and went to my last meeting shortly after the Leave vote. The room was packed with new members and the atmosphere was a mixture of sombreness and hysteria. When I tried to tell people why I had voted Leave I was booed, there was no way I was going to get to an anecdote about Benn and Corbyn. Elsewhere, former comrades have called me ‘Tory Scum’ and predictably of course, a racist. That was my last day as a member, my last meeting, and the most telling contribution in that room was someone saying how sorry he felt for the people who voted Leave, because it is they, the poor, misguided, taken in, working class people who would suffer the most. I think he even used the word, ‘pity’. I have heard this ethic expressed a lot recently from people who actually believe themselves to be socialists and my best riposte is a family anecdote.

I was fourteen, it was half term, my father came in the backdoor whilst I was having lunch in the kitchen with mum. ‘What are you doing home?’ she asked. My father worked in a London Transport bus garage and was a T&G shop steward. ‘We walked out,’ he said. ‘I came across this plumber in the toilet and asked him what union he was in, and he said he wasn’t in one, so we called the garage out. I’d warned the gaffers about this before.’ My mother was worried, ‘They’ll sack you for that.’ He laughed back. ‘They wouldn’t dare.’ A London Transport garage of several hundred workers went home at noon because the man fixing the tap wasn’t in a union, so wasn’t paid the union rate. I know to some of you it sounds archaic and possibly terrifying, but it was the mid-seventies and the gloves were off, and our class, my class, had power and the confidence to use it. It was Scargill and Gormley, mess with us and we’ll turn your lights off during Horse of the Year Show. We had each other’s backs and didn’t hang about for postal ballots. We were yet to be defeated, thereafter humiliated. The Labour Party was about working people representing themselves, politics something you did, not just something that is done to you. I became my father’s son, was never happier than on a picket line and would far sooner have someone’s contempt than pity for voting to leave the EU. People imagine that because the unions have been emasculated that the conflict between capital and labour no longer exists, ‘the end of history.’ It remains unresolved, its just invisible because one side has a triumphant position, nearly all the time. The Brexit vote? That’s a bus garage walking out and they can’t say they weren’t warned.

Kes 2

Corbyn’s leadership notwithstanding, the Labour Party and the left I have left behind is unrecognisable to that which I joined in my teens in the late seventies; unrecognisable to itself. Yes, I have changed and so has the world, but the left is so perpetually realigning itself it is not even easy to define it any more, let alone sign up to it. Socially and culturally it is middle class and managerial. It feels sorry for people yet at the same time wants to police them. It does not believe in commonality, instead it makes a fetish of skin-deep differences. The denigration, snobbery and abuse towards Leave voters, particularly working class Leave voters, overwhelmingly comes from the ranks of the Party and its supporters. Most of them desire to see the biggest democratic mandate of UK history, ignored. Not even Atlee got 52% of a 72% turnout in 1945 and he changed the country a lot more than leaving a free trade outfit. You can hear Labour supporters on Radio Four arguing that the elderly should have the vote taken off them. Not only are they not even democrats in any book I’ve ever read, this is the stuff of the hard right or the Stalinist left and Corbyn should take them in hand but doesn’t.

life support







Intellectually, and that is probably a compliment too far, many have fallen down a relativist rabbit hole and re-emerged to change places as frequently as the Mad Hatter at his tea party possessed by his logic. Simply because Trump is opposed to Iran they are sympathetic to the Islamic Republic. They can’t even bring themselves to support the women risking life and liberty for taking off head scarves. They are frightened that doing so might either alienate Salafists here, or perhaps encourage a similar movement in the UK. And what would they do with that? They don’t even know what to do with the radical nature of Brexit, are scared of it, cannot comprehend its meaning. Many simply voted Remain because Nigel Farage led the Leave campaign;  he having no business being allowed the space to do so.


It is perfectly easy these days to find Labour Party members or supporters who are sympathetic to, if not supportive of: Scottish Nationalism (because it’s anti the British state, and anti-English); Hezbollah (because it’s against Israel); Islamic terror (because it’s against western imperialism); the House of Lords (because it might block Brexit); the banning of newspapers, public speakers, plays, books and paintings (because they disagree with them or they might offend someone they feel sorry for). Identity politics has replaced class, has replaced serious ideas. Labour was once ‘the hope of the world.’ Now it’s the cause of a long list of competing minority groups of everybody except of course, Stan from Doncaster; an oppression layer cake at the Hatter’s party. The prospect of a Corbyn/Momentum government is not exciting to me, it’s doesn’t feel like the march of Solidarity in Poland, it has the feel of something more ominous.


If my divorce isn’t amicable, the feeling is mutual. And I don’t see myself running off-hand in hand with the right either. Another five years of austerity is barely imaginable. The queue at my local food bank tails back round the outside of the church. I want the market out of education and other public services, but I also want more democracy not less, greater freedom of expression not a censorious culture that tip toes around the professionally offended. Though no longer a joiner, I recently came across artists4brexit, a group of artists positive about a politically independent Britain and even reaching out as they say, to Remain voters who respect the mandate. There are some terrific writers and artists involved, some who voted Remain, and it’s a relief to be away from the vitriol and among people who believe art should be part of society, not apart from it. Whilst 52% of the largest turnout in a quarter of a century voted Leave, in a recent survey 96% of artists were opposed to leaving the EU. What does that tell us about the relationship between the arts and the people in this country? The arts scene is pre-occupied with identity politics, half the time that’s all the poem, the play is about. There’s not much narrative, insufficient craft, just an expression of the author’s identity. Everyone in the room talks about diversity yet everyone thinks alike. Political correctness is killing art, but then that’s the point of it. Increasingly I  don’t define myself by politics, and never by the chains of my ‘identity’, but rather by what books and ideas have captured me of late. We are what we read, think and do, the difference we make to the world, not just the way we came into it.

world turned

I’m about to start work on a youth theatre project with the children of serving soldiers and then hopefully a community play on the English Civil War, for which I’ve been re-reading Christopher Hill’s magnificent The World Turned Upside Down. It is a subject that has drawn me all my reading life and ultimately what determined my decision to vote Leave. I didn’t do it because of what Tony Benn or anyone else said, or what was written on the side of a bus. I did it because the fight for ordinary people to have a say in how they are governed in this country, is at least a four hundred year old struggle, arguably beginning with the Levellers in 1645. It was followed by those who fell at Peterloo, the Chartists and the Suffragettes. It is a struggle that isn’t finished yet and we, we that are just passing through, are insignificant and brief custodians of all that has been hard-won before we were born. We have no right to give up, any portion of that sovereignty that people gave their lives for, to an oligarchy in Brussels, in exchange for a shorter queue at the airport, a special offer on the Chardonnay, or even yes, our employment. Democracy for me, is as near to sacred as it gets. The Maoris say we walk into the future backwards, looking behind us for guidance from our ancestors. Well I voted Leave because Winstanley and Milton, Shelley and Mary Wolstencroft, Fergus O’Connor, Sylvia Pankhurst and Tom Mann, all said I should. And turning to look the other way, there is still much more freedom to be won.

My poetry collection First Fleet is available from Smokestack Books. You can find out more about my work at my website.