It Would Be Disastrous For Labour To Oppose Article 50.

So Brexit is proving to be a shitshow and a disaster for the left, as all of us who weren’t deluded enough to believe in Lexit knew it would be. I don’t think many of us actually expected it to happen, though – even when the polls showed a tight race they usually had ‘Remain’ in the lead and there was a widespread sense that people would ‘see sense’ on the day. So the result not only came as a shock but (for many of us) felt like a hammer blow to our identity, our notion of the country we lived in and its place in the world. Yet as we get further on from the vote it seems increasingly obvious that this isn’t something which happened on the day of the referendum, or even during the referendum campaign: this has been decades in the making and too many of us were blind to it. Some remain blind to it and have retreated into an almost petulant rage that most people didn’t vote ‘the right way’.

Much of the worst rhetoric from the ‘Leave’ side, and from the Tory government under the ostensibly ‘Remain’ Theresa May, has presented those opposed to Brexit as an out of touch elite and enemies of democracy. It shouldn’t need to be pointed out how dangerous and disgusting this is, yet it’s difficult not to wonder if it’s given unwarranted power as many celebrate a multi-millionare hedge fund manager winning a court battle on parliamentary sovereignty. That in itself is fine – Brexit has been sold to us as ‘taking back control’, after all – yet it’s very clear that for many this presents an opportunity for Westminster to override/ignore the referendum result in a vote. These people have reacted with blind fury to Labour’s pledge that it will respect the referendum result and will not seek to ‘frustrate’ the triggering of Article 50, instead seeking to influence the kind of Brexit we end up with by demanding detailed legislation be presented before parliment to be debated and amended. This has commonly been presented hand in hand with the myth that Jeremy Corbyn was somehow to blame for the result of the vote, despite 2/3rds of Labour voters opting to ‘Remain’ (the same % as SNP voters) and Corbyn being by far the most prominent Labour figure, and third most prominent ‘Remain’ figure, in the campaign.

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Yet Labour cannot prevent Brexit in parliament and, more than that, it would be utterly disastrous were it to try. As briefly as possible, here is why:

  1. The numbers just aren’t there. The Tories will vote en masse to trigger Article 50 for several reasons: party discipline, the fact the party is currently benefiting enormously from Brexit in the polls and the certain pressure from UKIP which any Tory MP voting it down would find themselves under. The DUP will support it. UKIP will clearly support it. That already guarantees that the vote will pass, without getting into the Labour MPs in areas which heavily voted ‘Leave’ who would almost certainly support the vote whatever the ‘official party position’.
  2. Accepting that the numbers aren’t there, it would be madness for Labour to squander what little capital it has on this issue by gifting the Tories, UKIP and the majority right-wing media the narrative of it ‘seeking to subvert the will of the people’. Absolutely everything it had to say on Brexit after a vote against triggering Article 50 would be met by this message being hammered home again and again and again.
  3. Instead, saying ‘we respect the result and will not overturn it, but we will seek to ensure parliament has oversight of and influence over the kind of Brexit we get’ does not lend power to the idea that Labour is ‘opposed to democracy’ and actually offers the prospect of pro-EU Tories supporting amendments which could make a real difference in preventing what is being called ‘hard Brexit’.

It’s an imperfect position, certainly, but the only feasible one. We then move onto what I’ve found to be a common response to this: “well shouldn’t Labour offer leadership and do what it thinks is right, rather than blindly following a ‘majority’ who voted on a bunch of lies’?

As I noted earlier, this has been decades in the making. Parties across the political spectrum have happily blamed the EU as an easy scapegoat for domestic decisions (even the SNP blamed the EU in the row over privatising Calmac) while politicians have at best ignored popular hostility towards immigration and at worst fanned it. As I documented in my pre-referendum post, the majority of people have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about with regards to immigration yet polls have consistently found that most view it negatively (including in Scotland). In my lifetime it has been common for politicians to use the rhetoric of the far right on immigration, push increasingly intolerant policies on asylum and immigration and engage in a perverse arms race on who can be ‘toughest‘ on the issue.

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In the 2015 Labour leadership campaign Andy Burnham repeated dangerous myths about migration and called for tighter controls, while Liz Kendall disgracefully conflated desperate refugees with migrants presumed to be ‘cheating’ the welfare system. Immediately after the Brexit vote Owen Smith, in the Labour leadership campaign, argued for a ‘progressive case against freedom of movement‘and suggested there were too many immigrants, while leading Labour figures like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper lined up to chuck ‘freedom of movement’ under a bus. During the leadership campaigns and referendum, Jeremy Corbyn singularly refused to feed these narratives, yet what should be an unremarkable, fact-based position is considered so extreme that he has faced enormous pressure to backtrack on it. This lead to the dismal spectacle of a heavily-trailed seachange in his immigration position wherein he moved a bit to the right in his rhetoric yet didn’t actually seem to alter his position (apparently following an intervention from Diane Abbott), managing to piss off his supporters for no apparent reason.This in itself was treated as a ‘gotcha’ by the media, which has been utterly woeful in presenting the facts of immigration.

Far too many of those now calling for ‘leadership’ on Brexit have refused to step up and fight to drain the swamp that has been the immigration ‘debate’.’Addressing concerns over immigration’ has been the ‘moderate’ cry to demonstrate how serious and ready for power they are. Even the supposedly pro-immigration SNP has played this game and it’s worth noting that the independence White Paper proposed exactly the kind of points-system which is so beloved of reactionaries. For too long we have been timid on both the EU and on immigration, conceding more and more ground to a right-wing which has only moved further and further right in response. In retrospect it was a remarkably brave move for Ed Miliband to rule out an EU referendum if he won power – it’s notable that the now-decidedly anti-Brexit Green Party actually promised one in its manifesto and complained of “the EU’s unsustainable economics of free trade and growth” (a position not to dissimilar from Corbyn’s previous rhetoric). By the time the vote on holding the EU referendum came around after the 2015 election, only the SNP felt able to actually oppose it.

Calls for ‘leadership’ now are laughable because it’s been lacking for so long, replaced by crude and contemptible attempts to ride and exploit ‘public opinion’. The same mindset and tactics were at play in the EU referendum: we were so sure ‘Remain’ would win that there was little thought put into how the referendum should be conducted and little preparation made for what happened if the vote went the other way. Tim Farron, now a passionate advocate for opposing Brexit, explicitly mocked the idea of a second referendum prior to the vote. Yet now calls for a second referendum are common from people who would have found this a democratic outrage coming from Nigel Farage, and the idea that the vote is invalid because’Leave’ voters were duped is commonly expressed. ‘The referendum was only advisory!’ All referendums in the UK are ‘only advisory’ – the point is that absolutely no-one campaigning or voting believed this one was until the result wasn’t what they wanted. Absolutely no-one is fooled that demands for another referendum are anything other than attempts to reverse the vote. Most of the arguments for ignoring the referendum result are arguments for not holding the referendum in the first place (and I think most ‘Remain’ voters didn’t particularly understand what they were voting for any more than ‘Leave’ voters understood what they were voting against) and that ship sailed long ago. It’s notable that last week’s Yougov poll found that 66% of Remain voters supported either Labour or the Tories, while a majority in every region of the UK endorsed May’s ‘negotiating points’. There is not some groundswell for overturning the vote.

This brings us to probably the most profoundly scary reason why Labour (and indeed other politicians) trying to prevent Brexit in parliament is such a terrible idea. As we’ve seen, rhetoric around ‘elites’ trying to ‘subvert democracy’ has been common in the aftermath of the referendum and we’ve heard how bigotry has surged. Yet if politicians were to actually prevent the result of the referendum being implemented as the worst extremes of the right keep suggesting they want to, this would provide a founding myth for the far-right of the kind we have not seen in my lifetime. There is no doubt in my mind that not only would UKIP surge dramatically in this scenario but that less ‘respectable’ fascists like the EDL would explode in popularity, emboldened by the simple and powerful narrative that the ‘elite’ were ignoring ‘the people’.

Yes, Brexit is an absolute shitshow and it’s a disaster for the left. But we lost the referendum because we long ago lost the arguments which mattered most to people. We neglected the left as a a movement and I’ve noted with irony that some of the most vocal advocates for reversing Brexit are from the camp so fond of the ‘we can’t achieve anything without winning elections’ faction. It’s no wonder they would want politicians to save us but we aren’t going to address how we got here by indulging that tactic. The only thing that can begin to pull us back from the precipice is a strong, dynamic social movement which we all need to step up and be part of. That means letting go of the dangerous fantasy that we can vote Brexit down and realising we must win the argument on immigration, on inequality, on employment rights and on so much more. To do that we actually have to take that argument to people and we have to create both pressure for politicians to support us, and a base from which we can support politicians who do. We have to be involved in pro-migrant and anti-racist movements. We have to have uncomfortable conversations with work colleagues, with family, with friends. No-one is going to put this right from above. It’s up to us.

 

 

 

We Must Unite

Brexit was the blowback from David Cameron and the Tory party’s embrace of a toxic English nationalism, a tactic which seemed to pay dividends in addressing the challenge of UKIP, wrong-footing many on the left who are instinctively uneasy with patriotism and feeding the Scottish nationalism which has led to the dominance of the SNP. Cameron clearly thought he could control the beast and was proved disastrously wrong; now Theresa May seeks less to control it and more to satisfy its every whim. Make no mistake – last week’s Tory party conference displayed a deranged, dangerous government very deliberately using racism and xenophobia to divert attention from its failings. As Seb Cooke writes:

The glue that May hopes will hold all of this together has been the overriding theme of the conference: immigration. Government departments have been lining up to declare war on foreign workers and students in a terrifying manner. They hope that this increase in anti-
immigrant policy and racist rhetoric will paper over the visible cracks elsewhere and wrong-foot Labour. The argument that May uses focuses on the idea that the white working class feel shat on because of huge inequality and immigration. It is an acknowledgment that class is back at the heart of British politics, but a vicious attempt to divide that working class.

Jeremy Corbyn’s assertion that “Conservative Party leaders have sunk to a new low” almost seemed charitable: this is truly frightening stuff. It feels like the UK is at a moment of some significance; a moment where we must all choose our side. Are we going to stand with the racist bullies scapegoating migrants and appealing to the absolute worst in people’s natures, or are we going to fight for compassion, tolerance, the vibrant internationalism which is essential for any kind of ‘good’ modern society?

The left needs to unite to fight this. Clearly Jeremy Corbyn has a hugely important role to play and his appointment of Diane Abbott as Shadow Home Secretary is welcome. Abbott has devoted her career to combatting racism and having her respond to deplorable policy ideas such as forcing companies to list foreign workers will really matter. As she said in 2014 in a speech on racism:

So, let me say this about race and anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia; I think that it is important that we unite on these issues, nothing is gained by separating off and fighting each of our campaigns in a separate corner. These are difficult times, these are dark times, and maximum unity is vital.

It is heartening to have the opposition led by people saying such things. The Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves and Owen Smith sorts continue to try and pander to anti-immigrant prejudice (and it is prejudice) and consign themselves further to the dustbin of history. We are socialists and solidarity is central to our cause – a solidarity which is not conditional on colour or country of origin.

We must unite and give new life to solidarity. If the Labour right have yet to get the memo, it’s also sad to see Scottish politics still firmly stuck in the cul de sac of self-delusion. Things are playing out exactly as I predicted on the morning after the Holyrood elections, when some more brazen nationalists were celebrating the fact that the Tories had overtaken Labour in Scotland:

The Tories pose no existential threat to Scottish nationalism. Indeed, the existence of the Tories as a party of government, to the left of the SNP, is absolutely essential to feeding the myths of Scottish exceptionalism, enabling nationalists to argue that fault lies elsewhere and portraying independence as the only way to achieve ‘progressive values’.

We have seen this illustrated perfectly this week, with the Tories’ eager embrace of racism and xenophobia seeming like catnip to Scottish nationalists who have their notion that Scotland (as a country and as a people) are just inherently ‘better’ further inflated. So, in response to a speech from Nicola Sturgeon responding to May’s toxic rhetoric, the hashtag #WeAreScotland took flight, portraying Scotland as a progressive and open society in contrast to mean-spirited Tory England. Once again, Scottish identity was erased of all complication, all division, and put to the service of a wooly ‘civic nationalism’ which essentially begins and ends at ‘we are better than Tory England’.

It is, of course, to be celebrated when any politician tackles anti-immigration sentiment. Yet this is an unhelpful, perhaps even dangerous, response. I say this because the main issue that we on the left need to deal with is the fact that public opinion on immigration is regressive and there is clearly a deep well of racist sentiment which May is tapping into. We need to tackle the myths and prejudices around immigration head on rather than complacently assuming that we are just ‘better’ or ‘different’. The Scottish nationalist response completely elides the reality of immigration politics in Scotland, something which is possible because Holyrood and the SNP do not have power over immigration policy. As we saw with raising taxes or on fracking, the SNP like to posture as ‘more progressive’ than the ‘unionist’ parties when it can contrast itself with Westminster policy but when it actually gets the powers to make radical change it shifts to the right. It matters, then, that SNP rhetoric on immigration policy has been rather more similar to the Tories than #WeAreScotland would have us believe. The White Paper presented for Scottish independence, for example, had this to say about immigration policy:

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The SNP proposed a points-based system – the same kind which had ‘progressives’ howling when presented by Boris Johnson. Sturgeon, meanwhile, used some rather familiar rhetoric in her 2015 General Election debate appearance:

Keen to keep up with the latest instalment of the thrilling battle, I tuned in on Thursday night to cheer on the new golden trio of politics.  It was all going down as expected, the leader of a nationalist movement started talking about wanting to get rid of, “people with no right to be here,” calling for “strong controls” on immigration and declined to give a straight answer as to whether there were too many immigrants in the country.  Nigel…fucking…no wait, that was Nicola Sturgeon.

The devolution set-up has meant that progressive posturing flourishes in the gap between Westminster and Holyrood. For many Scottish nationalists, this is enough: actually fighting for progressive politics, tackling regressive attitudes and recognising that people across the UK aren’t inherently ‘different’ is difficult, slow and unlikely to give a warm glow inside.

It would mean confronting the reality of opinion in Scotland. A reality where 68% supported tougher restrictions on immigration. A reality where 63% thought immigration was too high and should be cut. A reality where 41% agreed with the statement “Scotland would begin to lose its identity if more Muslims came to live in Scotland”, where around a third think that “people from Eastern Europe/ethnic minorities take jobs away from other people in Scotland”. A reality where a great majority don’t believe that living in Scotland for years makes you ‘Scottish’. A reality where the wicked Tory Ruth Davidson has higher approval ratings than Nicola Sturgeon (and where the even more wicked Theresa May has a double-figure positive approval rating).

You don’t have to confront this reality when you can point your finger at the Tories and pretend that Scotland is a happy land free of all division, where everyone holds hands and sings The Proclaimers beneath saltires. Indeed, when you raise these issues with Scottish nationalists the most common reaction by far is not to engage with how things actually are in Scotland but to start ranting about Tories, ‘unionists’ and how much worse things are in ‘England’. As long as there’s a perception that things are worse across the border, that’s enough. Racism in Scotland can be swept under a fetching saltire rug.

It’s not good enough and no-one on the left should embrace it. This is an issue across the whole of the UK. We must unite. To repeat Diane Abbott’s words, “nothing is gained by separating off and fighting each of our campaigns in a separate corner.” We must unite: unite against racism, unite against xenophobia, unite against fascism. We must take the fight to our friends, our family, our workplaces. We must begin to break down the myths and prejudices which have led us to this dark time. We must rediscover solidarity and we must unite. This week offers an anniversary of a striking example of what ordinary people can achieve when they come together to fight the bastards. This is too important. We must unite.

 

 

 

The Best in Us

Any gay person will recognise, on a visceral level, the dynamic around the ‘little things’ which Panti Bliss describes in this video. We will also recognise what she says later about it becoming so commonplace that you almost become inured to it. You almost forget that it happens and how ugly it is.

When the awful Glasgow lorry crash happened one of the big responses to it was a wave of sentiment and self-love over Glasgow and its people. ‘People Make Glasgow’ goes the slogan and it’s something which has more and more become part of the city’s view of its own character, especially over the past year when its status as ‘Yes City’ led many to be convinced that its people simply ‘care more’ about the weakest in society. This made me very uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable not in some detached rational sense but in a visceral way. When I thought about why this was, I found myself returning to when I lived in Glasgow and could not go a single day without at least one person shouting homophobic abuse at me. Literally every single morning as I walked to work, the local school children would shout ‘poof’ and ‘bender’ at me. Literally every time I went out wearing colourful headphones or dressed ‘alternatively’ (I used to do a fine Jarvis Cocker impression) people would shout ‘poof’ and ‘bender’ at me. And I did become inured to it. I realised I had become inured to it when I moved to London and, on my first morning there, found myself passing a group of teenagers just hanging around on the street. Instinctively I shrunk within myself, staring at the pavement and focusing just on getting past them. Then what I dreaded happened: one of the kids said ‘Hey mate!’ to get my attention. I knew what came next – the mocking, the slurs and the laughing – so I kept walking in silence. Then he shouted again, more loudly. Ok, I thought, I might as well just get this over with. I looked up at him. He said ‘I love your outfit!’ and that was that. I stood there for a second, stunned. I mumbled ‘thanks’ and then hurried off.

I swear every word of that is true and I will never forget it because it made me realise just how numb I had become to it. I of course know that what I experienced in Glasgow was perpetrated by a minority of people and happens all over the UK (and beyond) – including in London. I of course know that the racist abuse which followed my Korean friend around the streets, including one horribly memorable day when a couple of kids ran alongside us in the park shouting racial slurs and I felt disgustingly impotent, is an example of the racism which is deeply embedded in our society. These issues are not Glasgow’s alone. Yet when I see people in Glasgow congratulating themselves on how special, tolerant and kind they are I can’t help but return to those daily slights which still make me shrink into myself in certain situations and be disgusted at the conceitedness. Because when we view ourselves in the most idealised light possible we not only lose the capacity to recognise, understand and change the worst in ourselves, we also lose the ability to listen to criticism which contradicts us. This is true of Glasgow, which has no particularly monopoly on human kindness and has a panoply of problems. This is true of London, which fancies itself as a cut above ‘the provinces’. And it’s true of Paris and wider ‘Western democracy’, which right now is indulging in delusional and dangerous masturbatory fantasies of our own superior ‘civilisation’ and ‘values’ (go here for the best response to this I’ve seen).

The worse in humanity which we experience and, crucially, which we perpetrate is nothing but endless cruelties if we do not always strive for an honest, brutal self-awareness. The playwright John Steppling here describes fascism as “deposits of cruelty sedimented in the psyche”. This resonated with me because it perfectly captures why the tendency to always think the best of ourselves/our cities/our cultures is so dangerous – it leaves the cruelty festering, unexamined and untouched. That’s why responses to the Paris atrocity which seek to understand, to lend context, are not ‘apologism’ – they are absolutely essential if we truly aspire to be better than we are. My Twitter bio is a quote from Hannah Arendt, an intellectual who experienced her own accusations of ‘apologism’ when she attempted to understand Eichmann and the Nazis. I will end here with it as I think it sums up that, whether it’s applied to homophobia, wider social justice or great questions of ‘civilisation’, the only way we can ‘progress’ is by seeking to recognise and understand ourselves at our worst, however uncomfortable that may be. We must not allow ourselves to be inured:

And to think always means to think critically. And to think critically is always to be hostile. Every thought actually undermines whatever there is of rigid rules, general convictions, et cetera. Everything which happens in thinking is subject to a critical examination of whatever there is. That is, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise. . . . nonthinking is even more dangerous. I don’t deny that thinking is dangerous, but I would say not thinking is even more dangerous.