Brexit: The Mendacious Hypocrisy of Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats.

As British politics sinks further into a hellhole of competing nationalisms and utter bullshit masquerading as ‘being informed’, it’s time for another election! “Yay!” said absolutely no-one. If you’re reading this I think I can safely assume that you know what my views on the Tories and SNP are, though with the relentless Tory march to the right much of what I’ve written on them feels somewhat out of date. It’s been pointed out that the policies and rhetoric of the Tories currently bear comparison with the BNP; I could also observe that upon reading about Marie Le Pen’s platform, I couldn’t see many substantive differences with that of Theresa May. The Tories are a far-right party and it’s only a capitulant media which bafflingly continues to frame them as ‘centrist’ and May as ‘safe’ and ‘competent’ which is stopping more of us from appreciating this terrifying fact.

Let nothing I write here distract from the fact that the prospect of five more years of the Tories is a truly terrifying prospect. Yet the current government did not emerge from a vacuum, and neither did Brexit. With this in mind, I wanted to write a little about a party I tend to ignore: the Liberal Democrats. Following their 2015 election disaster, which saw them almost wiped out, the Liberal Democrats have been bobbing along, barely budging in the polls. They’ve been so irrelevant that the media hasn’t even saw fit to cover their woes, in the same way it’s focused on Labour and Corbyn. Now, however, the Lib Dems have spotted their chance. That rope has been thrown which they hope will guide them back to the hallowed land of people caring again. Yes, the Lib Dems OPPOSE BREXIT!

Anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to politics post-Brexit will be aware that the Lib Dems have branded themselves as ‘the Remain party’. Their victory in Richmond Park was seen as a proxy re-run of the referendum, so it’s unsurprising that they propose a second referendum. This referendum is ostensibly on a Brexit deal but everyone understands it to actually be a chance to re-run the first one and reject Brexit. They’ve gone big on being the ‘real opposition’ to the Tories, based almost entirely on Brexit, and hammer Labour’s difficult position on the issue.

When Theresa May called this unnecessary election, she framed it as being entirely about Brexit. May did this because she knows she will win in an election based on the nationalism, xenophobia and racism she has inflamed and exploited since Brexit, and because she has little record to defend. Unfortunately, it’s clear that many adamant ‘Remainers’ are walking straight into this and framing the election as a proxy Brexit referendum. As most of these people seem to be supporting the Lib Dems, I wanted to make a few observations about the lines which I keep seeing wheeled out.

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First of all, I think few ‘Remain’ voters would deny that immigration, and more specifically anti-immigration myths and sentiment, played a massive role in Brexit. Many profess to wish to oppose Brexit because they are ‘pro-immigration’. Yet if this is your motivation, it’s rather curious to support a party which was part of a government with an absolutely dire record on this matter. The coalition, which Tim Farron voted with in almost every single vote, set an arbitrary target to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’. made immigration rules stricter and crueler, illegally deported thousands of students and sent the infamous ‘Go Home’ vans around the country. Some Lib Dems justify this on the basis that it would have been even worse if they’d not been present, which is curious to say the least. Nothing and no-one forced the Lib Dems to enter a formal coalition with the Tories and we cannot know what would have happened had they not – we can only judge what actually did happen in its government, as we do (and should) with any other government. We can also note that the Coalition Agreement included a commitment to “introduce a cap on immigration and reduce the number of non-EU immigrants.” So the idea that Farron’s Lib Dems are an attractive defender of migrant rights is…curious, to say the least.

Now, onto Brexit itself. It’s clear that all of the main parties have played their role in fostering the climate that led us here, but given Farron and the Lib Dems now repeatedly accuse Labour of being ‘pro-Brexit’, let’s have a look at some history.

In 2008, Tim Farron resigned from the Lib Dem Shadow Cabinet because he supported a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty but the Lib Dem position was to abstain:

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Given his current position, you have to wonder what Farron would have done had he won a referendum and voters rejected the Treaty but let’s be generous and come a bit more up to date. The 2010 Lib Dem manifesto committed itself to referendums if there was ‘fundamental change’ in the UK/EU relationship, not an ‘In/Out’ referendum.

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In 2011, with the Lib Dems in the coalition, parliament looked at whether there should be a ‘European Referendum Committee’ which would clarify when an EU referendum should be necessary. The Lib Dems voted with the Conservatives against this (and against Labour):

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In 2011 most Lib Dems, and most of all parties, voted against calling for an EU membership referendum. In 2013 and 2014 there were Private Member’s Bills to legislate for a referendum, which were largely ignored by every party except the Tories.

It’s clear that the Lib Dem capitulation to the Tories played a large role in its 2015 meltdown and the Tory majority, which led us to the referendum and Brexit. It’s also clear that Labour in government played a big role in fostering the atmosphere. We can note that, whereas Ed Miliband steadfastly refused to commit to an EU membership referendum at the 2015 election, both Labour and the Lib Dem manifestos included a commitment to an In/Out referendum should there be further substantive transfer of powers:

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Then, following the Tory victory, Farron joined most of the remaining Lib Dems in voting for a referendum (only the SNP voted against it):

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There then followed a series of votes on amendments to the referendum bill. We can note that Farron didn’t vote to allow 16 and 17yos to participate in the referendum (but did later.) In fact, Farron and most of the Lib Dems didn’t seem to vote on a single amendment. This is most interesting when it comes to an amendment which would have required:

…the publication, at least ten weeks before the referendum, of the terms of any renegotiation between the United Kingdom and the European Union and the consequences for the United Kingdom of leaving the European Union.

In short, an attempt to ensure that everyone voting in the referendum had the best possible idea of what they were voting for. Given his current rhetoric around this matter, it’s curious Farron didn’t vote on it. Indeed, no Lib Dem did (Labour and the SNP voted for it):

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If our political journalists were any good, you’d expect them to be raising this with Farron again and again as it rather undermines his current stance. You’d perhaps also expect them to be highlighting this:

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Yes, Mr ‘Second Referendum’ Farron himself openly mocked the idea when it was advanced by Nigel Farage, somewhat hilariously invoking ‘the will of the people’ as a wry aside. Indeed, he went further, labelling the notion of a second referendum ‘pathetic’ in Prospect Magazine:

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If it’s not yet clear that the current Lib Dem position is little more than hypocrisy and opportunism, let’s look at one more thing: Farron’s frequent claims to be the ‘real opposition’ to the Tories. Leaving aside the hilarity of the party which brought us the coalition using this attack, Farron, in leading this ‘real opposition’, has voted in little more than a third of divisions (votes) in this parliament – far less than when the Lib Dems were in power:

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The leader of this ‘real opposition’ didn’t vote on a proposal to limit public spending cuts immediately following the first Tory Queen’s Speech; he didn’t vote on an Opposition Day motion calling on the government to address the housing crisis; he didn’t vote on a proposal to produce annual reports on addressing the gender pay gap; he didn’t vote on targeting assistance at those on low- and middle-incomes; he didn’t vote on requiring schools to include Personal, Social, Health and Economic education at school, including sex education; he didn’t vote on demands for more assistance for refugees; he didn’t vote on the notorious Trade Union Bill; he didn’t vote on attempts to prevent or ameliorate the tax credit cuts, to protect Employment and Support Allowance or against the Welfare Bill which further reduced the benefit cap and cut various benefits; he didn’t vote on an Opposition Day motion on the dispute over Junior Doctors’ contracts; he didn’t vote on the call to reconsider tax credit cuts which even some Tories supported; he didn’t vote on the third reading of the Immigration Bill, effectively extending border controls further into everyday life…

…you get the idea (that’s still only up to the end of 2015). The notion of Farron and the Lib Dems being the ‘real opposition’ is risible and hanging it entirely around the votes on Article 50, where the Lib Dem position was contrary to all that had gone before and where the government was never going to be defeated, is mendacious in the extreme and makes a mockery of any possible ‘progressive alliance’. The Lib Dems know they have zero power to prevent Brexit (and you’ll note the tactics people have to prevent it are never more fully-formed than ‘elect some MPs who don’t want Brexit’), and are exploiting the fact most people don’t pay much attention to politics to offer false hope to those for whom it is now the single most important issue in politics.

Yet however we feel about Brexit, the idea that opposing it should mean voting for politicians and parties with a dire record on immigration, on poverty, on employment rights and so on is at best naive, at worst woefully out-of-touch. We certainly should not reward Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats for their cheap opportunism, of the kind which has so destroyed faith and trust in politics and contributed to our grim political landscape.

 

 

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Article 50 and Scotland

Rory Scothorne, one of the insightful authors of Roch Winds, has written an interesting blog which serves as a counterpoint to my argument on Article 50. It’s compelling in parts but on reflection I disagree and I wanted to outline why:

1 – It stands as one of those arguments which should have been made prior to the referendum happening, appearing as a desperate afterthought now. As a basic point of principle, it’s difficult (not impossible, of course) for your opponents to condemn you for doing what you said you would. Much of the capital Rory believes Labour could win by professing to ‘stand up’ for Scotland and Northern Ireland could have been won previously by insisting on the mooted ‘quadruple lock’. Yet Labour was largely mute on this, due in large part no doubt to the fact that it was seen to fuel ‘separatist’ ideas: Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland are not members of the EU except as part of the UK, so the referendum was framed as a ‘UK-wide’ question. Scotland is no more being ‘dragged from the EU against its will’ than London or Newcastle is, yet the idea Labour would oppose Article 50 ‘on behalf of London and Newcastle’ would be widely viewed as absurd.

2 – Having not previously been loudly making the ‘quadruple lock’ argument, hinging opposition to Article 50 on it now would be viewed as weak and opportunistic. Crucially this would not only be the case in England – it would 100% be how it was framed by the SNP, which never misses a chance to stick the knife into Labour. It would further destroy Labour’s base in England without offering any certain uplift in Scotland, where Labour would be viewed as very late to the party and dependent on the whims of its Westminster leadership. In that regard it could actually further strengthen the Nationalist cause.

3 – Rory argues (rightly) that Corbyn and Labour are not well-placed to capitalise on English nationalism. It does not follow that it should then attempt to capitalise on Scottish nationalism, on which it is always going to be outflanked by an SNP which does not have electoral or indeed moral considerations beyond Scotland’s borders. If “your average English petit-bourgeois” considers Corbyn to be unpatriotic, the exact same could be said of his/her counterpart in Scotland. Indeed, Rory himself speaks of “the current lack of interest in Scottish politics coming from Corbyn and his supporters down south”. I don’t think this is entirely fair because, as it stands, Corbyn speaking on ‘Scottish politics’ is easily presented as ‘Westminster interference’ while leaving it to Scottish Labour is viewed as either not caring or outright contempt. Such are the dynamics of nationalist politics and feeding the SNP narrative of Brexit as a ‘Scotland’ vs ‘England’ issue fuels both English and Scottish nationalism and only further destroys any possibility of a future Labour recovery in either.

4 – Rory speaks of how it would be necessary to ‘abandon socialism’ in order to appeal to ‘English populism’. While this isn’t incorrect, the implicit counterpoint is that this isn’t the case in Scotland. Yet as the past few years have amply demonstrated, while Scottish nationalism may posture as far more left-wing and radical than its English counterpart, when it has actually come down to practical action and policy it has proved itself to be largely cautious, conservative and not far removed from the right of the Labour party. There is little evidence to suggest that Corbyn pursuing radicalism offers any more electoral gain in Scotland than in (parts of) England (and indeed Scottish Labour’s 2016 manifesto, clearly to the left of the SNP’s, tells us that Labour’s problems in Scotland go far beyond offering any move towards socialism).

5 – The fundamental point remains that both parliamentary and electoral maths mean Brexit is going to happen, whatever Labour’s position. If, as Rory states, Brexit is “is unavoidably a symbol of anti-immigrant sentiment, nostalgic fantasies of foreign despotism, and the least useful (though still, admittedly, politically interesting) sort of anti-elitism”, then that reflects dominant trends in politics more widely which won’t be swept away by opposing Article 50. If anything they will, as I argue, be further emboldened. Labour’s great failure in the Scottish independence debate was to largely co-sponsor the Conservative Party’s doom-laden vision of Scotland outside of the UK rather than pushing a positive, left-wing argument for a UK rooted in the solidarity which is essential for any large-scale left-wing platform to succeed. It is crucial that it does not now make the same mistake and distinguishes itself from the Tory vision of Brexit as loudly as possible – a case which simply won’t be listened to by many (including many Remainers who have accepted the result) if they are viewed as trying to reverse the referendum.

6 – The idea that opposing Brexit offers a way back for Labour in Scotland seems more rooted in the nationalist narrative of Scotland than in anything tangible. It’s worth remembering that behind the ‘Scotland voted Remain’ story, 1/3 of the electorate there didn’t vote and the difference between Leave and Remain was approx. 600,000 votes (1.66 million for remain vs 1.01 million for leave). As I noted in my blog, last week’s Yougov poll suggested that while a majority in Scotland still want to remain, clear majorities also endorse Theresa May’s main ‘negotiating points’ for Brexit, including on immigration where Scottish public opinion remains regressive. We can also note that behind Scotland ‘relative europhilia’ lies a more complex history where a plurality or majority have wanted to leave the EU or reduce its powers. I have long argued that Brexit becoming tightly associated with right-wing English nationalism has far more to do with a majority in Scotland falling ‘in love’ with the EU than any substantive support for it. It’s also been clear in polls that a majority in Scotland currently have no appetite for leaving the UK in order to join the EU, hence even the SNP focusing on the single market rather than EU membership. Rory even notes that it’s the Tories, not Labour who seem most likely to experience a significant revival in Scotland – a fact which owes much to the centrality of the ‘national question’ in Scottish politics. As it stands, a significant % of those who currently support the SNP will never vote Labour unless it supports independence, and many of those going to the Tories want nothing less than total opposition to further devolution.  Labour opening itself to countless, easy attacks in England on the basis of Scotland’s support for the EU would seem to me to be a battle lost before it even begins.

7 – Nicola Sturgeon has indeed been successful at positioning herself as ‘Scotland’s chief lobbyist’ on this issue. Yet, given what I’ve outlined above, the answer to this isn’t to seek to join her but to hammer home the contradictions inherent in her position. As I’ve said, there is no doubt in my mind that the SNP would not welcome a commitment from Corbyn to oppose Article 50 but would instead quickly find a new angle of attack. A (welcome) commitment to federalism does not mean pretending we currently have it – Labour is best placed to argue that the current set-up in the UK isn’t fit for purpose while constructively offering solutions, just as it is best placed to argue that if Brexit is (regretfully) going to happen, it should happen on as social democratic a platform as it can secure (which admittedly is perhaps not much of one). These may not be compellingly instant positions but I think they will stand the party in good stead in the long run, just as hammering home the SNP’s incoherent position on the UK vs the EU and its singular fixation on referendums will.

8 – As Rory argues, the current Labour position is weak and subject to attack by both political and media opponents. I don’t dispute this, instead arguing in my blog that their current position is the least bad of the terrible options. Yet in speaking of the position most likely to bring Corbyn to power Rory ignores his own compelling arguments, both with regards to the UK and to the wider environment for socialism, as to why that’s almost certainly not going to happen. Labour should have been positioning itself on Brexit, on the English and Scottish questions (and on a whole lot else) for the past 2 years but has instead been consumed by infighting. It has likely squandered its chance and, barring any seismic occurrence, it is not going to come to power any time soon. It is not unreasonable, then, to be concerned with minimising losses and seeking to guard against a reactionary post-Corbyn future for the party. It’s clear that some on the left harbour illusions that a socialist leader without Corbyn’s baggage or presentational issues would be a compelling figure for the electorate, yet it is undeniable that the stakes are piled formidably high against any such leader. This is why I argue that turning the tide is going to take time (something I think Rory agrees with) and that it requires all of us committed to socialism to engage in social movements. So, while I think Rory’s course of action would only make the terrain more treacherous for socialism in the long run, I fully agree with his conclusion:

The world that socialists must navigate is increasingly one of hermetic subcultures, economic decline and political crisis as a form of governance. I suspect that the most effective responses will be closer to the traditions of anarchism than socialism. If national struggles for constitutional power are not working, then localised extra-legal resistance which emphasises subcultural or community solidarity must take precedence. If national identities cannot be mobilised for the left then they must be disrupted and subverted, their institutions disrespected and their everyday cultural manifestations ruthlessly undermined. There may be no more room for good patriots; only good traitors. Corbyn has shown the occasional, accidental flash of treason — it’s up to those who have supported him this far to start doing it deliberately.

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.

 

 

 

This is Much Bigger than Jeremy Corbyn

It’s rather ironic that the Labour right eagerly embraced one member, one vote because they felt that Ed Miliband had cheated his brother out of the leadership on the basis on union votes. They thought OMOV would ensure their future dominance of the party, one of a dazzling array of analyses they have completely fucked up because they’ve still not grasped that politics has changed. It’s very evident that they STILL regard post-crash politics as some bad dream which just needs the right leader, their leader, to push the reset button on. That was the mentality which drove Jim Murphy in Scotland and it’s the mentality which is driving this.

This week we see that much of the PLP are absolutely terrified of one member one vote – terrified of party democracy – because they fear that Labour members will again elect Jeremy Corbyn. If you tell them ‘if you want to get rid of Corbyn, hold an election’, they react with barely-concealed fury. Because the ‘democracy’ was only ever a tool to them, wheeled out for their own gain after decades of hollowing out the party. When some voices on the fringes previously advocated mandatory reselection of Labour candidates, the shrill howls of the Labour right that this was an affront to democracy resonated across the media. How laughable they seem now, when they’re looking at legal challenges to keep Corbyn off the ballot and, failing that, looking at stealing the party from under its own members, like it’s a fucking brand name rather than something which should be a political movement representing the masses.

Aside from the indefensible horror that is their efforts to associate Corbyn and his support with fascism and the murder of Jo Cox, they are also wheeling out lines about the ‘national interest’, Labour being ‘bigger than its members’, the need for a ‘strong opposition’ (a line, hilariously enough, wheeled out by David Cameron today). They appeal to a mandate from ‘voters’ rather than the party. Anyone who’s been paying the slightest bit of attention knows that these are all proxy arguments for the Labour right’s petulant entitlement, which hasn’t abated even slightly since Corbyn’s election. If these people are so certain that their voters, their actual voters as opposed to an abstract conception which neatly serves their own interests, will support them against the mass Labour Party then they should resign their seat, resign their Labour Party membership and stand for re-election under whichever banner they choose.

They won’t do that, because they know that most of them wouldn’t be re-elected. So instead they seek to bypass the membership entirely. If they go down this road, anyone who remotely fancies themselves as ‘left-wing’, who remotely fancies themselves as a democrat, should fight them. Because how do you row back from ‘the national interest as we have defined it demands that we subvert the democratic processes we previously agreed to”? How can you ever put a cap on that? It’s revealing a vicious and dangerous belief in oligarchy which can never be excused or forgotten. And for what? To stop a mild-mannered man advancing some pretty milquetoast social democratic policies.

This is much bigger than Corbyn now. This is about the party system itself, about our democracy and about whether a party in the UK can ever elect a socialist as leader ever again.

Edit 8:15pm: It appears we finally have our election, with the reports that Angela Eagle is going to launch a leadership bid. No-one should be under any illusions that Eagle is intended to take us into a general election – she is a compromise, stop-gap candidate whom the coup plotters hope is safe enough for at least 50% of the membership to rally behind. Eagle will apparently pledge to ‘reunify the fractured party‘, with not a hint of shame as to the fact that she has helped to irrevocably divide it. An ‘ally’ also states ‘we’ve got the big hitters’, underlining once again that these people have not the slightest clue what is going on in politics at the moment. So, who is this compromise candidate who can reunite the party?

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Oh. If this doesn’t illustrate that this is a coup against the politics Corbyn represents, and another attempt by the Labour right to get back to ‘business as usual’, I’m not sure what is.

If you support the principle of one member, one vote; if you support the idea that a party belongs to its members just as much as its politicians; if you support the notion that MPs should not attempt to subvert the democratic choice of members as soon as it’s made; if you support ever being able to elect a socialist leader of Labour ever again and if you support the idea of making Hilary Benn cry, you can join Labour here.

The Death of Solidarity

This feels like the nail in the coffin of any notion of ‘solidarity’ across these isles. The surge of competing nationalisms has been clear for years now, and much of the left has been happy to indulge and even feed it rather than fight it, rather than make the case for us standing together, rather than saying that our enemy was not some conveniently identifiable ‘other’ but a neoliberal ideology which by all reason should have died following the global crash. This felt like our last chance to draw a line in the sand, to recognise that we had to step up to the plate with regards to anti-racism, with regards to anti-immigrant sentiment, with regards to populist anti-intellectual movements which brand facts as ‘Project Fear’. We’ve failed.
Scotland and London both voted massively for remain. Having argued against Scottish independence in significant part because I thought it fed nationalism and destroyed solidarity, today I feel sad but resigned to Scotland becoming independent. Who could blame anyone voting for it when faced with this? There are already increasingly loud calls for London to split off from the UK. The economy is tanking and the far-right is celebrating not only here but across Europe. I never thought I would see the day where my reaction to David Cameron resigning was sorrow rather than joy and that is a mark of how dark this day is.
There are, right now, millions of EU migrants in the UK who now have no idea what will happen to them. There are millions of UK citizens in the EU who have no idea what will happen to them. And there are millions of people who, as one friend told me yesterday, look at this and see the familiar politics of a brick in the face just for the colour of your skin. Those of us who are privileged enough for this to be an existential defeat rather than one which is going to destroy our livelihoods or our homes need to stand with these people now. It’s the least we can do. I have cried too many tears over too many defeats. We need to stand against the calls, which are already coming and will only increase in volume, for tighter ‘immigration controls’. We need to stand against the nonsense, unchallenged for far too long, that it’s ‘not racist’ to blame housing policy, employment policy, health policy etc on ‘immigrants’ without having the slightest clue what you’re on about. We need to stand against our country becoming a small, angry and pathetic place, even though it feels much too late for that. We need to join trade unions. We need to support local struggles re: housing, health and austerity. We need to support migrant rights. We need to organise to fight racism on our streets. We need to support Jeremy Corbyn, one of the few politicians who has stood against this hateful tide, from those in his own party who would have us believe that competing with UKIP and the Tories on anti-immigration sentiment is the way for ‘progressive values’ to win.
It’s London Pride tomorrow and people have been fond of using ‘love wins’ in recent weeks. But the sad, scary fact of the matter is that love doesn’t win. Action wins. The kind of action which understands that fighting racism and the far-right means not capitulating to them or aiding their normalisation (hello, “I’m not UKIP but…” people arguing for their inclusion at Pride) At the moment the hard right are a hell of a lot more organised than we are. We need to begin to change that if ‘solidarity’ is to be anything other than a distant memory.

The EU Referendum: Lies, Immigrants and Lexit

I wrote in February about how the EU referendum ‘debate’ would be a clusterfuck of ignorance and prejudice. That required no particular insight – it was always going to be that way – yet I still find myself surprised and dismayed by just how dreadful the discourse has been. Last night’s ITV debate, which found Boris Johnson essentially parroting Daily Express headlines, was astonishingly grim to watch. It was particular breathtaking to see Johnson accusing the Remain campaign of being ‘Project Fear’ literally moments after claiming that the EU was flooding our streets with ‘terrorists and murderers’ (something which, incidentally, isn’t true.)

13327630_10153709421132547_3902684968294376424_n(photo by @nikvestberg)

I think most people have known all along how they’ll vote in the referendum, even if they can’t quite admit it; I think some can’t admit it because they know, deep down, that they’re voting based on kneejerk prejudice rather than any informed opinion. These people tend to adopt a ‘plague on both your houses’ stance, complaining that both sides can’t be trusted and it’s difficult to know who to believe. At face value this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable complaint but then you consider that it has never been easier to educate yourself about issues you are interested in. On Channel 4 news the other day a teenager began speaking about how she had felt uninformed but then went online and found an abundance of information, not produced by either campaign, which struck her as impartial. Now, I realise and accept that not everyone will have easy access to the internet or be particularly adept at using it but I also think if you’re self-aware enough to say ‘I don’t trust the campaigns, I just want some impartial information’, you then have an obligation to make an effort to find that information. It takes seconds to find descriptions of the structure  and powers of the EU. The European Parliament offers a series of factsheets on various aspects of the EU. This LRB article on why leaving the EU would be enormously complicated offers a good, relatively brief, overview of its powers in the context of this referendum. Organisations like the BBC and Wikipedia have put together simple overviews of the EU. The entire point of a referendum (and a big part, I think, of why they are invariably disastrous) is that no-one is going to come along and hand you a 5-page dossier explaining the ‘right’ way to vote. It’s up to us and it requires a bit of work.

As a general rule of thumb, if it sounds utterly absurd it’s probably not true. The EU has not banned kettles. The EU does not ban bananas being sold in bunched of more than three, as a trip to your nearest grocers or supermarket will confirm. The profit margin of the UK fishing industry has increased under the Common Fisheries Policy, in contrast with the tabloid stories of rampaging foreigners stealing ‘British fish’ and destroying boats. At every turn we should seek out the truth of what we hear and aren’t sure about; importantly, we should seek to understand, rather than seek out facile memes which merely stoke our prejudices as happened too often in the Scottish independence referendum.

One of the more unexpected developments in the ‘debate’ has been the tactic of people like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and even Nigel Farage to blame any and all problems with the NHS, wages, immigration policy, housing etc on the EU (and specifically on immigration) and suggest that all these would improve if we left. These extremely right-wing politicians have suddenly discovered that they’re actually rather left-wing, wanting to increase NHS spending, increase wages, relax our immigration policy, build more housing. It’s mendacious in the extreme. Let’s be clear here: they could do all of these things now. The reason they haven’t is that they don’t want to. They are no friends of the NHS and the Tories have presided over “the smallest increase in (NHS) spending for any political party’s period in office since the second world war”. Only last year Boris Johnson was demanding a UK opt-out from EU employment laws, “stopping EU social and employment law imposing costs on business”. His government has presided over restricting access to employment tribunals, freezing maternity and sick pay and a draconian crackdown on trade unions. It has tightened immigration laws based not on evidence but on cheap party political gain, with an entirely arbitrary promise to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’, absurd restrictions on international students and pointless and cruel promises to deport non-EU migrants earning less than £35,000. The government’s extention of ‘right to buy’ to tenants in housing associations, meanwhile, is an ill-thought out disaster and its housing policy generally is predicated on keeping private housing costs high rather than investing in affordable homes. If anyone thinks Johnson, Gove and co will row back on any of this post-Brexit, I have some magic beans I think they might be interested in.

The common foundation to this line of ‘attack’ is, of course, that the UK is beseiged by immigrants and cannot cope. Yet what matters aren’t scary big numbers but investment, population density, resource use and consumption patterns. The vast majority of the UK isn’t built on, London’s population density compares favourably to other big cities while the UK, one of the richest countries in the world, isn’t even in the top 100 when it comes to population growth. We are not bursting at the seams.

To be blunt, most people have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about when they speak about immigration. The *entire* foreign-born population in the UK increased by less than 5 million in 21 years, and 3 million of these people went to London. Approximately 12% of the UK population was born outside of the UK, a percentage which puts us towards the bottom of the OECD chart (and most of this population is found in London). Most migrants only come here for less than 2 years. Migration most certainly has a positive impact on our economy and due to our population demographics, we’re going to need more of it. Most evidence suggests that migrants do not cause unemployment of UK citizens and have minimal-to-no impact on wages (government policy is far, far more important for these matters).

Far from being ‘scared’ to have a discussion about immigration, our politics and media has for too long been complacent in challenging pernicious myths (that’s putting it generously – clearly many have been strongly pushing these myths themselves). Anyone who speaks to you about the NHS or housing or a ‘strain on public services’ without referencing government investment and (of particular relevance to this debate) government cuts is seeking to mislead you. It’s time we grew up when it came to immigration. It is not a problem, we do control our borders and leaving the EU will not reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’ (and neither should we want it to).

Some people have spoken of ‘lexit’, as if the left could benefit from leaving the EU and have some say over the aftermath. This, as some of these people are now recognising, is a myth. There is no such thing as ‘lexit’. A vote to leave the EU will not help the refugees trying to enter Fortress Europe. A vote to leave the EU will most definitely bolster the likes of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, John Mann, the EDL, the BNP and every two-bit ‘I’m not racist’ in the country who moans about ‘uncontrolled immigration’ and repeats drivel about the EU banning kettles. It will have a material impact on the lives of thousands of migrants in the UK. Racists and reactionaries are by FAR the dominant forces seeking to leave the EU and you can’t separate yourself from it. Perhaps you are aware of that and still want to leave. Ok – but please do so based on some semblance of fact and not because of the drivel which has characterised this debate. As Jeremy Corbyn has argued, the EU is far from perfect but right here, right now, one option is clearly far worse than the other. Vote remain.

Some Post-Election Thoughts

A half-hearted nation will want to hold fast to its grievances, and in that sense Scotland has done well. The nation’s brickwork is cemented with resentments, from ruined monastery to erupting towerblock: blame, fear, bigotry and delusion, their fragments powder the common air – and always the fault is seen to lie elsewhere, with other nations, other lives. Scotland is a place where cultural artefacts and past battles – the Stone of Destiny, Robert Burns, Braveheart, Bannockburn – have more impact on people’s sense of moral action than politics does. The people have no real commitment to the public sphere, and are not helped towards any such commitment by the dead rhetoric of the young Parliament. Yet the problem is not the Parliament, it’s the people, and the people’s drowsy addiction to imagined injury – their belief in a paralysing historical distress – which makes the country assert itself not as a modern nation open to progress on all fronts, but as a delinquent, spoiled, bawling child, tight in its tartan babygro, addled with punitive needs and false memory syndrome.

I have quoted this piece before and return to it often. Although written in 2002, I find it astonishingly prescient with regards to Scottish politics over a decade later. Yesterday’s Holyrood election underlines that ‘nationalist’ vs ‘unionist’, or competing versions of nationalism if you like, has become the dominant division in Scottish politics. It gives me no pleasure to be proved right in my assertions that this is a disastrous state of affairs for the left. Let’s be clear here: the Scottish electorate has elected two parties who advocate low tax and spending cuts as their government and its opposition. It has done this due to at best misguided, at worst deeply stupid battle over rearranging the chairs of government; many of those who voted SNP have supported conservatism in the belief that an imagined future radicalism is worth inaction now. The myths of Scottish exceptionalism, particularly that it is more left-wing than rUK, have never looked so facile. With a turnout of 55% we can also lay to rest the notion that Scotland is in the midst of some ‘carnival of democracy’. It’s deeply ironic that many loud voices have spent the past few years demanding more powers for Holyrood and pointing the finger at Westminster, yet when it comes to it the just-over-half of the electorate who bother to vote go for parties who don’t actually want to do much with the new powers (it would be unfair of me not to acknowledge the SNP’s proposed Air Passenger Duty cut, which I’m sure will usher in a golden age).

I’ve seen some people wondering how on earth Scottish Labour could move clearly to the left of the SNP and still come third. As I’ve been arguing for some time, much of the hatred for Labour in Scotland has become pathological and owes little to policy or even its record. It’s for this reason that Labour achievements in office are ignored, distorted or claimed for the SNP. This goes hand in hand with nationalists wanting the Tories to do better than Labour and celebrating this as a ‘good result for Yes’:

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The Tories pose no existential threat to Scottish nationalism. Indeed, the existence of the Tories as a party of government, to the right 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’. A left-wing Labour party, led by an unabashed socialist in the UK and advocating old-fashioned tax and spend policies in Scotland, does pose an existential threat to nationalism. We caught a glimpse of this when Owen Jones asked Mhairi Black if she would rather have a UK governed by a socialist government or an independent Scotland. She of course chose the latter and the reality behind her assertion that ‘Labour left me’ (which already made no sense given she was 3 when Blair came to power) was laid bare. Whether it be Black, RISE or even to a large extent the Green Party, the ‘it’s not nationalism, it’s socialism’ advocates tend to favour and/or provide cover for the former when push comes to shove. The opposition to the SNP provided by the latter two parties has been woeful (the Greens voting against a tax rise to offset cuts, in the hope of some vague future radicalism, was a particular low point) and it has been clear that they hoped to ride the SNP’s coattails into power on second preferences. RISE in particular has unthinkingly bought into nationalism while insisting it’s actually socialist:

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You would think that ‘socialists’ would be willing to work with other socialists whatever their view of the constitution, rather than dismissing them as ‘unionist’. This dreck was never going to fly and it’s why RISE polled a woeful 0.5% in the election.

Now, it’s interesting that the SNP have fallen just short of an overall majority as this poses a challenge for the party. If it replicates its strategy of the 2007 strategy and does deals with the Tories, much of its rhetoric of grievance will fall apart. Yet if it relies on the Greens (or even Lib Dems) you would (hopefully) expect that the latter parties would push for the kind of tax rises, extensive land reform and radicalism elsewhere which the SNP has avoided in its clear desire not to scare the horses. It could be argued that if this second route is taken the SNP’s constant fixation on what it can’t do would be greatly undermined; on the other hand, with the constitutional question looking set to remain the defining issue for the foreseeable future, you could also argue that conservative Yes voters don’t really have anywhere else to go.

One thing which is clear is that Scottish Labour’s manifesto has exposed the lie of SNP ‘progressiveness’ and Scottish exceptionalism. ‘Red Tory’ has never sounded so hollow. This is why it was an important strategic move in an election Labour were never going to win (if Thomas Docherty‘s view that a more right-wing manifesto would have helped matters is remotely typical of opinion in the party then I despair – it would instead only have provided fuel to the ‘Red Tory’ fire). I see some Scottish Labour figures are already arguing that Full Fiscal Autonomy is the only way to save the party. Perhaps this is true but, if so, it’s an acknowledgement that left-wing values cannot defeat popular nationalism (though there are thoughtful left-wing voices who are discussing how to ensure a federal UK can be progressive).

We also see that it’s in Scotland where the Tory vote has surged most in the UK – an over 10% increase on 2011 in the list vote – whereas Labour in England seems to have avoided the catastrophe expected under its beleaguered socialist leader, has done surprisingly well in the south of England and is almost certain to win back London City Hall. In Wales, meanwhile, Labour will remain the largest party but UKIP have surged by 12% in the constituency vote, an interesting if bleak indicator of the kind of nationalism which is dominating there. Myths have been shattered, certainties have crumbled and the politics of the UK has rarely looked more regional and dominated by competing nationalisms. If, as expected, Sadiq Khan becomes London Mayor later today I will celebrate. I will celebrate because being a socialist who loathes nationalism offers few moments of satisfaction and the future doesn’t exactly inspire.