We are our choices

By Jake Wilde

Some of the choices that we are required to make in our lives are deeply important and the decision making that surrounds these significant choices is generally, and often rightly, a source of debate, argument, fractiousness and angst. Whether that choice is about Britain’s membership of the European Union or the direction of your own life then the impact of such a decision always falls upon more than just you alone.

Similarly whether the choice is who the leader of the Labour Party should be or, as will be required of 150 million Americans in a few days, who will be the most powerful person on the planet, these are real choices that affect the lives of millions of other people.

What interests me is the response to such a choice once it has been made. I’ll use the examples of the EU referendum and Labour leadership election, both of which have produced outcomes I personally didn’t want.

In the case of the vote to leave the EU there are those who wish the referendum to be re-run. Others genuinely want to ignore the result, and more still are trying to impart a layer of meaning not contained on the ballot paper, such as that it somehow excluded the principle of freedom of movement.

Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader, a year after being first elected, illustrates the folly of this thinking. One of the principal objections from Corbyn supporters to the 2016 election was that it was inherently undemocratic to even hold it. That to ask the same question a year after first asking it, and expecting a different outcome, was disrespectful to both the people who voted in 2015 but also to the underlying principles of democracy.

I think they had a point. If you make what you know is a significant decision then you are entitled to have that choice respected unless there’s a clear and demonstrable change of circumstances. The suggestion that people who voted to leave the EU, or for Jeremy Corbyn, didn’t know what they were doing, or were ‘mistaken’, has no place in democratic discourse. That extends to those who will vote for Donald Trump on 8 November. These are choices that people make, and they have weighed them in just the same way as those who choose differently.

We all know that a key part of any vibrant and successful democracy is the continuation of debate and discussion. But this must manifest itself in the form of finding new questions to ask, of accepting the decision that has been made and looking at how to move that debate, that discussion on. Otherwise you risk being no better than the rape apologists of the SWP, on the streets objecting to the outcome of free and fair parliamentary elections.

Here both the Remainers and the anti-Corbyners share a common problem. Both are stuck in wanting to replay the question until the ‘correct’ answer is given. In the case of Brexit the debate needs to quickly shift to how we mitigate the economic impact of ceasing to be a member of the EU, rather than in finding ways to pretend it’s not going to happen.

Similarly the anti-Corbyners need to be contemplating how to mitigate the worst effects of the Labour Party being led by Corbyn into a general election, and preparing for the inevitably much-changed environment on 8 May 2020.

The reason for this is because it is impossible for either the Remainers or the anti-Corbyners to persuade anybody beyond themselves of the merit of their arguments if they don’t accept the outcome of the original decisions. So in much the same way as Corbynistas are rightly ridiculed for not wishing to attract a single ‘Tory vote’ it is unsustainable for Remainers not to attempt to appeal to those who voted for Brexit.

Similarly those who support Corbyn do so for, from their perspective, good reasons. It’s doubtful that these include clear or firm policies other than being opposed to Trident and austerity so most who support Corbyn do so because he is their choice as a leader, albeit an unlikely (possibly accidental) one. So the uncomfortable truth is that the only way to counteract this is with an alternative leader. We all know that the reason for Labour’s success in the 90s was Tony Blair, not Blairism. We ought to admit that and set about finding the next one.

Here’s where there is a convergence between the two issues. The approach from the current Labour leadership is already clear; they will just regurgitate the Lexit arguments they secretly wanted to make during the referendum. This won’t help anyone, and it will have no impact upon the national discourse about the terms of Brexit. But there is room for an opposition politician to marshal the Remainers and make strong arguments that reach across the majority of voters who were not dogmatically fixed to a firmly held view: to find a Brexit to please Remainers.

It’s wrong to ask a question over and over because we don’t like the answer that we get, but more importantly it doesn’t address the world as it is, changed by the choice that people have made. We cannot avoid the consequences of significant choices and whether we agree with the outcome or not is, ultimately, irrelevant. Instead we must adapt to the new reality that exists, discover the next significant choice that must be made, and prepare for that. Because there is always a next one.

It’s the Wrong North, Gromit

By Saul Freeman

Three days and some sleep later and I have some thoughts.

Thought 1 is to make it clear that I was at all times – and still am – very much in the Remain camp. Thought 2 is to note how wearily reductive and predicable much of the post-cataclysm commentary from appalled Remainers on the Left has been.

Thought 3 is that I live in the North – heartland of Brexit.

Much of what I read in the media and on social media seems to boil down to a howl of outrage that those outside London were ever handed an opportunity to express their democratic rights. Draw a line somewhere north of Milton Keynes, South and West of Swindon and East of Peterborough and they simply can’t be trusted. Londoners are at this very moment petitioning the higher powers (Thom Yorke, perhaps?) to either hold another vote or to declare a city state that can rejoin Europe and run screaming from association with the grubby provinces: “You’re all a bunch of racists!”

When reasonable folk point out that this might display a degree of ignorance and prejudice in equal proportion to the alleged crime of the Brexiters, even hitherto sensible dead-centrist folk like Dan Hodges  – now of the Mail on Sunday – come over all self-assured and self-righteous:

Mention the “North-South divide” and the full weight of the South-East (with a per capita atomic mass roughly equivalent to that of a 3 bedroom loft-style apartment in groovy Hackney) drops from the sky onto those impertinent enough to suggest that the vote might tell us something important about our nation and that deserves scrutiny.

In the 1980s as the North bore the full brunt of the Thatcherite attack on the working classes who toiled in heavy industry, the Left expressed its love and admiration for those plucky Northerners. Both in London and up and down what was to become the M4 corridor, you couldn’t move for Constituency Labour Parties and the SWP, RCP & CPGB organising Miners Solidarity Groups. A cynic might imagine that there was a fetishising of the North and all who sailed in her from those who knew almost nothing of life there and what that looked, felt and smelled like. But never mind that – we all had the donkey jackets and Coal not Dole button badges. We loved those Northerners, fighting the fight on the sharp end of the class struggle. They were worthy.

A generation and a half later and the pits are now logistics distribution centres handily located close to the M1. Former pit villages are teetering under the weight of a structural unemployment that crushes and splits communities. Cities like Sheffield -built on the sheer good fortune of proximity to both seams of coal, rushing rivers and iron ore – lurch from one funding crisis to the next, locked in a death-grip with endless disappointment and never-quite-arrested decay. The North doesn’t die; distinct bits of it do – of course – prosper, thank you very much. But it’s not like London and the South East. It just isn’t.

Here’s the thing, and at face value it’s quite simple: there are not enough jobs. What jobs there are are often low paid and insecure. In London and the South East there are – broadly – enough jobs. That doesn’t mean they are all fulfilling, well paid and involve foreign travel, but the jobs are there.

In Sheffield, for example, if you’re a white-collar worker (say, an administrator) the reality is that if you can’t get a job in one of the two universities or the dwindling Home Office presence, you will a) struggle to find a permanent job and b) when you get one, it will pay roughly a third less than a similar job that your friend has at the university. Your mortgage or rent however will not go down by a third. If you’re an unskilled blue-collar worker – well, good luck with that one.

In the North this lack of jobs now and the lack of prospects of jobs and prosperity for the next generations has combined with a discourse around immigration. London’s “progressive” elite may find it distasteful – and some of this discourse is indeed unpleasant – but it’s there, it’s real and we have ignored it at our peril.

Here’s an example of how we got here. In 2013, Liberal, progressive proto-Corbynistas in the South poured rage and scorn on David Blunkett when he spoke out about the pressures facing Page Hall in Sheffield. That’s an area where just under 40% of families claim benefits and over 50% of children are regarded as “at risk” from poverty. Tensions between the existing residents of Page Hall and the newly arrived and rapidly expanding Roma community were escalating. After calling attention to this problem in his constituency, Blunkett was hounded for being a racist and accused of using language akin to that of Enoch Powell. It was the River Don of Blood speech.  Of course, a significant proportion of the settled Page Hall demographic was in fact Bangladeshi in origin, but not many of those branding Blunkett a simple, old-fashioned racist seemed to want to think about the complexities that might signal.

In describing the behavior of the UK Left around the common “anti-Israel “ discourse, David Hirsh uses the concept of the self-declared progressive circle whereby the virtuous Left defines and polices the borders of normative discourse. Step outside the circle (i.e. give voice to an idea that may not be on the tick box list of pre-approved tenets) and the full force of disapproval and anger comes crashing down: “We understand what you are saying. We can decode it instantly. We have the tools. And what our tools show is that you are bad. You are not virtuous like us”.

Dan Hodges and all those rushing off to sit in front of their laptops and log into the latest post Brexit petition seem to me to be engaging in exactly this type of behavior.

Significant parts of the North (and of course Wales & Cornwall) have never recovered from the loss of heavy industry. London and the South East is simply not in the same boat. Unless you live in the North (or Wales & Cornwall etc) there is a very good chance that actually you don’t understand. Not really. Now, the smart thing to do with this is to engage and unpack. The easy and less smart thing to do is to draw out the virtuous progressive circle. The trouble is, it really is much easier to get out the felt tip pens and start drawing, so largely that’s what people seem to be doing.

Gone is the eye-welling tsunami of love from the Left for the brave, noble North. It’s been replaced by a visceral disgust and a knowing mistrust: “it’s not us that have changed. We’ve compared the circle we drew back in 1984 and it’s more or less exactly like the one we drew out yesterday. So if it’s not us, it’s them. In the North. They’re not who they once were.

It’s the wrong North.

Simple question, complex answer

By Deanne DuKhan

How quickly a conventional wisdom can be created. Within hours of the referendum result, with no information or data other than geographic available on who voted how, a collective decision emerged about the reason Out had prevailed. It was a triumph for extremism, a successful harnessing and exploiting of ignorance and bigotry, so it went. As murmurs and mutterings of a working class revolt spread, to many, that explanation seemed to make even more sense.

Are you among those convinced that only xenophobia can explain this outcome, gloating that you’ve been vindicated by the final dropping of the mask by the Outers in the last week of the campaign? You should know that for some of you a mask of yours has slipped too. Your story has changed. The portrait of the enemy you depicted has changed. How many times you have raged, rightly, at Westminster’s caricaturing of the working class as scrounging, treating them as politically expendable. You’ve been appalled at assaults on them through the bedroom tax and radical benefit changes.

But now they’ve rejected the campaign you were backing, it’s perfectly fair to paint them as ignorant racists.

You even have well meant theories of how they could be so misguided in their choice. It’s ignorance fed by what they’ve seen on telly, you say. As you decide this labelling is justified because you just saw a bloke on the news say he regretted voting Out. You know, on the telly.

It’s unedifying watching all this apoplexy, on the right, on the left, in all the usual places by lots of usual suspects. Spluttering at the discovery that the rest of the UK has turned out not only to not think like us, but to not BE like us. This shock realization might suggest none of us were bothering to listen very hard. To what they’ve long been trying to tell us.

In many places, Leave will have won in spite of the Out campaign, not because of it. In time research may well show the repudiation of the In campaign resonated more deeply than any acceptance of Faragism. With no positive story to tell, only scare-mongering and dripping condescension, some voters will surely have rejected Remain because to do otherwise was to accept being told how irrelevant their own experiences and instincts were. Nothing Remain offered addressed perfectly legitimate expressions of fears, concerns and even resentment of the EU. No one spoke of its recent glaring failures, its likely direction of travel in the future, its utter impotence in the face of rising extremism. As it went on, the In campaign began to wear its presumption of moral superiority on its sleeve. There could be no specific criticisms of the EU and its workings, only general principles and values that gave an indication of your worldview and by extraction your very character.

Are you feeling confused, disorientated? Understandable. You don’t like the result. Place the blame squarely where it belongs then. No license to demonise people who disagree has been issued. There were massive failures, the campaigns themselves were both failures, the result notwithstanding. Nothing was achieved, nothing was settled. And there should be shame in that. Not shame in leaving the EU, or any perceived victory for populism, but in an inability to have a measured, grown-up conversation. Shame in a widespread and collective failure to reject hyperbole and knee jerk reacting; to make the sacrifices and do the hard work of having and showing basic respect for another point of view.

But if you’re in the camp that is happy to reach a decision about those who voted Out after watching a couple of vox pop interviews – that they’re all bigots, or just gullible, too lazy to inform themselves, that they were manipulated by pandering politicians – you might have some soul searching of your own to do. The remedy to your feelings of dislocation isn’t to double down, to commiserate with your fellow angry/confuseds/betrayeds/disorientateds, to give yourself hope by thinking of ways this judgment could be overturned. You’d be wise to open your ears and open your mind. If nothing else, large swathes of your countrymen and women have just told not only the EU, and Westminster ‘elites’, but pretty much everybody else as well to go fuck themselves. You have no obligation to give them the benefit of the doubt on their reasons, of course, but spare the rest of us your conception of yourself as a progressive, if what you really believe is that the people you call working class are too stupid to think for themselves.

Getting out of this with all of our influence and our economy intact will take concerted effort. It will take imagination, and an openness to other ways of doing things. What’s been lost could well be replaced or substituted through other means. But none of that kind of vision will be able to flourish in an environment dominated by anger and division. And no contribution or voice should be dismissed or stifled out of hand. It’s too late for the referendum, but not too late to consider whether we are in need of more information every bit as much as those who voted differently.


The image used to illustrate this article is from this story by Buzzfeed