Beyond our bubble: Part 3 European Movement conference

The afternoon continued with the session, ‘Getting beyond our bubble’. Hosted by Helen Wales, it starred Deborah Mattinson, political commentator and author of Beyond the Red Wall, why Labour lost so many seats in the 2019 election; political journalist and former YouGov president Peter Kellner, and Our Future Our Choice founder and campaigner Femi Oluwole, in what would become an intense debate.

Referring to the ‘Red Wall’ voters and Brexit, Mattinson observed that most voters don’t follow politics closely, to the extent that some she spoke to could not name the PM of the day, while one respondent said they liked Farage but didn’t like the Liberal Democrats, so they couldn’t vote for him. However, what they do notice is ‘how different politicians are’. A mere 6% of respondents said UK politicians ‘understand people like me’, and this was particularly acute in the Red Wall, where voters had felt ignored for a long time. For them, Brexit would be a ‘circuit breaker’, something in which they engaged with ‘huge enthusiasm’, knowing it would  ‘”shake things up”, “goodness knows we need that”’. It would solve all that was wrong, locally and nationally, and auger ‘”a new start for the whole country”.’

Hence, a retired butcher in Accrington, lamenting the loss of ‘the best’ in engineering, agriculture, fishing, all the weaving houses from the area, Brexit’s restoration of self-governance and ‘our own rules’ would see it all return. Of this, Ken was sure, although why the EU was the blame, he wasn’t.

There were also value differences, wherein a poll by Lord Ashcroft showed Leavers tended to think  globalism, feminism, multi-culturalism, in effect any ‘ism’, were forces for ill, while Remainers thought them forces for good. For Leavers, however, this was less about ideology than the ordinary people vs. the Elite. And so one man in the South, on hearing Leave had won the 2016 referendum,  ‘ran round the room punching the air with joy like we’d won the World Cup, sticking two fingers up to “them”’, the Elites. And the neglected folk of the Red Wall, judged and looked down upon when considered at all, felt the same, sticking one back at the Remainers who called them ignorant.

And for all that has happened since, has there been any notable shift by Leavers to reconsider? Well, in short, no.  

For Peter Kellner, Brexit meant two things: the D of the Dream of what its promoter promoted, and R for the Reality of what we got.  As Dominic Cummings openly wrote in a 20,000-word reflection for The Spectator, the Leave side ‘refused to talk about the reality of Brexit, the Customs Union, the Single Market, any of the issues or chickens now coming home to roost. Instead they talked just of £350m for the NHS, and “taking back control”, selling a dream solution to problems wholly unrelated to Europe or Brussels, solving nothing of the country’s 40-year industrial decline that no government had arrested, or any other deep-seated problems no-one had ever tackled. But Brussels was leveraged into the frame, and people felt ridding of this off-shore node of the political Elites was truly liberating. That the fishermen on whose livelihoods Brexit was sold, can no longer sell to Europe, does not matter because most Leavers aren’t directly affected. Nor do they care for numbers, percentages lost or Pounds, he argued [although observers disagreed, noting the £350m for the NHS and the £10bn a year to Europe figures Leavers cited].

What must be done is to relate the losses of Brexit to people’s own experiences and lives, to build a narrative that Brexit isn’t working. Like Cummings’ modus operandi, ‘we need to relate to people’s lives’. Activists must chart, “town by town, shop by shop, how Brexit affects us, what’s going wrong, and develop a Brexit narrative.” So, in two, three years’ time, people will say, “Brexit’s going badly, I can feel it”, information that can be deployed in manifestos. 

Oluwole noted that Leavers and Remainers were essneitally two different species, speaking different languages, Remaienrs about the SM, and solidarity with Europe, while Leavers concerned with Elites and Sovereignty, with both sides in effect alien to one another, a ‘total lack of empathy’ from either side, ‘so even now for Remainers it is totally beyond their comprehension why someone voted Brexit.’ The problem is the voting system, which he illustrated thus: consider a 50-year-old man in Sunderland, who, when aged 11, his dad lost his job in the shipyards thanks to Thatcher. There was no funding them, and nothing since, all the while London gets richer. He turns to politics, but Labour win all the time, delivering nothing, still though you’d never vote Tory and Labour know it, so his vote is meaningless thanks to first-past-the-post. The Establishment failed those regions.

Suddenly, Brexit comes along, and suddenly your vote makes a difference, it will affect the people who’ve visited eight years of austerity atop all else, or those who took their votes but didn’t deliver, they all say vote Remain? Of course he votes Leave!

In that it would shake up the country, Brexiters were right, and lead to an ‘arms race’ to level up those areas. But ultimately, Oluwole said, Brexit, having stalled the country for four years, already impacting the NHS, seeing fishing collapsing, problems in NI, would undo all of that. And as per levies of ignorance, he admitted that for his own legal expertise, he’d never seen the problems that Brexit would visit upon NI.

“We need to get out of our bubbles,” he said, ‘and really ask, Was it worth it?”’  

Therein however lies a danger, Wales said, to not make it about ‘I told you so.’ Is now even a good time to talk about Brexit?  

Oluwole countered with that 16 million people told to shut up, ‘I told you so’ is inevitable. Nor could history look back at political leaders who so blithely, loudly ignored all scientists and experts, then see no connection to the abomination duly delivered, while seeking to violently quell by fascist means any such voices of ‘I told you so.’  Since 2016, most votes have gone to pro-SM parties, and in 2019 to parties backing a second referendum. The irony is those votes did not count, due to FPTP, so people had not taken back control. The only constructive solution therefore is proportional representation.

Deborah agreed that “now’s not the time,” and in 2019, “get Brexit done” was even more effective than ‘take back control’ as any number of people, Remainers included, just wanted it all to stop. She supported Peter’s idea of duly building a narrative built on people’s experience, to research, find and talk to people and gather stories as per how their lives had suffered due to Brexit – but carefully, and never ever ever, ‘I told you so.’ As for PR? Meh.

There was a referendum on PR that fared so badly no-one even remembers it, said Peter, “it’s not going to happen”.  Oluwole countered that polls showed, and show, a Remain majority. ‘With PR we’d still be in the EU.’ Without it, the UK will never return, as a Tory hegemony would prevent re-entry even just into the Single Market. “Labour won’t do it alone. So we need electoral reform for a progressive alliance.”

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