Subterranean Referendum Blues

We should all cry over the conduct of Britain’s EU Referendum debate. It is a picture of the nation at its very worst; bereft of any big-picture narrative able to lift or inspire.

Instead, abuse competes with smear, and fibs compete with fear; degenerating into a beggar-my-neighbour apology for political debate.

The Conservative Party’s implosion should be the least surprising element in this. Their ‘Blue-on-Blue’ civil war makes clashes between England and Russian football fans look almost civilised. It’s legacy will scar the entirety of the current parliament.

What it also confirms is that, at his best, Cameron was only ever an aberration. The Tory Party remains in the grip of an ultra-Right; no less ideologically extreme than the Republican ‘Tea Party’. ‘The bastards’ who tore the John Major administration apart now happily do the same to Cameron. None of this is in the name of a more progressive, inclusive Britain.

In or out of the EU, the NHS will not get an extra £350 million a week out of this government. Both sets of Tory MPs – the ‘Inners’ and the ‘Outers’ – happily voted for austerity measures that underfund the NHS. The Referendum will not change this, and it is a delusion to pretend otherwise.

Remain and Reform

The greater tragedy, however, lies with Labour.

Even those who (like me) are implacably opposed to joining the single currency, ought to see the starkness of choices facing Britain. Whilst the Tory record on ‘progressive’ European policies is wretched, the Brexit camp would be immeasurably worse. For the Left, the challenge is to minimise the damage, and to change the script. This, in essence, is the case for ‘Remain and Reform’.

Labour’s problem is that it must put a million miles between it and both warring factions of the Tory Party. There was never any point in Labour hunkering up to either the Saddam or the Uday Tory camps; whichever you thought ‘least’ worst.

Instead, Labour must reach into the ideas of other movements, like ‘Another Europe is Possible’ – setting an agenda that should both enrage and excite the public.

There is much to rage about, for the Tories ‘European’ record is close to shameful. Under them

Britain is trying to water down the EU commitment to halve the number of deaths from air pollution.

Cameron personally vetoed any EU tax avoidance framework that included offshore Trusts.

British Tories oppose a ban on bee-destroying neo-nicatinoids, but have had to accept it as EU-wide policy.

Europe’s 2010 Energy Efficiency Directive requires all new public buildings to be built to ‘near zero energy’ standards by 2018, but the UK wants to build to lower standards.

The EU set a 20% target for renewable energy by 2020. The Tories negotiated a lower (15%) target for Britain.

The EU set out a flood protection framework, including upland farming practices, that was to be binding. Britain reduced it to ‘advisory’, and then ignored it.

Only EU resistance to genetically modified organisms in the food chain prevents Britain’s Tories from handing this as a gift to big-pharma (without any thought for either liability insurance or consumer protection rights), and

Post-Paris, the UK has ensured that Europe-wide climate and renewable energy targets are not to be binding at a Member State level (ie Britain will do less).

Labour should not even contemplate shared platforms with Cameron and Osborne. Instead, it should embrace the very pro-planet, pro-public, Euro policies that the Tories undermine…and to do so as Leaders, not laggards, in the pursuit of a better Europe.

Anti-Austerity Europe

Both Corbyn and McDonnell would happily sign up to a bolder, anti-austerity Europe – one committed (say) to Europe-wide Robin Hood taxation; one which refused to sign a TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) agreement that would give corporations the right to sue EU citizens; or one that pledged to remove corporate rights to pillage the economy or the planet. The problem has been getting Labour’s Party Machine to agree to anything so radical.

Instead, the Party Battle Bus rattles along with little more than a Dad’s Army diatribe about how much worse it would be if we left. Heckled by fishermen on the South coast over EU fishing quotas, Labour hadn’t even had the sense to quote Greenpeace[1] in Europe’s defence.

Over 60% of UK fishing quotas are owned by 3 multi-million pound firms. Some of the quotas are ‘parked’ on tiny vessels that never go to sea. But the quotas then get rented out (at extortionate rates) to smaller fishermen.

It is a rigged racket which has little to do with fish conservation and even less to do with Europe. The problem, and the corruption, comes from us – our politicians and our officials in the fisheries department, DEFRA. And this is where Labour is stuck.

If the Party doesn’t pick such fights with the Tories (all of them) then it ends up lacking any clear vision about the ‘better’ European future its own supporters should come out and fight for.

Worse than this, it leaves Labour open to the worst elements of UKIP-Labour; the ones arguing that it’s all down to immigration. So let’s be clear about a few things.

First, there is an international refugee crisis bigger than any single nation can solve. The ultimate answer will need new international institutions (in much the same way we did in the post-1945 of reconstruction and peace building). At the moment, we just don’t have the politicians big enough to see this. But the answers, when they come, will come collaboratively, not by any one country pulling up the drawbridge.

Second, playing the immigration card in British politics runs you close to fascism. Immigrants are not responsible for zero-hours contracts. They weren’t behind the debacle collapse of BHS, nor the employment policies of Sports Direct, Amazon or a dozen other household names. Immigrants haven’t saddled graduates with a mountain of student debt, nor handed the housing market over to spivs and speculators.

A politics beyond scapegoating.

When communities define immigration as the problem it is usually because politicians – in deeply divided and polarised times – prefer to look for scapegoats than to radical assaults on inequality itself. Such fear and insecurity is real enough, but only charlatans cloak themselves in it as a political momentum.

So the challenge to Jeremy Corbyn is a simple one. His initial Shadow Cabinet formation may have forced Corbyn to hand control of the EU ‘Remain’ campaign to Labour’s more orthodox wing. But the resulting campaign has been catastrophically dull, unimaginative and uninspiring. It has left Labour voters wondering what sort of Europe Labour is campaigning for? Dads Army has none of the answers.

So, sod the bruised egos and the etiquette, Corbyn and McDonnell have to seize the reins. It is the vision of something better, something different, something beyond the arid landscapes of Tory divides, that will bring out a ‘Remain and Reform’ vote.

It isn’t too late. This is what leadership is all about.

Alan Simpson

June 2016

  1. Greenpeace

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