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Saturday, 25 June 2016

BREXIT: Why the Referendum Became a Revolt Against the Political Class

"We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street,
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.
For we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet."

G.K Chesterton

A century or so after the poet and theologian GK Chesterton wrote those words, the people of England have spoken. After weeks on end of warnings from the great and the good, everyone from political leaders, archbishops, economists, major employers and business leaders and even celebrities such as Simon Cowell....... the people have voted in the opposite way. They have created a political earthquake, the repercussions of which are too early to tell but may well be the most contrary shift in this country's direction since Henry VIII broke with Rome. Why did this happen and why did the advice of the political elites and experts go so unheeded by so many?

THE ECONOMY

The Remain camp believed that emphasising the economic risks of Brexit would decide the referendum. "It's the economy, stupid", as Bill Clinton once remarked. On the surface this made total sense, it is standard political wisdom that most people vote with their pockets and their vote is based on economic self-interest. However the problem with this approach is that the public's trust in politicians and economists on this issue was badly dented by the 2008 financial crash and the events thereafter. The MPs' expenses scandal, bankers' bonuses, even the revelations of the Panama Papers (which revealed that Mr Cameron's father had set up his investment fund in a tax haven) - all of these things heightened the popular sense of a nest-feathering elite that had become fatally out of touch.
Project Fear banged on endlessly about the economic risks of Brexit seemingly oblivious to the fact that many people at the bottom of the social pile; those on zero-hours contracts and those in high unemployment areas such as the north-east have got little to lose and were prepared to take a risk. As if to emphasise how out of touch he was, George Osborne announced that Brexit could, shock... horror, lower house prices. Thus adding thousands of prospective first time buyers to the Leave side.

In traditionally Labour areas outside of London they voted in huge numbers for Brexit because the Labour Party took the conscious decision in the early 1990s not to speak for these people. Tony Blair and New Labour regarded them as an embarrassing bunch of backward proles who were as obsolete as coal mines in the new age of globalised capitalism and couscous eating metropolitan shiny happy 'now' people with jobs in the media.  I can recall a certain member of the Labour Party in Colchester, himself from the north east, telling me in the Blair era that these people, "should just move to the south". Very little effort was put into helping these areas which remain largely those of the white working class.  In Wales, which voted for Brexit, ex-mining areas are some of the most deprived areas of the UK.
Now in 2016, the Labour Party suddenly expected to be able to reach these people and that they would jump into line.  Why the hell would they when white working-class voters, the party leaders say, are bigots, raging against the modern world and globalisation? This condescending rubbish has come back in their faces because, during the campaign, it proved so disastrously self-destructive.

IMMIGRATION

Time and time again the polls suggested that immigration was the number one concern of those who were intending to vote for Brexit. Here the failure of the political class goes back a long way. Ultimately there are two ways in which this issue could have been dealt with more effectively and honestly by successive governments.  Approach one would have been to tell the electorate that immigration is good for the economy and for social diversity and to extoll its benefits. Approach two would have been to use the power that the British government has over non-EU immigration to reduce the numbers coming in from the wider world.
Governments could have chosen to do either one of the above or both. In fact they chose to do neither. Instead every government I can remember featured politicians earnestly saying how they were 'worried' about immigration and how they would 'do something about it', while actually doing the complete opposite. This disingenuous and deceitful approach has eroded the basic trust of the public in politicians who have been both too cowardly to point out the benefits of immigration and too cowardly to seriously reduce the amount of non-EU immigration if they were so inclined. Instead politicians have spent decades blaming the EU for high immigration, backed up by the tabloid press, and then wonder why the public don't want to stay in the EU. The term 'dur' springs to mind....

Moreover successive governments have failed to accept that there is a widespread perception in working class communities that immigration depresses wages and provides cheap labour for the bosses. Whether or not this perception is true or not is not the issue. It exists. They could of course have invested in these areas and spent some money on their public services. But no, the political class chose to impose austerity on these areas and since 2010 have provided inadequate investment in schools and hospitals to match the increasing populations.  I remember reading a newspaper article in the 1990s where a Labour Party commentator (maybe Frank Field) was warning Tony Blair that if he didn't help deprived working class communities then they could turn to the BNP. This fell on deaf ears. When Gordon Brown called a woman a "bigot" for moaning about immigration during the 2010 election campaign the disconnect between the political leaders and the working class was writ large.
The problem is that too many politicians DO see working class people as a bunch of backward, bigoted, racist peasants and would rather just insult or ignore their concerns. Yes their concerns may be wrongly directed and they may be rough round the edges and use politically incorrect expressions.
However you don't change peoples' attitudes by screaming bigot in their faces or ignoring them as the chickens will eventually come home to roost, as they did in the referendum.

PROJECT FEAR

For weeks on end, every news broadcast has seemed to begin with the latest dire warning from some or other expert, economist or Remain politician about the consequences of Brexit. Many of these economic warnings may prove to be accurate although I hope not. However it was too much, it was overkill and many people just switched off and stopped listening. Some of the Remain claims were so over the top as to be ridiculous; David Cameron warning about World War Three for example. Worst of all however was George Osborne's bullying threat of an uber harsh austerity budget. It felt like bullying because it was bullying and I suspect it added hundreds of thousands of votes to the Brexit side. The sheer number of employers writing to their employees demanding that they vote to Remain will have had the same effect.
Yes the Leave side also peddled obvious over-the -top falsehoods. Glaring ones such as the £350 million pledge. However the public simply felt that both sides were engaged in lying to them and so went with their gut instincts.



 






Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Green Party's Future: Ecologist, Lib Dems on Bikes or Labour Lite?

The upcoming Green Party leadership election will, I suspect,  receive little national media attention until the result is announced. However I believe it to be one of the most important moments in the party's history and one which will decide the direction of travel which this party takes for a long time.
Unfortunately the decision by Caroline Lucas to announce her joint candidature with Jonathan Bartley before any other candidates had announced theirs risks creating a done deal, a fait accompli. Caroline is an MP and former leader who has a huge personal appeal and so other candidates will be reluctant to stand against her. This risks denying the party the internal debate which it needs as well as creating a situation where Jonathan Bartley could be elected joint leader not on his own merits but on the coat tails of someone else. This is not undemocratic but it does seem like a manipulation of the rules.
The Green Party stands at a crossroads and there are three main possible directions of travel. In my view only one of them is genuinely green and the dangers lie in the following two directions being taken:

1) Lib Dems on Bikes.

The danger of putting too much emphasis on a 'professional' media image and talking from a script approach is that the party ends up with a vaguely left of centre liberal ethos which amounts to little more than wishy washy rhetoric about 'fairness' and 'internationalism' and a policy approach similar to the Lib Dems when led by Charles Kennedy.  There is of course also a danger that a kind of Green Blairism takes hold with a slick, centrist careerism and a centre-right approach however I believe that the former scenario is more likely. There is an element within the party who are very Lib Demmy in their approach: vaguely interested in social justice, very pro-EU, liberal on social issues and refugees but hostile to the idea of serious redistribution of wealth, trade unions  and the Labour left as personified by Jeremy Corbyn.
While I accept that many of this grouping have genuine environmental concerns, this seems to be confined to a light green approach of wishing to promote cycling, cleaner air, growing your own food, eco-friendly consumerism and so on. There is no sense of any desire for a serious and radical change in the direction of the UK or the world or for seriously challenging the assumptions behind endless economic growth and the destruction of the countryside. Many seem to believe that the planet can be saved if individuals just make the right choices in the marketplace and buy Ecover washing up liquid instead of Fairy Liquid.
I also accept that this is coupled with genuine concerns about social justice however this is seldom coupled with any radical critique of the neo-liberal economic system which creates inequality and erodes working-class living standards. It seems more about a rather namby pamby sense of niceness involving doing a lot for charity and worthy causes but remaining averse to paying more taxes or supporting trade unions when they stand up for the pay and conditions of their members.

2) Labour Lite

On the other hand there is also the danger that the Green Party could ends up as little more than a left-wing offshoot of the Labour Party which attempts to 'out-Corbyn ' Corbyn. Much of the Green surge of 2015 was due to younger people looking for a left-wing alternative to New Labour and a feeling that so-called 'Red Ed' was both uninspiring and not very red at all. This approach, which can be found on the Bright Green website and is personified by members such as Adam Ramsay, tends to combine a thinly-veiled contempt for ecological Greens with a radical left-wing social agenda involving redistribution of wealth, equality for 'Liberation Groups', anti-austerity and an obsession with bureaucracy and taking over the party structures.
However this is a new left devoid of the sort of class-war rhetoric or support for trade unionism found within the SWP or old Labour . It is Socialism-lite for the Facebook generation which shuns anything rooted in the history of the labour movement, Marxism, syndicalism or anything that smells of the organised working class. It has more in common with the new-left of the late 1960s and early 1970s although lacking that era's utopian visions, radical edge or cultural backdrop.

THE DANGERS

The Green Party is a broad church and there is room for people who share both of the above approaches . The dangers lie in either of the two above groupings gaining ground and becoming the dominant force within it. That is because the end result could well be a Green Party in name only.

The 'Lib Dems on Bikes' approach may well win us a few more seats however it would alienate many people who joined the Green Party for a radical alternative to the grey parties. The left of the party would clearly be alienated but also this approach would replace a genuine ecologist or green ethos with something barely distinguishable from the Lib Dems. Any centrist politician can be vaguely pro-green so why would anyone bother supporting a Green Party that has no radical ecologist agenda when this is no different from other parties? I didn't join the Green Party because I want people to see me as 'nice', I joined the Green Party because it is the only political party which has ecological concerns at the core of its origins and ethos as well as a radical approach to social justice.

The 'Labour-lite' approach would narrow our appeal, prevent us winning seats and change the party into a left-wing talking shop. There are many areas of policy where the ecologists and much of the Labour left disagree such as their commitment to economic growth and their desire to build, build build over our countryside. Even a basic knowledge of socialist history in Europe shows that while there are those on the left that have been strong on green issues, there are many more who have not. The Soviet Union was an ecological disaster.
Clearly it is possible to be an eco-socialist and to fight for a radical green agenda and socialism at the same time. However the Green Party can never win elections just by poaching voters from the Labour Party. It will never be able to take enough as many Labour voters will still stay with Labour, no matter how right-wing it goes, as they did under Blair. To win, the Green Party needs to be broad enough in its appeal and rhetoric to take voters from all the other parties, including even the Conservatives and UKIP. An overly leftist image might perform well in a university campus context but not in wider society.

THE FUTURE MUST BE ECOLOGISM

The Green Party cannot just be a single issue party and where I do agree with the Bright Green grouping is that we can't just talk about the environment and nothing else. We have to have a range of policies including those that promote equality and stand up for public services and the socially disadvantaged and excluded. Also this should mean something in real terms and in our policies, rather than just being a vague, namby pamby, bleeding-heart,  Lib Dem sense of civic niceness which doesn't amount to much in reality.
However if we downplay our commitment to environmental issues we will lose our soul and lose our purpose. We need to re-assert our ecologism.
The Green Party was founded in 1973 as PEOPLE (later renamed The Ecology Party in 1975) with ecological concerns at its heart. Its founders were inspired by The Limits to Growth, a 1972 book about the computer simulation of exponential economic and population growth with finite resource supplies. Ecologism is not a centrist approach, rather it challenges all of the assumptions of neo-liberal politics; the need for economic growth, centralised decision making, increasing consumption and global inequality.
Green issues can win us support from across the political spectrum. Many voters are worried about the countryside being concreted over with huge housing estates. They are fed up with seeing their towns grow without a corresponding investment in infrastructure. Issues such as climate change, world population and pollution are concerns for everyone regardless of political background.

We need to end the watering-down of the Green Party's ecologism and to re-assert The Limits to Growth in our party's philosophy.

THE NEXT GREEN PARTY LEADER

Whoever is elected as the new Green Party leader or leaders needs to be rooted in ecologism. Yes the party is a broad church and can have within it watermelons, centrists, people here for the social events and so on. However the leader should be someone rooted in the core ethos of the movement, someone to take us in the right direction. Yes they also need to be media savvy but not to the extent of being someone who is presentable precisely because they don't believe in the party's values like Tony Blair was in relation to Labour.
It would also be a mistake to elect a watermelon leader whose aim is to slowly peel off their outer skin until all that remains is the red.

The next leader needs to be Green rather than Lib Dem or Corbyn lite. Otherwise the Green Party could well be on the road to nowhere.