Sunday, 19 June 2016

Voting against Now


I wrote this blog in almost its entirety last Wednesday night intending to give it a final once over before publishing it on Thursday evening. Then, at about 1pm on Thursday, the world changed. I then swithered about publishing it at all, not just because of, initially, what would have been the inappropriateness of its timing but later because of some of its content. On reflection however I think it bears up in light of events. Those working class voters intending to vote Leave, with a few very, very small exceptions, are not closet racists. We serve neither our short term or long term interests by suggesting that they are. It doesn't however mean that they are right. But we, the Labour Party, by our past behaviour, should accept our responsibility for their misconception that they might be.

Voting against Now

Much has been written about the similarities between the two referendums although there is one big difference in that, this time, I believe there is a real possibility my side might lose, something I never feared at any point in September 2014. And not just because of the very different polls.

But there is still merit in considering the similarities between the two events.

The coalitions assembled by both Yes and Leave each have three elements.

Two of these were anticipated to be there in advance: firstly those who just don’t like foreigners/English people very much and secondly those who, genuinely not of that first view, have nonetheless a sincere belief that “the Country” (defined as required) would greatly benefit from an alternative constitutional arrangement.

At the start of each referendum the forces of the status quo identified these groups as essentially lost causes but remained confident that their combined ranks would never approach a majority.

But in each case "we" initially, and indeed until dangerously too late, failed to appreciate the third prong of our opponent’s fork. Those who would be voting against "Now”.

If you look at those areas of “the Country” which voted Yes and are looking like voting Leave, they share one thing in common. A legitimate feeling that while “elsewhere” prospers, their own location and indeed personal circumstances do not.

And that is, for the avoidance of doubt, a legitimate feeling. The affluence of the “white working class” is at best getting no better, following a period, starting after the war and continuing until perhaps thirty years ago, when a year to year improvement in circumstance, marginal but noticeable, was expected as the natural order of things. Just as, with the benefit of hindsight, that improvement happened marginally but noticeably, it equally ceased to happen marginally. But it is certainly noticeable now. And to compound the resentment of that experience, the relative affluence of others in our society has, over that same thirty year period, visibly improved; whether catching up from behind in relation to the general circumstance of ethnic minorities and “immigrants” or pulling further away in front in relation to a distant metropolitan elite.

And overwhelmingly, those standing still, or sometimes worse, are people who used to “produce” things. All sorts of things from coal brought to the surface to iron turned into steel; from tiny buttons to ocean going ships and things of all sorts and sizes in between. Different things in different places but with a common culture. Industrial work that often depended on brawn rather than brain but which nonetheless, for the long post war boom, had more or less guaranteed availability. Work which brought with it honest reward that fuelled a local service economy: shops, cinemas, social clubs, that was visibly there not as an end in itself but rather as support to allow the primary “producing” purpose of the place to function.

In many, many places this world has gone. It hasn’t changed or modernised. It has just disappeared. The same things are (generally) stillproduced, obviously, but they are not produced here. They are produced in India or China or wherever. Produced by different producers, working in harsher conditions and crucially at a much lesser level of personal reward.

And what’s left, too often, is little more than the service economy that once enjoyed only a support role. As Shirley Williams famously described it, an economy based on people selling hamburgers to each other.

Now, of course, that’s not the whole economy of the country. We have a vast knowledge economy that has largely replaced in our GDP what the producing of real, visible things once provided. But that knowledge economy is not open to all, only to those intellectually equal to it. Often, even then, not open in the place where its participants themselves were born. Indeed not just the place where they were born but the place where their parents, and their grandparents and their great- great grandparents had been born. Where, ideally they would have liked their own children to be born.

So local communities lose their brightest and best while those left behind curse the circumstance that prevents them from doing precisely that themselves. For as local people leave, "others" arrive to fill the vacuum. In many cases of necessity, for every community needs young people to renew itself at all. But, for the avoidance of doubt, it is not necessary to buy into the patent fiction that these incomers have driven out the established population to nonetheless regret that they have replaced them at all.

And that all leads, in the minds of those "local people" left behind, to one conclusion. That there is something the matter with Now. 

With both referendums that has posed a particular problem for my Party. At general elections for almost the whole of my life Labour has had two distinctive messages to the two parts of our own electoral coalition. To "traditional" Labour voters we have been against Now. Now has been portrayed as the sole creation of the "evil Tories", who closed their factories, shut their pits and devalued the worth of honest labour.

There was no more bizarre example of this as when Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership campaign, if only briefly, suggested to a South Wales audience, that a Government led by him might re-open the coalfields! Why? A return to pneumoconiosis, industrial deafness, percussion white finger? Early death for those who survived the a lifetime of such working conditions and sudden death before that for random others? A life without daylight whose workforce had but a single ambition for their families, that they would not need to follow them down the pit? But was Jeremy decried for this suggestion? No, he was cheered to the echo. Because it was what his audience wanted to hear. For closing the pits was regarded by them as the greatest crime ever of the "evil Tories", conveniently forgetting that Tony Benn had closed more pits than Margaret Thatcher ever did. Not because he was "evil Tony" but rather because it was an industry close to the end of its natural life, not least because of the human cost it involved. It is one thing to criticise how it was done, a criticism I readily share, it is another to maintain that what was done was ultimately anything other than inevitable.

That's not (for once) a criticism by me of the Party leader but rather a caution against nostalgia clouding recollection, as much on the left as by those proudly owning up to being Conservatives.

For to the other part of the Labour coalition we condemn these self same "evil Tories", these self same Conservatives, as not being to blame for Now but rather for being not Now enough. Insufficiently modern. Unwilling to accept ethnic diversity; sexual diversity; meritocracy. Not willing to confront demographic necessity. The Tories are not, as we say to that first group of supporters, responsible for the state of the modern world but instead, we say to this second group, they are insufficiently welcoming of it!

Now, in microcosm, this costs us no more than the winning of general elections, for that part of the electorate not tribally attached to either big Party see through our contradictions. But by nonetheless keeping on board those who,for diametrically opposed reasons, would "never vote Tory" we survive these conventional contests as a substantial minority, albeit, if that's all we've got, an inevitable minority nonetheless. While the "evil Tories" work, in their evil way, to constantly reduce the numbers of those who would "never" vote for them.

But, anyway,  referendums sweep all that, "normal" election calculation away. While Labour's own internal dichotomies are inevitably exposed. As they were in Scotland and as they might be in England over the next week. Those who are against Now and those who believe we are not Now enough simply cannot possibly be corralled together in such a context. Put bluntly, with the best will in the world, the "Refugees welcome" section of our support cannot possibly be reconciled with the "Local houses for local people" element. And in attempting to do so we only end up alienating both. Particularly when, as has inevitably proved the case in both referendums, our opponents are free to portray themselves as all things to all men because, being in the field only for one single purpose, they have no track history to defend and can happily disown elements of their own side that does not suit what "they" believe "they" are voting for. Not least the barely disguised fascist element that undoubtedly exists on the fringes, at the very least, of both the Yes and Leave "movements".

So from the perspective of somebody who has been all their life a Labour tribalist, things look pretty bleak. But perhaps, just perhaps, from the point of view of somebody who believes in the cause of progress, there might nonetheless be a glimmer of light.

For I'm for Now. Now isn't just ignoring racial difference but positively embracing it. Now involves my nephew being more likely to marry a man from Berlin than a woman from Bellshill (or a woman from anywhere to be honest). Now is an improved concern for the environmental consequences of all our behaviour. Now is more kids going to university than ever before, even in Scotland. Now is life expectancy being, with every year of my own life, ever longer for those around me and Now also means far greater dignity, financial or otherwise, in old age. Now is the treatment of those with disabilities, even under the evil Tories, being better than at any time in history. Now is better food, eating out or eating in. Now is more diverse cultural experience on the stage or in the street: Now is ever cheaper and easier holidays. Mundanely, Monday to Sunday, Now is an ever greater diversity of choice on the telly. Actually, Now is an ever greater diversity of choice in just about every aspect of life.


"Joy was it in that morn to be alive but to be young was very heaven!"

Certainly, let us concede that there is much wrong with the availability to everyone of Now but let's stop pretending that there will ever be a majority for going back to Then. Let's instead work to spread the benefits of Now more comprehensively. As socialists, to strive for that by the traditional means, in opposition, of organisation and, in power, of legislation. To work to ensure that Now leaves nobody drowning in its wake, not by throwing some existing passengers overboard but instead by ensuring through dignity, security and due reward of labour, of whatever sort, that there is room on board for every willing passenger. Even if that does mean smaller first class cabins to provide more comfortable accommodation in steerage.

The great socialist writer, R.H. Tawney famously wrote that for the left, if there is to be a golden age, it will always lie not in the past but in the future. Let us embrace that sentiment.

I don't want next Thursday to go back to 1971, even if that was possible. Any more than, eighteen months back, I wanted to go back to 1707.

And, in the end you know, excepting a very very few, nobody else really does either. So let's work for that to be reflected in the result on 23rd June 2016 as decisively as it ultimately was on 18th September 2014.


  1. I recall those Paisley LPYS debates

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  3. But the EU's Now is really Then: the governmental structure of the EU is that of colonial Legislative Councils and Assemblies before the Durham Report and the Reform Acts, before the development and spread of Responsible Government. Which members of the executive (Commission) were ever held to account over the euro disaster (massive damage to the economies of at least four member states)? Any attempt to change or reform that structure would require significant treaty change (and good luck with that).

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