Sounds strange? Well, these are – as the late, great John Lennon once sang – strange days indeed. Allow me to thoroughly explain…
I’ve spent years as an activist campaigning for things such as fairer bus fares, more healthcare funding, the scrapping of university tuition fees. I’ve stood side-by-side with the Anti-Nazi League in opposition to the British National Party. I was on the historic march against the Iraq War on February 15th, 2003, in London. I was part of a peaceful protest that was kettled and then attacked by police as we demonstrated at a G20 summit on April 1st, 2009, and was just yards away when Ian Tomlinson died from his injuries, as at the same time our Prime Minister was condemning police brutality on protesters in Iran. I’ve organised and spoken at anti-racism and non-violence events gathering hundreds of people, in both Britain and Canada.
I’ve made guerrilla documentary feature films examining and warning of the disastrous policies of bombing other countries, refusing refugees, the dismantling of the welfare state while shipping jobs overseas, and shutting down industries purely because they were heavily unionised, while de-regulating the financial sector. My last documentary, in 2015, warned of the threat of fascism if viable alternatives were not presented to the working class mass majority brow-beaten for decades.
And yes, bizarrely, when it comes to Brexit, I can’t stress enough my “remainer” credentials as well. I was practically the “poster boy” for the cause.
This was because, like many people, I saw the campaign for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union fuelled by xenophobia, immigrant-bashing, and a quest for closed-off borders – and I was utterly incensed.
I was galvanised into action to tackle the false promises and misinformation: I engaged people in conversation on the topic, hoping to be the voice of reason, and shared as many fact-based articles as possible online to tackle all the myths about the supposed benefits of an EU withdrawal. Many conflicts occurred between myself and people I knew and otherwise had a good relationship with; some were irreparably damaged as a result. In my home, we proudly and defiantly displayed a “Vote Remain” Labour party poster in our window. In our work together, my partner Jane Watkinson and I plotted a “ThankEU” campaign in the event of the UK withdrawing from the European Union, following years of EU funding pumped into our non-profits and our local community demonstrating just how much we’d benefited from the EU.
Truth be told, maybe the main driving force behind all this was my own personal belief that any referendum on the matter was in danger of very likely resulting in us leaving the EU – for three reasons.
First, nothing mobilises people into action like the desire for change. People wanting the status quo tend to assume that very status quo continues without needing to do anything, and therefore inaction means everything stays the same.
Second, the New Labour and Conservative governments – aided and abetted by big corporate media – had created a popular misconception that British people weren’t suffering financially because of years of their neoliberal economic policies, but because of “foreigners” freely moving around into places such as our own great country and depleting our finite resources. These narratives, of course, gave the very strong impression that free trade with mainland Europe and the freedom of movement that went with it was purely because of the UK’s EU membership.
And third, following events such as the £1.5 trillion bail-out of the banks, a referendum of this magnitude put to the people gave many, for the first time ever, the sense that they were actually being asked for their opinion on something that mattered. There was a feeling that many pissed off people were going to make the most of this opportunity, and use it to stick it to the establishment responsible for things like that very bail-out.
Let’s not forget: that bail out came about because of a financial crisis after New Labour refused to put back in place the financial regulations the Conservatives had removed. New Labour were more interested in other things, such as removing Clause IV from their constitution.
Before she died, Margaret Thatcher cited not the weakening of of workers’ rights through her attack on trade unions, or even the Falklands conflict, as her greatest achievement, but New Labour itself. Sick to death of neoliberalism, the people swept Tony Blair into 10 Downing Street in the hopes of a socialist remedy, but instead Blair refused to undo Thatcher’s deregulation of the financial sector, while refusing to listen to the millions marching in the streets in opposition to an attack on Iraq, aligning himself with the grandson of a Nazi industrialist who got into the White House without ever actually winning the election.
As a result, New Labour haemorrhaged five million votes while they were in power.
Nonetheless, Labour did give in to the pressure from its party members when delivering popular policies like the minimum wage or tax credits or the Human Rights Act (introduced, human rights expert Shami Chakrabarti told me in my documentary, without any great enthusiasm from Tony Blair). Blair and the Tories were simply outgunning each other on how many civil liberties they’d erode, or how many immigrants they’d kick out of the country, or how many CCTV cameras they’d break surveillance records with, or how many privatised prisons could be built and filled. There was no voice of reason to be heard.
The Conservative candidates – from William Hague to Ian Duncan Smith to Michael Howard – all failed to offer credible alternatives while at the same time appearing old and grey and out-of-touch. Blair was strutting across stages with his jacket taken off and thrown over his shoulder, grinning like the Cheshire Cat, even as voters turned away from him and his party, a Westminster expenses scandal only provoking greater apathy.
In response, the Tories made PR man David Cameron their own mouthpiece leading their party – and when popular Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg told young voters he wouldn’t “sell out,” before proceeding to, in fact, sell out and join the Tories in a neoliberal coalition government – the ConDem alliance brought the Tories back into power, condemning the working classes and showing that, once again, turning on the charm, the smarmy suits were not going away easily any time soon. People trusted politicians perhaps less than ever.
Throughout this entire time, from Thatcher onward, inequality had increased in Britain. The establishment had everything go their way: from the illegal invasion of Iraq to the bail-out of the banks – the latter used as an excuse to sell off public services to their private donors in an incredible transfer of resources from the poor to the rich called “austerity”, with Cameron and Clegg laughing all the way to the bank. (Both have done very, very well for themselves since.)
Growing up in a political household, Ed Miliband was a student of the game, a real politico, and certainly the more progressive option for Labour leader, beating his Blairite brother David, but then retreating when – despite tough talk on Rupert Murdoch’s media monopoly, big energy companies, and railway ownership – the old Blairites in his own party pressurised him, and the press constantly attacked him. When it came to the 2015 general election, he lost. Worse than just losing, his adversaries the Tories got back into power with a majority.
After the election, there was a sense that austerity and inequality were perhaps unavoidable, and as inequality worsened – with a Victorian-era Social Darwinist “survival of the fittest” fully adopted by the Tories – even food banks became normalised.
Then some Labour establishment figures figured it’d be a jolly old laugh to put a “loony lefty” named Jeremy Corbyn on a leadership ballot that wasn’t exactly stacked with inspiring, dynamic, or different candidates alongside him. So Corbyn won, in a landslide. The party members were so sick of Labour leaders not reflecting their views, and so tired of slick PR people being wheeled out on TV one after the other, that they chose Corbyn.
So the establishment figures – including my own local MP – set about holding yet another leadership election, unhappy with the previous result, selecting former Pfizer PR guy Owen Smith as their boy. But despite the personal attacks, abuse, threats, intimidation, and outright lies (documented elsewhere on this site) the membership wouldn’t be fazed. Again, they overwhelmingly chose Corbyn. He offered what they wanted: genuinely progressive policy.
When David Cameron delivered on his promise to deliver a referendum, Corbyn’s very valid previous criticisms on the European Union were dug up even as he admitted that remaining in the EU was the lesser of two evils; tough options that few people, if any, really understood, since leaving the EU wasn’t one choice in itself – it was an answer that provoked several more questions involving the customs union, the single market, the Irish border, free trade and freedom of movement, to name a few. The latter was always going to be an issue given the Labour/Tory immigrant-bashing competitions of the previous years.
But while Corbyn campaigned for remain (and reform), Cameron did so with gusto – after all, the EU as an institution was inherently anti-socialist and in fact neoliberal, as my partner Jane Watkinson explained in detail in a recent article.
The Labour establishment figures saw the referendum itself as a way of potentially ousting Corbyn: after questioning his enthusiasm despite his gruelling campaigning to persuade the public to choose to remain, they decided to present him with an impossible challenge: not only convince the party members to vote that way, but also the Labour “heartlands” (working class communities) that they themselves had spent years trampling on.
Let’s not forget – as much of the establishment and media seem to have – that an MP was tragically and horrifically assassinated at this time, when in the midst of campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU, Jo Cox was stabbed and shot in the face by a white man shouting “Britain First.” The anger had turned to violence. And not even this could stop the momentum swinging in favour of those wanting Britain to leave the EU. That’s quite something, since I found the act sickening and only strengthened my commitment to vote “remain.” Like many, I emotionally dismissed almost all those campaigning to leave as Nazism-loving thick-as-shit thugs. In fact, these were – and are – an ugly minority of the British population, of course; merely the boil on the ass of a people pained by years of punishing policies.
The Labour and Tory establishment figures often stood side by side in unison and agreement on the EU at this time. The disadvantaged working class communities for years told by the establishment that immigrants were their biggest threat, took no chances and in one fell blow felt that, by voting to leave the EU, they could stick it to both the establishment and immigrants as well, just in case.
And that was it: even though it seemed to pose a plethora of problems, the winning vote was the choice to leave the EU…whatever the heck that meant. The majority of voters had chosen the great unknown, so desperate was their plight, so sick of this rotten system and its society they were.
Of course, Labour members voted to remain, but the referendum result was predictably portrayed by the establishment as Corbyn’s failure to win back the Labour “heartlands” they had spent years stomping on.
Even though it never ceases to amaze, just as with the two Labour leadership elections, when it came to the referendum, the establishment predictably joined together again in refusing to respect its result and demanded another go at it. Such was their pompous, privileged, yet staggering sense of entitlement after years of requesting – no, demanding – that everything go their way, and then getting just that. Yes, they were “The Metropolitan Elite.” And just like in 1979 and 1997, they were here to save us.
With no sense of irony at all, this Metropolitan Elite suddenly felt that the Labour heartlands were irrelevant, and it was the party membership that needed to be respected when a poll showed they wished we’d had another vote, while at the same time agreeing with Corbyn’s leadership and strategy on Brexit.
The Metropolitan Elite was united – from poor-bashing snobs like Chuka Umunna to dodgy dossier-supporting war criminals like Alastair Campbell to Tories like Anna Soubry, who opposed an investigation into the illegal invasion of Iraq, as well as opposed equality and human rights policies and the welfare state. They had their own social media networking hashtag (#FBPE – “Follow Back, Pro-EU”!) They were suddenly all for peaceful protests! They got to pretend to be hip and cool, tweeting and carrying placards calling for nothing less than another referendum, damn it! Even Greens and Lib Dems – who had so badly wanted the referendum in the first place – now united in calling for another stab at it, as it hadn’t gone the way they wanted FFS.
(Of course, Chuka Umunna initially respected the result of the referendum, until he realised this fuss could be kicked up to stick it to his own party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was chosen by the membership rather than the Metropolitan Elite.)
They rounded up Centrist Dads and Middle England – those with mortgages, those with nice cars, those with stable jobs, those who read The Guardian – and they told them they’d be their voice; everything could go back to how it was, with sharp suits leading political parties, the constant illusion of change, a culture of credit and consumers sedated by reality television and Premiership football operated and played by millionaires, all together sleep-walking into a dystopic near-future of mass underclass, mass migration, border walls, and climate chaos. Hey, at least everything would stay the same, the order of things retained, and white middle class folks could be found by future visiting alien archaeologists inside their houses, inside their garages, inside their Toyota cars with the windows down, a gas tank fully emptied into the bodies of permanently smiling yet long deceased people, a yellowed copy of The Guardian on the passenger seat – a cultural white flag wielded to symbolise that these folks had a conscience and were, hey, “A-OK.” Even though the world was lost. The Metropolitan Elite still made them feel safe and warm in the dying days of civilisation. A conscience is fine, but it’s utterly pointless in the end if you don’t act on it.
Sure, there was misinformation in the campaigning leading up to the EU referendum. And of course, that’s never happened before – politicians have never lied to us in election campaigns, and voters have always trusted that everything they’ve ever said has been honest and true. And of course, there have never been any problems with referenda and elections before.
The truth is, the establishment have nothing but contempt for democracy. It’s why in the United Kingdom, we have essentially three houses of parliament (the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons), with just one of those elected, and even that’s first-past-the-post. It’s why corporations got to ride roughshod over the planet and its people, even while they’re working to create wealth for these multinationals who instead funnel off the proceeds to shareholders who crash the economy bailed out by workers’ taxes. It’s why we have public broadcasters empirically proven to be supportive of neoliberalism, while the rest of the media are owned and controlled by a few millionaires and billionaires (also supportive of neoliberalism). It’s why neoliberalism itself is allowed to run free, even though it’s on its last legs, devoid of any shred of remaining credibility given the rising inequality and the exposure of their false claims of “trickle down” economics, a lie they knew they were making at the time they were telling it through the teeth of humourless smiles.
Yes, democracy is a dangerous thing for the establishment. But ultimately, without the principle of democracy, we’re doomed. And that’s what this is really about.
People voted to take a chance on a radical shake-up because they felt they had little to lose, only to be told their vote ought to be ignored, because even on this occasion they are still too stupid to know what’s best for them – that’s the job of the Metropolitan Elite. Wow. That’s a powerful message. That’s basically one of the darkest messages you can send to a people: “Shut up, sit down, you don’t know what’s good for you, we do, and things aren’t going to change because we said so.” You’re basically done at that point. Hit the lights, the party’s over.
And I can’t reconcile that. I can’t stand that message, and I can’t stand up for it.
Yes, I hated the outcome of the referendum at the time. I loathed the people who created a culture of division and then called for a referendum and gave it to us. But I loathe them even more for then telling us – yet again – that people’s decisions don’t matter. They did it with Jeremy Corbyn – twice! – and they’re doing it again, now, with this.
There are people stuck in the first stage of grief on this referendum result, as someone rather wittily said today on Twitter.
I wanted to see us focused on the future – what we’re going to do from the options we have in front of us. And yes, on a personal level, I too have little left to lose. Austerity Britain has now plundered our towns. Is “Brexit” going to take away funding for my community work? Already happened. Is it going to put me in debt? Already there. Is it going to stop me going on vacation, or visiting my favourite restaurants often? That’s now. Is it going to leave me jobless? Been there. Homeless? Done it.
When you’ve been punched in the face repeatedly, and someone presents you with an escape scenario where you’re at risk of getting kicked in the ass, you take it. It’s not my ideal scenario, but it’s the reality, and I’ll take it.
So, no. I am a democrat, and I will not pour petrol on the fire of hatred from a people enraged by disadvantage and disenfranchisement. If the Metropolitan Elite ever got their second referendum, I’d vote leave. I don’t mean a democratic process for the people to choose the terms of withdrawal; I’m talking a full-on repeat re-run referendum: I’d vote leave then. And I’d vote leave not even for the oppressed who already voted for it, but for democracy, because it is sick that these pompous bastards feel like they should have everything go their own way.
We have to overhaul that whole entire system. And that means getting democratic socialists into power. And in case you didn’t understand that, it means I’m a socialist and I’m also a democrat: a democratic socialist.
With the demise of neoliberalism, there has been a notable shift to democratic socialism in recent years – not just in the States with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – but here, too, where the people are sick to death of the same old billionaire-backed politicians and policies, and are impressed by the understanding of social issues from the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, the chosen leader rather than a career politician, whose very presence at high profile has pulled into the political debate ideas that weren’t even contemplated a few years ago. As a result, a sense of grit, determination, and optimism has gripped many people, while others like me have started to speak out against this “People’s Vote” madness – even Guardian writers like Dawn Foster and Joseph Harker, not coincidentally lacking the typical middle class backstories of elitist journalism; they understand the desperation of a working class hungry for truly radical change in the world while there’s still a planet that’s fit to live on.
I want to live in a world where the system is democratised, where money is taken out of politics, and where people can live their lives with a sense of dignity, opportunity, and community. I want to talk about the exciting prospect of that. I want to talk about stopping climate change, I want to talk about a Green New Deal, a Universal Basic Income, Modern Monetary Theory, co-operative business structures, social housing, urban democracy, multicultural communities, and the list goes on and on.
As I’ve said before, I’m a punk at heart. I believe in the power of ordinary people to do extraordinary things. If we believed the EU provided any of the above by sheer power of merely existing, we were wrong. If we now believe we can’t have those things without the EU, we’re f***ed.
And yet I never believed in all the hysteria about a conspiracy where “Brussels” controls us. (A Belgian city controls me? What a weird idea! What, like, by remote control, or…?)
But at the same time, as we’ve seen, the EU isn’t a pleasant prospect. Many of the above exciting concepts I just cited, if we’re honest, would be difficult to implement with a neoliberal institution like the EU essentially governing us. And what the heck is punk about a capitalistic cabal controlling a continent? Nothing. It’s time to take off those rose-tinted glasses and look to the future with our own eyes, and get to work to start shaping that future.
All my life, I’ve constantly reminded myself of one thing: in every obstacle there is opportunity. I want to go forward and talk about the ideas we can implement in the future, rather than talk about the past. I for one am determined to stop anyone turning back the clock, and instead accelerate true progress on the road ahead.
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