A Plague on Both Your Houses

A couple of months ago I wrote an intentionally polemical piece on why I may not vote to remain in the European Union. Partly a reaction to the social media-led culture of insular political confirmation which made last May’s exit poll as baffling as it was devastating, and partly to raise some questions of the EU in advance of a campaign that was clearly going to be a right-wing headbutt of no intellectual significance. It was my starting gun for thinking about where I stood in regards to the referendum.

I have spent the interim trying to find some genuinely positive and creative reasons to get up and shout about the benefit of the EU.

I want to return to the questions I initially raised but also to consider the referendum in the wider context of democracy and the current state of politics in Britain. I write having already cast my ballot by post, but prior to polling day and thus the result.

Raking over old ground

Trade

Trade and economics has dominated the mainstream debate. How much we trade with Europe, how devastating it will be to have to think harder about how to buy Spanish tomatoes and German electronics in the future, how big business and financial services wants us to stay in the EU, as do our financial services. And what a disaster it would be for all of us if they weren’t happy.

Nothing about the unfairness of trade agreements. Nothing about the charade of ‘free trade’ and its impact on poorer countries outside of the EU. I remain genuinely baffled by people who identify as internationalists and overtly defend the EU.

I completely switched off from the economic arguments very quickly. Economic predictions by people and institutions who were still gleefully backing sub-prime mortgages in 2007 were really of no interest to me whatsoever, regardless of who they’re backing.

Nationalisation

I didn’t discuss TTIP in my original post but it was a primary concern for me in regards to the EU. It was a key reason why I considered voting Leave; a secretly-negotiated trade agreement which favoured big business over workers rights and democracy was not something I was keen on.

But hearing from those with more expertise over the past couple of months has meant TTIP became one of the reasons I moved away from voting Leave. Trade Unions and other, more left-leaning, governments across Europe have been lobbying hard to reform and weaken TTIP. This solidarity of the left was something we see too little of but I have been convinced it does happen across Europe, even if Britain’s Trade Unions are too weak or too complacent to take an active part.

The current nature of our government, and the weakness and complacency of the British left, means that something as equally damaging as TTIP would probably be signed into law before we’ve had chance to blink if we left the EU.

Greece

I’ve spent some time considering the thoughts of Yanis Varoufakis, the world’s first charismatic Finance Minister and all-too-briefly bête noir of the European Bank. In an article published in April, he reflected on his attempts to negotiate with the EU over the Greek bailout, having just won an election on an anti-austerity manifesto. At a Europgroup meeting in 2015, his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schäuble told him, “Elections cannot be allowed to change an economic programme of a member state.”

Varoufakis believes both Greece and Britain should remain in the EU. To leave would lead to a fracturing of the entire Union, leaving a vacuum suited to ‘xenophobes, ultra-nationalists, the enemies of democratic sovereignty’. Instead he hopes his Democracy in Europe Movement can help spark a ‘democratic surge’ to push back both against the Brussels bulwark and hyper-nationalist tendencies.

That’s nice. It’s not an option on my poll card though; all I can do is endorse the EU in its current guise or walk away. Varoufakis acknowledges that his view is a utopian one but worth fighting for. If that’s his utopia, I’m disappointed by his imagination.

Them Blasted Foreigns

Speaking of ‘xenophobes, ultra-nationalists, [and] the enemies of democratic sovereignty’, since I last wrote the EU have made a nice little deal with Turkey. Every time I try to form words to discuss this deal, I just end up spitting. Suffice to say Turkey is not a safe third country. It’s not even a safe first country if you’re a journalist or Kurdish. Those refugees who have been deported there have been detained indefinitely and denied medical care. Those that remain in limbo on the Greek islands are no better off.

There’s a reason Médecins Sans Frontières are no longer accepting funds from the EU or its members; it’s because their attitude and policy towards some of the world’s most vulnerable people is grotesque.

Labour’s Referendum Campaign

The campaign hadn’t really started when I wrote my last post. Now it’s in its final throes of vitriol before the strangled death rattle of near-empty polling stations on Thursday. It’s been as dismal and intellectually void as the General Election last year. Before I stick the boot in to the two choices offered to me by the official Remain and Leave campaigns, a wee word about my fellow lefties.

I’ve seen a lot about human rights, workers rights, paid leave, paternity and maternity rights, equal pay all being protected by the EU. It’s what Labour have been basing their official campaign on (not that their ‘traditional voters’ would know, because they’re avoiding campaigning in white working class areas, for fear of meeting someone who doesn’t agree with them presumably). It’s what I’ve been informed about each time I’ve raised the possibility of not voting ‘in’.

This pisses me off. We don’t have these rights because the EU gave them to us. We have these rights because people fought for them. They fought long and hard. Some died for them. People unionised, petitioned, marched, went on strike, smashed things.

But it doesn’t piss me off because of its historical inaccuracies. It pisses me off because this language of protectionism is debilitating and dangerous.

The EU will not protect you from a state that wants to roll back gains we’ve made in social justice. It will not protect you from a state’s decision to restrict civil liberties. It will not protect you from a state that wants to infringe your human rights. Take a look at the Localism Act, the Welfare Reform Act, the Immigration Act the bill currently working their way through our parliament on surveillance, the manifesto promise to redraw the British Human Rights Act of 1998.

The language from the Labour campaign that the EU will protect us from the worst excesses of Tory rule are not only false but also encourage the complacency and disengagement that allows those excesses to go unchallenged.

A Plague on Both Your Houses

There are two choices on the ballot paper: to Leave and face economic meltdown or to Remain and have to sleep ten to a bed with Polish people. These are the two campaigns officially endorsed by our dear leaders. These are your two options.

Your choice is either to vote ‘yes, I thoroughly endorse the status quo’ or ‘no, I’m a racist bigot’.

The nuances of ‘yes, I’d like to stick around and help reform the EU so it is nicer, more just and more democratic’ or ‘no, I’d like to get away from this brutal neo-liberal monster and rebuild a more just society from the grassroots’ are not on the table, however much you want them to be.

Your choice is either to vote ‘yes, I thoroughly endorse the status quo’ or ‘no, I’m a racist bigot’.

That’s how our voting system works. In general elections, read the small print on your ballot paper and it will say, ‘I vote for everything in Labour’s manifesto plus some stuff they haven’t told us about yet’ or ‘I vote for everything in the Conservative manifesto plus some stuff they haven’t told us about yet’. They’re your only two options, however many candidates are listed.

The options in our voting system are always binary and always flawed. There is no nuance, there is no room for serious debate. There is no choice.

Voting is not democracy.

Your choice is either to vote ‘yes, I thoroughly endorse the status quo’ or ‘no, I’m a racist bigot’.

Engage with Politics

I had considered ending this piece with a conclusion which touched on where my own politics are at present and how that informed my actions in the referendum. But as I’ve been writing it, ‘where my politics are at present’ also required a ‘how they got here’ section and a much more difficult and potentially quite scary ‘where they are going’. It would start picking apart why Labour don’t go and talk to their traditional voters and why they seem to be encouraging complacency towards power-hungry monoliths. My internal anger would need to be better channeled to write that and it’s not there yet.

Suffice to say my politics have remained rooted to two fundamentals: democracy and social justice. Both options on the ballot paper are in flagrant opposition to my fundamentals.

So in conclusion, I don’t care how you vote on Thursday; it’s a scam, a nonsense and an intentional placebo.

Go out and fight for something better.

Today I voted to ‘Leave’ the European Union

Today I voted to ‘Leave’ the European Union.

I feel the need to lay out my key reasons for doing so.

I – Refuse to Remain

I decided some time ago that I could not vote ‘Remain’ because what was on offer was effectively unchanged membership of a political club that is arrogant, corrupt and dominated by a class of people who think they know best but demonstrably do not and are terrible at admitting mistakes.

The collective actions of all three core EU institutions (European Council, European Court of Justice and the European Central Bank) for the last decade have been a catalogue of serious misjudgments leaving a trail of avoidable destruction across the continent. The refusal to learn from or acknowledge policy disasters is bad enough, but the inability to plan for entirely predictable problems is inexcusable. For example:

  • Ever since the Euro currency zone was first implemented economists warned about the contradictions inherent between national sovereignty, collective risk and economic unity but nothing was done to rectify this.

  • Ever since the Arab Spring the mass destabilisation of the Middle East and North Africa was on the cards and yet nobody in the EU appears to have formulated a plan to deal with the millions of refugees this would create. It’s not like there was no precedent for this with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

  • Likewise, the expansion of EU political and economic influence into the former USSR appears to have been pursued with a kind of reckless utopianism by people completely disconnected from geopolitical thinking. Had nobody done a basic assessment of the demographic makeup of the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, or studied Russian actions in Georgia just a few years before? Clearly not, yet this is the same unreformed, unrepetent organisation that is pushing for centralisation and integration of European defence policy.

Fundamentally, I cannot cast a vote in support of an institution that appears to be completely unaccountable, that rewards failure and whose answer to every misstep appears to be more integration and more centralisation. This is not just recrimination about the past. More concerning to me is that whilst current challenges, though large, are just about manageable even for an incompetent organisation, there will be much bigger ones to come – more migration, more authoritarian bullies to handle, more economic shocks and inequality.

The main argument in favour of Remain for me is one of climate and environment. Environmental matters are as important as any other matter of state and the British government’s historical record on these is appalling compared to that of European governments. However, this is a country that established the first national park, a country where the biggest private member society is the National Trust, a country where the young generation are as environmentally aware and active as they have ever been, so I hope and believe that we will have the political will and organisation to keep to international (not just EU) climate change and environmental standards, and continue to play a leading role in conservation, recycling and sustainable energy campaigns if we end up outside of the EU.

II – The temptation to destroy my ballot

Ruining my ballot was very tempting because this is fundamentally a Conservative Party-engineered referendum and the two options on the ballot were selected purely to placate the Party membership. I voted Labour in the 2015 election who offered no such Referendum and thus would have been satisfied with not having this vote at all. Although I firmly believe the issue had to be addressed sooner or later by the government of the day, my preference would be for it to be addressed by a government more attuned with my own political leanings. This is certainly the opinion of Paul Mason; a leftist-led Brexit would be a glorious thing but waiting for that would be like waiting for Godot. The day when the Labour Party wakes up to the potential of a radically decentralised, flexible, democratic-socialist system as an answer to the inequality and insecurities of a globalised capitalist world and as the real basis for international co-operation still seems a way off.

III – Voting Leave

I am voting for Leave partly because I do not believe the main argument offered by Remain – that we would be ‘better off’ In. Not only does this seem focused on those who are already ‘better off’, but seems deliberately pessimistic and misleading. We are a rich nation with control of our own currency, a growing, talented, law-abiding population with vast amounts of cultural, technological and military power. The main threat to our prosperity would be domestic mismanagement or international cyclical downturns, which is something we will face In or Out. Indeed, continued integration into the EU makes us even more susceptible to the whims of economic institutions that we have no control over and are completely inflexible when it comes to the concerns of the ‘periphery’. Even experts on the Remain side such as Paul Krugman concede this economic argument, whereas the leading money manager in the country effectively said the decision is an economic irrelevance to broader issues.

Which brings me on to the political concerns about voting Leave. There is a suggestion that this will mean the unstoppable rise of Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. However, a reality check is needed here. Nigel Farage under perfect conditions still failed to get elected in 2015 and Michael Gove was locked in a cupboard for the campaign because he was so unpalatable to middle England. Boris Johnson could feasibly become PM at some point in the future but several things would need to happen first: he would have to win the Conservative leadership election (far from a given) and would then only be able to govern with the same thin majority that Cameron has now. It is hard to see this lasting for four years given Conservative recriminations around the result so another election would likely ensue and Boris would have to come up with some clear policies and take them to the country. So ultimately the only way Boris becomes PM in a meaningful sense is if the country votes for him and his party platform.

Now I will take the results of a free and (reasonably) fair general election any day over the suggestion that no matter how many Tories we vote in that somehow the EU will ‘soften’ our decision by tying one hand behind their backs on things like workers’ rights. This leads to soft thinking and acts like a comfort blanket to those on the Left suggesting that things can never get too bad no matter how badly Labour (or the Lib Dems, or Greens) perform electorally. Not only is this dangerous for the future of a sustainable, engaged left-wing movement in this country, it is a strange way of viewing the EU given that this government has completely changed the nature of the welfare state whilst remaining in the EU. Indeed, the EU is now pushing for more ‘competition’ and labour market ‘flexibility’ so is not really a leftist comfort blanket at all. The only difference politically between Cameron’s government and the European Council is that we can do practically nothing to change the EU’s political direction but can do plenty to change that of our own government.

Simply put I am voting Leave because I am more comfortable and more confident in our ability to change the UK government than the EU one so I want the UK government to have sovereign power, as a necessary step to further decentralise that power across the UK, in particular across the English villages, towns, cities and regions which have been ignored for too long by politicians from all parties. In an ideal world this process would take place in a progressive, democratic, decentralising EU led by active citizens but we do not live in an ideal world so in the words of Voltaire, ‘let us take care of our garden’.

WJR