It was 1983, I think, South London. As usual, I was in the front row of the audience. On the stage behind the canteen table were Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Ted Knight, and someone I’d never seen before, on such an esteemed platform. He was young and tatty, I thought, some social worker or polytechnic lecturer there to tell us about his strike. The rally was dominated by Benn’s oratory, in particular on his increasingly chosen subject of the Common Market. It was he argued, merely a cartel for capitalists, a means to maximise profit, one enormous market designed to offset overproduction and to which all else, democracy, the power of national parliaments, the very existence of national sovereignty would be subordinate. It all sounded a bit overstated I thought, but rallies are often part the utopia and part the apocalypse, and I was quick to get to my feet and applaud. This was a full decade before the emergence of UKIP and nine years before the EEC became the EU. Opposition to the European cartel then was a given on the left, even among the soft left of the Tribune Group. At that time, there were four million unemployed and it was understood that this was no tragedy but merely a tactic, a government policy to instil fear in those in work and restraint in their trade union representatives. And it worked like a charm.
Resurrect Benn today and he would describe the free movement of labour in similar terms; as a means to weaken the bargaining power of labour in relation to capital par excellence. Thatcher’s mass unemployment of the early eighties was temporary, he’d argue, but the EU’s reserve army of labour is limitless and permanent. He would point out that it is far from a coincidence that wages in the UK have fallen faster in recent years than anywhere in the EU other than Greece; it is in fact in EU terms a success story, because that is its raison d’etre. That, the stubborn low productivity and the casualisation of the UK workforce are symptomatic of the condition: why invest in workers or machinery, why give them a permanent contract, or any kind of security, when there is always another worker behind in the queue? Why train apprentices at all when the time served can be enlisted from elsewhere? The EU’s case, Tony Blair’s case, is that the international workforce brings skilled labour straight to your door, already trained, highly motivated, increasing profits and therefore investment. And he’s right, it does. But Benn would also be right in saying, because the labour supply is endless, wages never get to catch up. 1983 is here to stay he’d say, and it’s become known as the ‘gig economy’, as if we were all doing stand-up routines just for a chance to be a compere.
That Benn and Blair are both right about the economics of the EU is no contradiction. As anyone who has a copy of Marx for Beginners will tell you, there isn’t one economy, there’s two; one for capital, another for labour.
Benn and Bennism is dead and buried, and the man whose jumper didn’t reach to his wrists or his waist that day, the newly elected Jeremy Corbyn, isn’t quoting his mentor anymore. I queued for an hour in Leeds during his leadership campaign, there must have been more than two thousand in the hall waiting for him, and when he hunched in, with a self-effacing smile and a beige sports jacket, the seated joined the standing in applause. At last…at last, something was happening. The EU came up briefly in his speech. And if EU membership isn’t working for working people, we’ll look at our membership. It was almost an aside, he took a hopeful double take at the audience to see how it had gone down; at least I clapped. Few anticipated that within twelve months the question would be answered for him, or that the reaction of the Labour Party to the referendum result, would be what it has been; so confused, debilitated, and frightened.
I had been in and around the left and the trade union movement for many years before and after 1983. I re-joined the Labour Party a few years ago under Ed Miliband and went to my last meeting shortly after the Leave vote. The room was packed with new members and the atmosphere was a mixture of sombreness and hysteria. When I tried to tell people why I had voted Leave I was booed, there was no way I was going to get to an anecdote about Benn and Corbyn. Elsewhere, former comrades have called me ‘Tory Scum’ and predictably of course, a racist. That was my last day as a member, my last meeting, and the most telling contribution in that room was someone saying how sorry he felt for the people who voted Leave, because it is they, the poor, misguided, taken in, working class people who would suffer the most. I think he even used the word, ‘pity’. I have heard this ethic expressed a lot recently from people who actually believe themselves to be socialists and my best riposte is a family anecdote.
I was fourteen, it was half term, my father came in the backdoor whilst I was having lunch in the kitchen with mum. ‘What are you doing home?’ she asked. My father worked in a London Transport bus garage and was a T&G shop steward. ‘We walked out,’ he said. ‘I came across this plumber in the toilet and asked him what union he was in, and he said he wasn’t in one, so we called the garage out. I’d warned the gaffers about this before.’ My mother was worried, ‘They’ll sack you for that.’ He laughed back. ‘They wouldn’t dare.’ A London Transport garage of several hundred workers went home at noon because the man fixing the tap wasn’t in a union, so wasn’t paid the union rate. I know to some of you it sounds archaic and possibly terrifying, but it was the mid-seventies and the gloves were off, and our class, my class, had power and the confidence to use it. It was Scargill and Gormley, mess with us and we’ll turn your lights off during Horse of the Year Show. We had each other’s backs and didn’t hang about for postal ballots. We were yet to be defeated, thereafter humiliated. The Labour Party was about working people representing themselves, politics something you did, not just something that is done to you. I became my father’s son, was never happier than on a picket line and would far sooner have someone’s contempt than pity for voting to leave the EU. People imagine that because the unions have been emasculated that the conflict between capital and labour no longer exists, ‘the end of history.’ It remains unresolved, its just invisible because one side has a triumphant position, nearly all the time. The Brexit vote? That’s a bus garage walking out and they can’t say they weren’t warned.
Corbyn’s leadership notwithstanding, the Labour Party and the left I have left behind is unrecognisable to that which I joined in my teens in the late seventies; unrecognisable to itself. Yes, I have changed and so has the world, but the left is so perpetually realigning itself it is not even easy to define it any more, let alone sign up to it. Socially and culturally it is middle class and managerial. It feels sorry for people yet at the same time wants to police them. It does not believe in commonality, instead it makes a fetish of skin-deep differences. The denigration, snobbery and abuse towards Leave voters, particularly working class Leave voters, overwhelmingly comes from the ranks of the Party and its supporters. Most of them desire to see the biggest democratic mandate of UK history, ignored. Not even Atlee got 52% of a 72% turnout in 1945 and he changed the country a lot more than leaving a free trade outfit. You can hear Labour supporters on Radio Four arguing that the elderly should have the vote taken off them. Not only are they not even democrats in any book I’ve ever read, this is the stuff of the hard right or the Stalinist left and Corbyn should take them in hand but doesn’t.
Intellectually, and that is probably a compliment too far, many have fallen down a relativist rabbit hole and re-emerged to change places as frequently as the Mad Hatter at his tea party possessed by his logic. Simply because Trump is opposed to Iran they are sympathetic to the Islamic Republic. They can’t even bring themselves to support the women risking life and liberty for taking off head scarves. They are frightened that doing so might either alienate Salafists here, or perhaps encourage a similar movement in the UK. And what would they do with that? They don’t even know what to do with the radical nature of Brexit, are scared of it, cannot comprehend its meaning. Many simply voted Remain because Nigel Farage led the Leave campaign; he having no business being allowed the space to do so.
It is perfectly easy these days to find Labour Party members or supporters who are sympathetic to, if not supportive of: Scottish Nationalism (because it’s anti the British state, and anti-English); Hezbollah (because it’s against Israel); Islamic terror (because it’s against western imperialism); the House of Lords (because it might block Brexit); the banning of newspapers, public speakers, plays, books and paintings (because they disagree with them or they might offend someone they feel sorry for). Identity politics has replaced class, has replaced serious ideas. Labour was once ‘the hope of the world.’ Now it’s the cause of a long list of competing minority groups of everybody except of course, Stan from Doncaster; an oppression layer cake at the Hatter’s party. The prospect of a Corbyn/Momentum government is not exciting to me, it’s doesn’t feel like the march of Solidarity in Poland, it has the feel of something more ominous.
If my divorce isn’t amicable, the feeling is mutual. And I don’t see myself running off-hand in hand with the right either. Another five years of austerity is barely imaginable. The queue at my local food bank tails back round the outside of the church. I want the market out of education and other public services, but I also want more democracy not less, greater freedom of expression not a censorious culture that tip toes around the professionally offended. Though no longer a joiner, I recently came across artists4brexit, a group of artists positive about a politically independent Britain and even reaching out as they say, to Remain voters who respect the mandate. There are some terrific writers and artists involved, some who voted Remain, and it’s a relief to be away from the vitriol and among people who believe art should be part of society, not apart from it. Whilst 52% of the largest turnout in a quarter of a century voted Leave, in a recent survey 96% of artists were opposed to leaving the EU. What does that tell us about the relationship between the arts and the people in this country? The arts scene is pre-occupied with identity politics, half the time that’s all the poem, the play is about. There’s not much narrative, insufficient craft, just an expression of the author’s identity. Everyone in the room talks about diversity yet everyone thinks alike. Political correctness is killing art, but then that’s the point of it. Increasingly I don’t define myself by politics, and never by the chains of my ‘identity’, but rather by what books and ideas have captured me of late. We are what we read, think and do, the difference we make to the world, not just the way we came into it.
I’m about to start work on a youth theatre project with the children of serving soldiers and then hopefully a community play on the English Civil War, for which I’ve been re-reading Christopher Hill’s magnificent The World Turned Upside Down. It is a subject that has drawn me all my reading life and ultimately what determined my decision to vote Leave. I didn’t do it because of what Tony Benn or anyone else said, or what was written on the side of a bus. I did it because the fight for ordinary people to have a say in how they are governed in this country, is at least a four hundred year old struggle, arguably beginning with the Levellers in 1645. It was followed by those who fell at Peterloo, the Chartists and the Suffragettes. It is a struggle that isn’t finished yet and we, we that are just passing through, are insignificant and brief custodians of all that has been hard-won before we were born. We have no right to give up, any portion of that sovereignty that people gave their lives for, to an oligarchy in Brussels, in exchange for a shorter queue at the airport, a special offer on the Chardonnay, or even yes, our employment. Democracy for me, is as near to sacred as it gets. The Maoris say we walk into the future backwards, looking behind us for guidance from our ancestors. Well I voted Leave because Winstanley and Milton, Shelley and Mary Wolstencroft, Fergus O’Connor, Sylvia Pankhurst and Tom Mann, all said I should. And turning to look the other way, there is still much more freedom to be won.
Michael Crowley is an author and dramatist.
This blog was first published on 22 February 2018.