At the time of the 2016 referendum on the UK’s future membership of the European Union, I was looking for a political home. After being let down by the Labour Party and the failure of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to oppose George Osbourne’s savage austerity cuts, I was bouncing around looking for a party that shared my values. At the time I settled on the Green Party. I wasn’t a member for long.
After the referendum vote had been declared, the local Leicester Green Party branch held a meeting for members to discuss the result. We met in the Leicester Secular Hall, sitting around in a circle, about twenty of us. A mix of established older members, and new younger members. The main item of discussion was the result of the referendum. We were to take it in turns to share our thoughts about the result.
The first person who opted to give their view was the branch treasurer. A guy in his seventies who had been a Green Party member for many years. What he had to say was a crushing disappointment for most of the people in the room. He was happy with the referendum result, and regarded the vote against EU membership as a victory against global capitalism.
Looking around the room, I could see how most of the younger members had been instantly crushed by this statement. A look of bewilderment flashed across their faces. Where they in the right room? The Green Party had campaigned vigorously to remain in the EU, and the first person to speak at this meeting was an old-timer who had campaigned to leave, and had got what he wanted.
I was furious. The immediate sense of deflation that took hold in that circle, particularly among the younger members, was palpable. They were already distressed by the result of the referendum, so having to hear this counter-opinion, at this precise moment, just added insult to their injury. It was conformation that they had been abandoned and that none of their concerns mattered. Something that has characterised the debate and discussion about Brexit ever since.
There was to be no moment of shared anguish. No moment of emotional adjustment. No time to seek comradely succour from similarly minded others. The rug was pulled from under them. These young idealists had come to find comfort, but that way was blocked. They were offered callous opinions which embodied the politics and sentiment of a different generation and a distant mindset.
I may have been naive, and thinking about the meeting now I’m left asking myself, what did I expect? But sensing this emotional jolt at the time, I was left speechless. I was furious and my anger started to boil in my gut. I don’t think I listened to any of the discussion that followed. In the break I went for a walk to think through my reaction. When I returned, I felt no different. The meeting moved on to discuss other things. I resigned from the Green Party not long after, this was no political home for me.
Perhaps my delusion had been shattered. I went into the meeting expecting to be among similarly minded pro-Europeans. Instead, I was left seething because one person had skewed the discussion in such a self-regarding way, and before any of the new members could speak. Once again, the voice of the next generation that would carry forward the work of renewal and repairing the damage of Brexit had been silenced. Brushed aside by someone from a generation that would not be around to pick up the pieces when it turns out that Brexit is a bad idea.
I’m recalling this because my feeling then is similar to how I’m feeling now, following Sir Keir Starmer’s decision to whip the parliamentary Labour Party to vote in favour of Johnson’s dreadful trade deal. Rather than giving the electorate a clear choice, and a moment of closure, in which many of us can take comfort from the knowledge that a party exists that remains aligned with, and empathises with the feelings of the forty-eight percent who voted to remain in the European Union, Starmer has, instead, decided to vote for the deal, and thereby propel it expediently through parliament.
I rejoined the Labour Party in December 2019 in order to vote for Keir Starmer as leader. Starmer, however, seems to want to vote in favour of Johnson’s treaty in the hope that it will prompt a reset of the political chess board, and allow Labour to reclaim its so-called red wall seats. It won’t. Any future drawing attention to the faults of the treaty will now be tossed aside with the words ringing in our ears that ‘you voted for it!’
Any potential to build a forward-looking coalition in opposition to Johnson’s narrow and fanatical English nationalism, will be undermined. The hope that the Labour Party my influence the Scottish people to remain in the United Kingdom is now lost, as the Scottish nationalists are supercharged in their pursuit of Scotland independence as a nation, free from the shackles of the UK. I can’t blame them.
Politics is played out in both symbolism and pragmatic practical reality. Johnson has the votes in the House of Commons to win approval of his treaty. That is the practical reality. The symbolic need of millions of people like myself, and those young people in that meeting room, however, are once again being ignored and dismissed. It is as if the forty-eight percent who voted to remain don’t matter.
Where will the future rallying point be established? On what grounds are social democrats like me going to find common ground to build a meaningful movement for change based on internationalist and progressive principles? Principles do matter in politics. Putting aside one’s principles for the sake of electoral calculation will always seen as cynicism. We expect this of the Tories, but Labour is always held to a higher standard. Justified or not.
The idea that by 2024 most will have forgotten that the Labour Party is voting for the dodgy Johnson deal is laughable. People have long memories, and pro-Europeans will remember this moment for its symbolic importance, long after the practical machinations have been forgotten. Repeating the mistake of the austerity years gave us Corbyn and then Johnson. I shudder to think what demons will be unleashed unless Johnson’s mendacious nihilism is met with principled opposition. As we enter the new year, I fear that all I have left is fatalism.