I watched the excellent hustings for the upcoming EU elections organised by my local pro EU group Chester for Europe in conjunction with Weaver Vale for EU and Eddisbury for EU. It was very interesting and I will probably write and tweet about the detail but as I watched I was dumbfounded to find the most thought provoking and powerful point for me came from the Conservative candidate taking part Sajjad Karim. The panel were asked what question they would pose in the hustings and he had interpreted it as a question to the audience and he said “Where have you been?”. He was of course, referring to the low turnout and lack of interest in the elections of previous years where he and the other pro EU candidates had to face rooms full of angry faragist/ukip/far right types. The anti EU crowd had been whipped up by their leaders who had spotted the public disinterest and saw the MEP route as a neat way to win political power because Westminster politics was not proving easy to conquer for their second rate politicians.
So where were we? Why did we leave a massive vacuum ready to be filled by these wannabe despots who’s tools of the trade are generating hate and anger in their followers. Farage knew what he was selling when he stood in front off that hateful poster – a nod and a wink to the racist tendencies of his target customers. He knew the groundwork had been laid already by the years of headlines and insane stories about Brussels and immigrants and refugees. The language had been carefully cultivated for so long. Gravy trains, being “ruled” by Eurocrats, regulation being “forced” on us, immigrants coming here versus expats going there, stories about bendy bananas, floor cleaner motors and lightbulbs.
Even austerity played into their hands. The worldwide financial crisis in 2008, a complex set of events, triggered across the Atlantic was boiled down and dressed up purely as frivolous overspend by the outgoing Labour government. Do you remember, we were told there were hard choices to make and we were all in it together? Suddenly there was major concern whipped up about the amount of money spent by benefits claimants. Newspaper headlines bore this perception out, printing stories about benefits cheats with lots of children, getting huge houses and spending all day being driven around in taxis whilst smoking. On TV we were subjected to poverty porn. The people inclined to the right could be outraged at the perceived fecklessness and the people inclined to the left could be outraged at the outrage of those at the right. Complex pictures of individual stories were boiled down once again into a simple binary judgement.
Some of these TV programs showed the unfortunate victims of bad housing policies by government angrily spitting at the camera about how foreigners were treated better than “our people”. A view not really challenged by the program makers directly, they would probably say it wasn’t that kind of programme. But new documentaries appeared depicting Eastern Europeans exercising their treaty rights to freedom of movement in a negative and stereotypical light mainly. Newspaper headlines pilloried Eastern Europeans and covered the refugee crisis in 2015 in the most inhuman way and crucially conflating the two issues.
The conditions were perfect. The scene was set. The shit was rolling downhill nicely. Politicians blamed the the tax paying public, who blamed the low paid public and then in the final scene before the referendum all of them blamed the weakest group, the UK residents with no vote, no political voice, working hard, paying their taxes but with no political representation.
Not only were conditions perfect for the referendum, but there was no more time to lose for the wreckers. Within another generation the majority of voters would be younger people more likely to be pro EU, being an EU citizen was as natural to them as breathing, something they took for granted. This generation don’t get their news from the tabloid papers. Thanks to work done by Labour in the 90s and noughties, they are more likely to have gone to college, so unaffected by the tabloid hate of the EU and having been educated in a more diverse environment they are far more likely to enjoy, approve of and stick with their EU citizenship.
All this time it’s true though, we were absent, we were shockingly ignorant of the in-depth workings of the EU. We took our rights for granted. We thought good sense would prevail. But with a good dose of lawbreaking and cheating along the way Leave stoked the fire of division and spoke to the dark side of people’s natures where they take no care to examine nuance and want to accept simple explanations because that’s easier than thinking or because their lives are pretty miserable anyway so they have little to lose. The architects got this toxic brexit and its associated chaos and hate filled disruption of vital Parliamentary work on things to improve the lives of the people over the line.
At the moment all I am hearing is politicians of all parties telling us it’s the fault of those of us with liberal values that we are where we are. When the ugly discussions about immigration started if we tried to point out the illogical and sometimes immoral position of those spouting anti immigration views we are told we should address peoples “legitimate views” time and again. We had years of the cries “we can’t talk about immigration” when we talked about nothing but. Are the politicians right? Was it my fault when it is they who have refused to tell people the truth? Should I have challenged every single little bit of casual racism or poverty bashing or EU bashing in my life? Well I think there is something in that and I will put my hand up to my share of responsibility on this point. Frankly though we don’t want to go around in our lives having arguments with strangers we meet who are spouting rubbish – thats what twitter is for, but we can influence those around us to grow up with responsible views stemming from critical thinking, in particular our children and families. I am proud to say I have played my part in that kind of intervention at least.
Taking our EU membership for granted is also something that i put my hand up to. Lack of proper engagement at previous EU elections for example, not informing myself more thoroughly was all a huge mistake and when I came to campaign in the 2016 referendum I could have been more effective if I had known even a fraction of what I know now. All this is on me and whether you shoulder a share of that responsibility yourselves is for you to decide.
At the same time let’s not get carried away with the gaslighting that seems to have become the way politicians deal with everything nowadays. The biggest fattest failure is that of those who we actually pay to sit in Westminster, those who represent us and make the legislation that has led us to where we are now. Sajjad Karim was right to ask the question “where were you” but actually the question should have been directed to his own party and the other parties in Westminster who have indulged and appeased the extreme right and used the EU as a convenient body to blame for their own policy failures. Even local authorities and local politicians have used the “it ain’t us guv its the EU innit” time and again. The phrase health and safety gone mad was seized on so local politicians could shrug their shoulders instead of explaining honestly and precisely why certain things are done or decided.
Where were these politicians with their clear explanations of what was being done in the name of country in the EU. I do not blame our excellent committed hard working European MEPs for a moment. They have been used and abused and ignored by their own parties particularly since 2010. I have no idea why they are even loyal to the big two parties. Because Westminster does not want to talk about the excellent work the EU does, or put it another way, the excellent work WE do with our partners in the EU, the press therefore aren’t interested.
The only party which ever puts their MEPs up on our screens is the Farage Circus, old UKIP and his latest creation, an empty hole of nothing but slogans and negativity. Even the BNP were given a platform on Question Time a few years ago. If our pro EU MEPs are not appearing on Newsnight or the 6 o’clock news regularly then why on earth would the public develop any interest in what is going on in Brussels. It becomes a black box to them, only vaguely aware that it does important stuff that affects us in the background. So when the great British public was asked to pronounce judgement on it, they only had 40 years of EU hate, negative or no coverage and no meaningful information or knowledge about what the EU is or how it works or what our MEPs do or why our right to Freedom of Movement, for example, is a terrific privilege for all of us as individuals .
If we fail to stop brexit, we are being told it will be our fault for not voting for this party or that party or splitting the vote or whatever. But you know we are doing our very best to turn back against 20 years of negative programming and powerful forces. If we fail to stop brexit it won’t be because I didn’t vote for Labour or Tory or Greens or Lib Dem or Change UK MEPS. It will be because parties and parliamentary politicians have failed us consistently in the last two years and its time they stopped blaming voters who didn’t vote leave or will not vote leave in a #finalsay referendum and looked at themselves in the mirror. What can Remain Politicians do to stop brexit? Well they can put their party aside for now and fight for a #peoplesvote and if their party won’t fight for that then they should be prepared to work with other remain parties and find a strategy which will help us. Stop blaming us and start helping us. I see the chances are diminishing of that so we are left with tactical voting in the EU elections. It’s the only thing we as Remainers can do to make sure our vote is not counted as one for a brexit party.
My parting note connected to this is on Labour. I am sorry to single them out but why are they messing about? Brexit fans will vote for the Brexit party. Why are Labour courting their vote. Remove the qualification from a confirmatory vote and Labour will find a world of delight opens up in the polls as those remainers normally inclined to vote for them heave a sigh of relief and put their x by their party on the ballot paper. Why are they producing ads and videos about bobbies on the beat for EU elections, WTAF is that all about? Labour are not trusted at the moment in remain circles given the size of the flipping table and all the options labour refuse to remove off it once and for all and they will keep bumping along with abysmal polling numbers until they earn remain trust.
Politicians, put your houses in order. We may well have to accept some responsibility for being absent in years gone by, for being passive or blind, but believe me we are paying attention now, we are present and we will bring about political change in the future so you can never divide people like this again.