Reflections on the EU referendum debate

Overnight I got into a debate about whether the outcome of the EU referendum was decisive or significant. Statistically it was as significant as any glorified opinion poll could be and therefore, to me, by definition it was decisive.

The argument spilled over, inevitably into whether it was decisive enough. As a trade unionist I have strong opinions about anyone who tries to invalidate decisions they don’t like by requiring qualified majority voting. In my decades of union activity no-one has ever argued that a qualified majority is required to prevent a strike. It’s those who want to prevent strike action, usually outwith the workplaces involved,  who use qualified majorities as an obstacle to decisions they don’t like.  Have a look at the latest Trade Union Act if you don’t believe me.

This has become a pattern to me.  Super majorities are used by the conservative establishment to resist change. They’re used in a partial, privileged way and they’re a way of shifting goalposts. I don’t think that because I read about it – it’s the experience of decades of activism.

Nearly four decades ago a prime example of this was written on the memories of many of us. Thanks to an intervention by an English MP Scottish devolution was blocked, even though a majority of those who stirred themselves to vote were in favour. It was a shocking example of privilege in action, that MPs routinely elected by a minority vote insisted on a supermajority in a referendum that challenged their interests.

The other experience of my youth that shaped my views about the debate about the legitimacy of decisions was the miners strike. While the strike was ongoing, while the majority of miners were willingly out on strike it was the Tories and their allies who relied on ever more sophisticated and dishonest arguments about a ballot.

Now here’s the odd thing. I would have preferred the NUM to have a ballot before the great strike, but, by their rules, they didn’t need to. I also voted remain in the EU referendum, but lost. There is no question, to me, that the decision was clear cut. I applied the same test I would apply to any opinion poll or plebiscite; check the turnout, apply the tightest possible confidence levels and intervals, and ask, does it fit?

That’s not an esoteric point by the way. I have had the task of deciding if a workplace ballot on industrial action is legally valid and defensible. I have sat in the kiwi fruit and avocado fuelled debates about whether decisions are decisive. These are not just political choices but practical tests that need to be fulfilled. As we saw in 1984, they are moments history can hinge upon. When I asked someone who challenged my method for a better one today none was forthcoming; it is, apparently not a matter for stats but for politics. Sometimes the best made points provide no help in navigating reality.

I didn’t disengage from my comrades in the NUM over the lack of a ballot. That was a political choice. I don’t think it’s worth a minute of my time arguing about whether the referendum was binding  or whether voters knew what they were voting for. That is a political choice. I don’t think it is worthwhile debating whether I should substitute my opinion for that of the electorate in a plebiscite that had such a clear result. That is a political point driven by my understanding of how polls and plebiscites work.

If I were to say that I will disregard the vote because voters were less well informed than me I would rightly be dismissed as the voice of stale pale male privilege. Have I debated the point too roughly today, and too much in shorthand that is disrespectful of others? Yes, but I am not alone in this. Everyone who argues that they are right, and the majority are wrong, is demanding a privilege they cannot explain, the right to set aside the opinions of others.

Anyone who argues after the event that the rules should have been different or the debate better informed is missing the point. The result is history and arguing that it was the wrong result or the wrong process is now a matter for historians. History is written by historians but  made by activists and I see my job as being to change opinions, not outcomes via manoeuvres.

As a Marxist I see the referendum as a prime example of workers hoping a change in the superstructure might ameliorate the consequences of the capitalist base; I voted remain because I am an  internationalist,  not because of any belief in the EU. Quite the opposite. The EU was shit – a white first world club that failed because it could not deliver both expansion and the aristocracy of Anglo saxon labour that British workers were promised in 1973.

Fundamentally this is a matter of perspective. The debate about the EU is a proxy for the old racist debate about economic problems being caused by foreigners, not capitalism.
Imagine for a moment a future history where well meaning and well heeled Blairites combine with Lib dems and renegade Tories to prevent article 50 being triggered. Will the racist immigration rules that the same politicians sponsored suddenly cease? Will those same hypocrites suddenly stand up for workers rights and resist a race to the bottom? Judge them by their previous actions.

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Foy Vance

When I first saw him he was

Marooned on a darkened stage cluttered with the main act’s equipment

Unflustered, he picked at his guitar and stories flowed through each song

Until the one where he told a perfect vignette of lives unknown and I

Recognized the chorus as if its skipping rhythm, damaged characters and

Hammered on chords had always been inside me.

That moment, that perfectly captured cinemascope narrative

Was an affirmation that the voices in my head, the

Elevator pitches for films that would never be made were just

Exhaust vents for the humanity I live amongst, the

Infinity of choices that were my past,my future and not just my

Uncertain grip on the present.

That song, that moment of community in a crowd killing time

Waiting for the main event is a waymarker in my mind, a

Reminder of love and beauty amongst the mist.