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.

Stopped in traffic

Stationary in traffic on the A1

I was trying not to smile as a mediator

Lost her rag over the way the mobile network kept

Dropping the call, and suddenly

The scent of my lover was around me in the car, a

Tangible reminder that I’d dressedand left her

Smiling the head on one side smile that speaks of

Summer days when the thunder has moved on.

I wondered where the scent had come from, and

Could only imagine it had sprung from within me

The way her shiver and smile can

Transform a touch on her hip as we gaze out across the

Limitless landscape as if her erotic charge is a

Power that lives within her until summoned.

Sitting there, in traffic, I remembered how the endless plateau

Had been our cathedral and her smile had been the

Daylight through windows.

In the traffic I let the angry mediator wash over me

And thought about my friend, who

Makes love like a woman,

Breaks like a little girl, and

Makes me feel whole.

Voiceless

No-one commented when the committee man selected

The horse racing channel, silencing the news

From far away that this politician had won,

That one had lost

And the race appeared in time for the favourite to lose by a neck

As I mused on the correct pronoun for a gelding.

No-one knew if the winer had any form, or if it

Was going to be one of those days when

Form had no useful function

Newspapers were consulted in the back to front order

That is de rigeur in the bar but no-one was any the wiser.

By the time you’ve worked your way backwards

To cartoons and TV the useful bits of the paper are done

So far as the gamblers are concerned.

Someone asked if the TV could be turned over to the

Greek channel showing the early Premier League match

As they had a bet on the time of the first goal.

I thought of all that news, all those political commentators

Talking with all the fluency and passion of the anonymous

Horse race caller describing how the five year old just got up

And might have a long career over fences when he moved up from hurdles.

I thought of the multiple screens around me, the men ordering pints

With a gesture as they wrote out their slips for the next race

And those political commentators, talking to each other despite

Viewing figures far lower than the horse racing, UK Gold

Or the QVC channel doing a nice deal on earrings.

In our corner we turned our backs, lowered our heads and

Replayed the bleaker moments of the last Exec meeting as we

Tried to garner the votes required to make a difference.

The screwed up voting slip of the first goal punter bounced

On the floor, before he mumbled an apology to the barmaid

Picked it up, drank off his pint and left.

Apparently his minute had passed and no-one had scored.

 

The hurdy gurdy man

Below the screen of his PC was a post it note

With the words of an Australian tank crewman

From World War One, when tanks were the future

Not an irrelevance in a world of assymetric warfare.

Ladled out death as you might vamp out indifferent music from a hurdy gurdy.

The words struck him forcibly, the indifference

The casual acceptance of cruelty as a process

Removed from the realm of morality by the

Remoteness of the deed.

He wrote another post it note

I am the hurdy gurdy man,

Then opened another electronic form, and began

Looking for a reason to sanction the claimant.

 

Those new Labour language rules in full

The Labour Party’s Cheerful Committee for Conversational Politeness has followed up its decree that party members shall not call each other traitor or scabs with new guidelines.

  1. It is no longer acceptable to call Ramsay Macdonald a complete shit without first prefacing the remarks with the words ‘but of course he won two general elections which is more than any trot ever has done, so he can’t be all bad.’
  2. It is no longer aceptable to call Roy Jenkins a splitter and a twat without pointing out that by forming the SDP he was in fact the godfather of Progress,and therefore ultimately right.
  3. It is no longer acceptable to call anyone who left Labour for the SDP an alibi for Thatcherism; in fact, they did not really leave Labour, they merely paid their subs to the wrong place. This error in paying their subs to the wrong place should not be referred to as the Toynbe confusion without also acknowledging that Polly’scolumns are far too good to simply be consigned straight to the cat litter tray.
  4. It is no longer acceptable to refer to anyone as a total fucking Blairite unless it is clear from body language or conext that this is a good thing.

Further edicts will follo as soon as we can be bothered to make up excuses for shutting down local parties or pissing on freedom of speech within Labour.

Thunder

The dog looked through through the open door and

Refused to venture into the rain.

Above our heads thunder rolled, and rain came down in

Stair rods, tamping down and beating

The compost in the backyard pots into sodden

Composite.

 

His coat adjusted, another tug on the dog’s lead

Persuaded him to venture out, looking

Unconvinced by my explanation that there is no such thing as

Bad weather, only bad clothing. While I

Hunched inside my coat and pulled my cap peak down

The dog hugged the backyard walls on the

Windward side of the lane, taking shelter where he could.

 

By the time we reached the open space the rain was

Abating, and the dog ran tentatively to the long grass

Parting the  soaking fronds with his nose

Knowing the vixen’s scent should be there, but

Discovering the squall had washed it away.

 

Turning our backs on the copse where the vixen

Sheltered with her cubs we headed home, dog wriggling inside his coat

My cap pushed back to make it easier to see the early morning traffic.

Thunder passed, and soon enough dog was dry and curled up on the sofa

Where I was eating breakfast  and planning my day.

Thunder had passed, and coats were discarded to dry for the next time.