Tuesday 21 June 2016

Dear Undecided Voter

I'm a socialist who will be voting Remain this Thursday. But don't let that put you off. I'm not going to patronise you with a bucketload of stats, or insult your intelligence by saying this is right and that's wrong. Nor am I about to spring a persuasive piece on you to nudge you in Remain's direction. I'm interested in helping you make up your own mind by giving you things that, I think, are worth considering and thinking through.

In response to understandable confusion about the costs and benefits of Remaining vs Leaving (and vice versa) a lot of people have expressed a desire for "unbiased facts" provided by someone who hasn't got an agenda. I'm sorry to disappoint, but you'll be searching for that someone in vain. When it comes to political questions, invariably those "expert" on the issue will have an opinion on it and use their knowledge and standing to push that position. Yes, it's frustrating, but you're going to have to think about who you trust the most. And if there isn't anyone, think about why leading advocates for each side push the arguments they favour.

Consider the two key figures in the campaign, David Cameron and Boris Johnson. It's down to you to judge the merits of their respective positions, but also ask why. For the Prime Minister, the decision to include an EU referendum in his party's manifesto was to try and stem the electoral bleed to UKIP. For Boris Johnson, well, it's all about Boris Johnson. How about other leading politicians? Jeremy Corbyn's platform combines criticisms of the EU with a support for Remain. Why? Some has to do with party management (Labour is overwhelmingly pro-Remain while Jeremy is EU-critical), but there is also the view that the EU guarantees certain minimum protections the labour movement have fought for since its inception. Ditto Nicola Sturgeon. As First Minister, she believes Scotland is best served by the UK remaining in the EU. The "agenda"? Years of stability and quiet economic growth under the SNP's stewardship enhances their reputation as a responsible government, which down the road makes the jump to independence less of a risky proposition. And Nigel Farage? He has built his political career around leaving the EU. That, of course, is a perfectly principled position to take. But, again, why? It isn't because of an eccentricity on his part: it's the central component of a project to remake Britain in which the market is king, the welfare state is residual, the NHS is governed by an insurance system, and that certain values predominate over others. Whether you find that vision compelling is down to you.

Let's talk a bit about business. As a socialist, you'd expect me not to be big money's biggest fan. And you would be right. Though I will say this about business. Having to compete successfully in market economies requires a sharp awareness of what your interests are and what needs to be done to maintain them. Of course, these interests shouldn't be accepted without question. What's good for a business is not always good for the people who work there, though you might have a different opinion. Whatever the case, the majority of big business and leading business figures in this country are backing Remain. Whether it's growing or stagnating, being able to access a market comprising of 500 million people without the rigmarole of tariffs, custom searches, passports, and so on is something they value. In short, they want to remain because they can make more money. It's that simple. Yet not all business people are on board, the two most prominent calling for an exit is Anthony Bamford of JCB fame and James Dyson of, um, Dyson. The latter in recent days has said Britain can stand for itself without the EU, which is probably true - but that hasn't stopped him divesting here and moving a chunk of production to Malaysia. JCB's business lies primarily outside of the EU. Unsurprisingly there's more demand for construction machinery in developing economies. Yet JCB fell foul of trying to rig the European market for their machines and were fined £22m. Coincidence that its owner is an outer?

Or, like me, you might not give much a fig about what business thinks. Instead, allow me to direct you to the trade union movement. Pay no attention to the common sense view of what unions are about. All they are are organisations of working people that defend and prosecute the interests of working people. Their agenda - decent pay, good conditions, health and safety, protection of pensions and other benefits, fewer working hours and more leisure time - can hardly be described as a vested interest when the overwhelming bulk of the working population would benefit from all of those things. Their agenda, therefore, is your agenda. No hidden tricks. So when every union in the land bar one or two are saying Remain is better for working people, that isn't because general secretaries or full-time officials materially benefit from staying in, it's because life will be easier for working people. Significantly one trade union that hasn't signed up is the RMT of London Underground fame. It parts company with the rest of the labour movement because it sees the EU as a "bosses club" that foists programmes of cuts on reluctant governments across the continent - a position not a million miles away from Jeremy Corbyn's sceptical endorsement of Remain. Why the difference? Other trade unions represent workplaces that are more exposed to negative changes that may come following an exit. The RMT's strength lies in the solidarity between its members and the social power they can immediately exert by shutting down transport systems. For a variety of reasons, the kinds of cohesiveness that feeds their union's militancy is nowhere as present in the majority of workplaces. Effectively, they can look to their own industrial strength to protect what's theirs and it is probably the only union with the power to do so at the moment.

How about friends and family? I'm sure most you've spoken with by now have an opinion. Some will be strongly rigid in their views, a few more non-committal, and a good proportion who'll be happy when the whole thing is done with. But again, the same rules here apply. Why do they have the views they hold? Does the guy who shouts loudly about immigration concerned that his job could be under cut? Likewise, is the other fella who wants to stay in is similarly motivated by a worry over their livelihood? Or those voters talking about taking back control, does it feel to you that this referendum is a way of feeling they have a say, and voting against the status quo is about negating a sense of powerlessness? Are some making decisions purely out of spite, or have made a show about reading the material and making up their minds - and what arguments seem to matter to them?

And lastly, what about you. When you're thinking about your choice, are you voting for yourself? And/or are you thinking about the impacts a Leave or Remain could have on others you care about. For me, I'm not just thinking through the state of politics and our civic life, I'm thinking about what it could mean for my brother who works for a large multinational with substantial plant based here. I'm thinking about my parents and what change could mean for them as they get older. I'm concerned about my friends who work at other universities, my friends from overseas who are terrified by the stirring up of the passions - to put it in an understated way - and I'm worried about the not insubstantial pot of money my city has managed to access from the EU in lieu of government funding.

I'm voting Remain for political reasons and personal reasons. You might end up with an entirely different conclusion, but if you've followed through some of the questions raised in this letter you have thought your decision through. And in a time and a politics dominated by the knee-jerk reaction, a outbreak of more thinking certainly won't do any harm.



Anonymous said...

I am a person who remembers Britain before we joined the EU - I have now seen both sides your facts are fantastic but at the end of the day people should ask themselves two questions - 1 Are you British or are you European? 2 What was Britain like pre the EU. You like your readers may be surprised

Phil said...

But what does it mean to be British? And how does this differ from being European?

As for pre-EU, a consistently shallow post-war boom vis a vis comparative economies on the continent? Is that the surprise?

Sarah AB said...

I find it very annoying when people ask 'would you join the EU if UK wasn't currently in it' because it makes no sense - how can we know what situation the UK would be in if were hadn't joined, or voted to leave back in 1975? Even if we would have been better off in such a scenario that doesn't necessarily mean it would be better, as we are placed now, to leave right now.

Gary Elsby said...

What was it like before the EU?

Bankrupt, rationing, in debt to America and the biggest immigration on our shores ever.

BCFG said...

The problem with the leave vote is that it is built on irrationality, myths, ignorance and bigotry.

Yes there may well be a principled position against the EU and legitimate concerns about immigration but you would have to go a long way to find them! My experience is that peoples concerns around immigration amount to nothing more than dark skin people bad, white folk good. Katy Hopkins and Nigel Farage speak for most on immigration i would say. As far from legitimate concern as you would get. Careerist politicians spend lots of time pandering to this crap, maybe if they had more balls and challenged bigotry the remain vote might be further ahead than it is.

Leaving the EU is built on the sort of myths the Nazi's propagated about Germany in the 1930's. You would sometimes read a tabloid headline and smile that it was funny and we shouldn't take the nonsense too seriously. I fear we may wake up tomorrow and find many people took them all seriously and believe all the myths.

I think the disastrous wars supported by the decents and there support of Islamophobia have contributed to Britain being on the verge of reversing the train of history.

Will pure bigotry win over fear? We are about to find out.