The other day, I was in Bristol, mostly to see Mephistophelean magic man Derren Brown and eat curry until I passed out – but I did, semi-reluctantly, drop in on a Momentum event about the Europe referendum.
Broadly, I hate the EU. Whatever the intention was when it was first established, today’s it’s about the neoliberal zombification of a continent, via financialisation, privatisation, and permanent austerity. I think it’s so utterly riddled with corporate corruption and contempt for democracy that it should be shut down, and that a fair few of the dead-eyed goons that run it should be thrown in jail for crucifying Greece in the name of the banks.
You’d be forgiven, then, for thinking that made me an obvious Leave voter – but I’ve been just about won round by the line of argument some have dubbed Brexiters for Remain. In a nutshell: the EU is terrible, we need to leave – but not now, when its few benefits protect us from the most despicably right-wing government in our history, and Leave politics is dominated by turbo-Thatcherite racists.
All that said, I shuffled into Tony Benn House on Bristol’s Victoria Street genuinely ready to hear both sides of the argument, and maybe even for someone to change my mind – either convincing me we should leave, or making me much more enthusiastic about the prospect of staying.
As it happened, there was never much chance of that. Fairly inexplicably for an event titled “Is there a progressive case for Remaining in the EU?” – the question-mark seemed to imply that there’d be some sort of debate, at least to me – all three main speakers were unambiguously pro staying in. Clare Moody MEP was pro. Stephen Clarke of the Bristol Greens was pro. Economist Kevin Whitstone of Bristol Momentum was pro.
Hopes for a reasonably balanced discussion were dashed early on, when the patronising headmistress type chairing the meeting immediately made it plain that she was completely pro staying in – and condescendingly framed the referendum debate as a quest to win a bewildered populace round to the only sane, rational, intelligent position it was possible to have on the issue.
Clare Moody went first. She’s a Labour Member of the European Parliament for the South West region, and – along with Molly Scot Cato, Green MEP – the first person I’ve ever voted for who’s actually got in. I saw her at Tolpuddle a few years ago – she’s quite a theatrical, fruity-voiced speaker, who awkwardly tries to be both tub-thumping trade unionist and middle-of-the-road Yvette Cooper-endorsing career politician at the same time. I sense she’s probably a very decent person, though, and she said quite a lot that I agreed with, to some extent or other.
The media’s been portraying the EU debate as if it’s purely a ‘blue on blue’ or ‘blue on purple’ issue, she said – ignoring a distinctly Labour case for staying in. Over 20 years working for Unite, she depended on EU legislation to protect people. Pre-’97 (I presume she was referring to the year Blair and New Labour came to power), EU regulations were often the only way trade union officials could stand up for workers. At the moment, the Tories are pushing through their regressive Trade Union Bill. It’s only a taste of what we’d get from a Tory government outside the EU, she argued.
In the twenty-first century, we’re facing a globalised world – and problems that don’t respect national boundaries. There are a number of ‘blindingly obvious’ examples, Moody said – including climate change, an issue on which the EU’s led the way, recently serving as one of the major backers of the COP21 climate change agreement, and tax avoidance by multinational companies, that can only be tackled by joined-up supranational action.
Soft-spoken Stephen Clark, Green councillor and founder of the Bristol Pound local currency initiative, brought a bit more nuance to the table. A million people voted Green in the 2015 general election, he said, and the overwhelming majority of them want to stay in the EU. But there are also things about it that Greens don’t like – the way Greece was crushed, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and its general fixation with neoliberal economics.
Faced with a simple choice of in or out, however, there’s no doubting which way virtually all Greens lean – Remaining, for all the reasons Clare Moody outlined. Unsurprisingly, Greens are especially grateful for what the EU has achieved on the environmental front – over 90% of the environmental legislation that exists in the UK comes from the UK. Also, something that’s easy to take for granted, but is of huge significance – after centuries of uninterrupted warfare, we’re now living through the longest period of peace in Europe’s history, and the EU has played no small part in bringing that about.
Of the three, though, Momentum’s own Kevin Whitstone was my favourite. He’d been the genial host at the earlier – and, to be brutally honest, much better – Neil Faulkner talk the group had organised the previous month, and came the closest to articulating my own very specific position on Europe.
There hasn’t been a proper debate on the EU yet, he argued – just racism, prejudice, and the selfishness of Leavers who want all the benefits of membership with none of the obligations. Like John McDonnell, he believes Momentum and left-wing activists in general have a responsibility to raise the level of public debate, not just on Europe, but in general.
Neoliberalism is written into the workings of the EU, he said. It’s enforcing austerity throughout the continent, and it’s proven itself incapable of dealing with the immigration crisis. But there’s not one single problem we’ve got in the UK that would be solved by us leaving the EU. We’ve already got an economy dominated by the financial elite that led the world economy to the brink of collapse in 2008. We’ve already got the most unpleasantly right-wing government in recent history, dedicated to privatisation and eroding the rights of working people. There’s no doubt that the EU isn’t doing anywhere enough for ordinary people throughout Europe. But that doesn’t mean we should leave.
Instead, he argued, the case to Remain in Europe has to become indistinguishable from the case to radically reform Europe. At the moment, the EU is great for Germany, and other big, powerful European countries, and terrible for Greece and other states in the underdeveloped South. The Eurozone isn’t working, and it’s bad for all us, including countries outside the Euro. It needs to drastically change – investing extensively in Europe’s poorer countries, and using its resources to bring about greater economic convergence between nations, not driving them apart. Rather than outsourcing decisions to technical ‘experts’, European economic policy needs to be brought under democratic control.
“We’ve heard a fantastic range of opinions”, said the chair, ridiculously, moving on to the questions-from-the-floor phase. I didn’t think it’d been a fantastic ‘range’ of opinions at all. I think what we’d had at best was a few different shades of Remain – the all-positive establishment Remain line from Clare Moody, the In-with-a-few-reservations Stephen Clark Green argument, and, most compellingly in my view, Kevin Whitstone’s Remain to Reform argument.
I realise Momentum, particularly at Bristol-level, is a voluntary organisation, with limited resources – but it’s genuinely baffling to me how a supposedly pluralistic, democratic group could ever even think of organising a debate that asks whether there’s a progressive case for staying in, and then not invite anyone who thinks there isn’t.
In the end, it was left to a bloke in the audience to pipe up with the left-wing Leave argument during the question-and-answer phase – Roger Thomas, who, a rudimentary Google search reveals, is a member of the Bristol Socialist Party.
The EU is fundamentally about neoliberalism, privatisation, and attacks on the public sector, he said. Even if a Corbyn government was elected, key elements of his policy programme would be immediately opposed by the EU – including renationalisation of the post office and the railways, which, he claimed, would be declared illegal under the Treaty of Lisbon. TTIP is set to further undermine workers’ right. And worst of all, the EU isn’t reformable. Policies are made by an unelected council of ministers – you can’t elect MEPs and change policy. As such, socialists should be campaigning to Leave the EU.
Whereas even a lot of the more contentious commenters thus far had received a smattering of polite applause, Thomas was met with icy silence, and the meeting quickly moved on. To their credit, directly or indirectly the speakers came back on some of his points later in the discussion – Clare Moody explained that member countries are allowed to choose what would and wouldn’t be included in the TTIP agreement if it went ahead. Unsurprisingly, the Tories have chosen to exclude very little, and would be its biggest proponents whether we were in the EU or not – but a Labour government would ring-fence the NHS and other public services.
Not just Clare, but others attendees also challenged Roger Thomas’s assertion that the EU would prevent Corbyn from nationalising things – by far the biggest opposition a nationalisation agenda, the consensus seemed to be, would come from the Tories. It’s something worth looking into further, I reckon, to see who’s right.
Then, like the vociferous anti-capitalist and exemplary left-wing activist I am, I walked out early to go for a nice curry with my mate Tristan (followed by an evening in watching, of all things, Eurovision).
To be honest, I left feeling quite angry. If I vote at all, I’ll still reluctantly opt to stay in – Kevin Whitstone in particular helped cement that position. But the arrogance and condescension I’d seen shown to a line of argument that I find extremely logical and persuasive was shocking. The Socialist Party and a number of other left-wing organisations have quite vocally come out in favour of leaving, from an anti-capitalist, anti-austerity standpoint – and Momentum’s failure to bother inviting anyone from any of them was pretty appalling.
Scottish Labour reaped what it sowed during the relentlessly negative No campaign in last year’s Scottish Independence referendum – electoral oblivion, probably for a generation. I hope we stay in the EU, for now, at least – but if left-wingers are going to treat people who want to Leave, even for logical, thought-out, valid reasons, with that level of scorn, my fear’s that something similarly damaging to the future of progressive politics might result.