Those of us who are international in outlook are waking up in a shattered state this morning. We cannot deny the result and must ask ourselves what sort of society we are living in and what our response should be. An unnecessary and exhausting Referendum campaign has been conducted in a thoroughly unpleasant fashion; I have never witnessed such overt racism and xenophobia as I did yesterday morning when handing out Remain leaflets at White Hart Lane station in North London.
We need to lick our wounds and take time to digest the lessons. However one thing is certain. We have reached a turning point in national politics: voting habits based on social class have ended for good.
I became active in politics as a teenager in my native city of Cardiff. Our family allegiance was firmly Labour and I was excited by the vision of the future that Harold Wilson offered – ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’. In Cardiff, like every provincial city, social class determined voting and housing was the most visible indicator. Posh Penylan and Llandaff voted Tory; the large council estates at the fringes of the city voted Labour. There were small enclaves of council housing in most of the wards and the assumption was that they would always produce Labour votes. Accordingly the practice was to knock up these houses on election evening to ensure that they voted; if you had the energy and resources you would have canvassed them previously to weed out the odd Conservative.
This practice worked in reverse. Over time our family circumstances improved and we became owner-occupiers living in a semi-detached house at the edge of the large Ely council estate. My father was in the front garden when a woman canvassing for the Conservatives called. Unusually for him he was polite and told her that he would be voting Labour. She responded with a snooty ‘What Labour? in a nice house like this’ causing him to explode. Ironically his class-based assumptions of politics were as strong as hers.
Before I went to help in London I participated in our Remain campaign here in North Norfolk. Together with my friend Mike Gates, the former Party Secretary, I delivered door to door in an area of social housing in the coastal town of Wells. He is well known and well liked locally so we encountered no hostility when delivering the Remain literature. It was easy work but I must now question whether our activity did any good – we may have helped to bring out the opposition. It now seems that it is ‘traditional Labour voters’ who have been the most hostile to the Party’s position. The divide has been between the wider outlook of the younger, better-educated, generation and those who lack confidence in a more international future. Times have indeed changed and so must the centre-left’s approach to politics.
We’ve all seen it happen at wedding receptions. Someone nobody likes is going to make a speech; the speaker may well have an unfortunate history with the family but his position (divorced father?) makes his attendance obligatory. We hold our breath and hope that nothing will be said that will cause offence: everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief when this proves to be the case and we can all proceed to the next stage.
I was reminded of this on Saturday when I attended my first ever Progress Conference where Jeremy Corbyn had agreed to speak. For overseas readers Progress is an organization for moderate Labour Party members – widely castigated by others as a Blairite group. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Corbyn’s close ally, has described Progress as a ‘right-wing conservative’ group which had never accepted Corbyn as Labour leader. Certainly for my part I had joined Progress for that very reason.
All credit to Progress to getting Jeremy Corbyn to come. The conference organisers had trailed a surprise speaker and a surprise it was. And all credit to Jeremy Corbyn for coming. However what was he going to say?
My guess, talking with others before the event, is that we could have expected one of two things. The first, which would have been very tough to deliver, would have been an appeal for tolerance towards his leadership. The second would have been a statement on the critical importance of a Remain vote in the June referendum and the obligation on us all to put aside all differences and work for that result in the meantime. Clive Lewis, the Norwich South MP and a Corbyn support, had made just such a statement in a breakout session earlier in the day and it went down well
In fact Jeremy Corbyn did neither of these. He started with a quite a good joke – something he normally avoids. ‘It is my first time speaking here. In fact it’s the first time I’ve ever been invited to a Progress conference – you set a pretty high bar if you have to be elected leader of the party if you ever want to get invited here.’ He then delivered a rushed, and sometimes garbled, address covering topics where no-one in the room could disagree: human rights, protection of rights at work, refugees. He concluded by answering a number of questions – all were very soft with the exception of a tougher one on anti-semitism in the Labour Party.
Someone of the calibre of Neil Kinnock or Michael Foot would have grasped the opportunity and tried to influence the forward agenda in some way. As it was I felt that Jeremy was just pleased to get through without incident – like the speaker at the wedding who knows he is not liked by almost all those present.
It may have been a missed opportunity for him. The case for putting differences aside for the greater goal of Europe is most powerful and everyone is receptive. Two days before the Progress event I went to a most enjoyable Labour Party ‘Remain’ dinner in Tottenham where the Labour MP David Lammy articulated the case with considerable aplomb. His was the speech of the week that I will remember.