On the EU referendum

The night before the EU referendum, I dreamed about Boris Johnson. In the course of heated conversation with him, I insulted Thatcher, and the imaginary lump of PM-wannabe inside my sleeping mind leapt to her defence: “Don’t speak that way about mummy!”

“So this is what it’s all about with you is it, some weird Oedipal thing with her?” I shouted, incandescent with rage. Deep in my REM stupor, I repeatedly punched his sagging face, but it was impossible to do any damage, like battering one of Bandura’s bobo dolls. BoJo bobo. The lips wobbled a bit but the face remained impassive. My slumbering psyche clearly believed the man was made of tough stuff.

I’m strongly biassed in favour of Europe. I might even be a stereotypical Remain voter: left-leaning, broadsheet-reading, university educated. I’m part of what privileged metropolitan elites like Nigel Farage like to deride as the privileged metropolitan elite. Through all the debates, my Europhile switch stayed firmly in the ‘on’ position.

But I grew up in a small, depressed, post-industrial working-class town in the northwest of England under Thatcher. Poverty, unemployment and dereliction were all around. That area voted decisively to leave. So I can understand why those who feel ignored or disadvantaged by the current situation would want to vote out, given the lack of alternative ways to get change.

Amidst all the acrimony and fall out, I want to make five points.

1: If democracy is what you want, forget about the EU and sort out Westminster.

The Leave campaign only became champions of democracy once it suited their interests. If democracy is the priority, what we really need is to replace the UK’s first past the post system with some form of proportional representation. A lot of European countries have this, as does the European Parliament, so they are way ahead of us on democracy.

Electoral reform shouldn’t just be a dull thing for politics geeks. It could make a massive difference to people’s sense of empowerment. I experienced PR in Scottish elections when I lived there, and it not only makes the government more representative of voters’ preferences but – crucially – alters the way it feels to vote.

That feeling is vital. It creates a sense of being included, of having a stake, rather than feelings of powerlessness. The first past the post system breeds indifference amongst the vast numbers who live in safe seats. If politicians don’t even bother to leaflet your house, why would you be bothered to go out and vote?

I suspect the high turnout for the referendum was because, for many voters, it was the first time they felt their vote would really make a difference. And now it has.

I have no idea how we can get PR, given that so few in Westminster support it, but figuring out some kind of strategy should now be a priority. Surveys suggest that voters are unhappy with first past the post, so that is a start at least.

Prior to the last UK general election, Ed Miliband visited my workplace. Squeezing in between people taking selfies, I asked the then-Labour-leader: “Any interest in proportional representation?” The reply was blunt: “Not much.” I explained that I lived in a Conservative and Lib Dem marginal seat but wanted to vote Labour. “Go to Chester,” he urged me. In other words, the best his party could offer me as a way to participate was to travel 40 miles from my home to campaign in a swing seat, to try to persuade other people to vote Labour. Seriously? For me, that was the point when Labour lost the election.

First past the post is the single biggest obstacle to meaningful democracy in the UK. Whilst we have it, concerns about the governance of the EU are just a distraction.

2: The solution to stretched public services isn’t to reduce immigration, it is to stop austerity and raise taxes.

Research suggests that the fiscal impact of migration is fairly minimal. Estimates vary depending on the migrants in question and the assumptions made in the calculations (e.g. recent EU migrants make a substantial net contribution), but in terms of UK government spending as a whole, migration does not appear to make a massive difference.

So the real problem with public services is not immigrants draining the system. It is that UK governments simply don’t collect enough taxes to adequately fund all the services and benefits that people want as they live longer, have higher expectations and living standards, and – yes – as the population grows due to factors such as immigration.

Politicians are reluctant to talk about tax rises for fear of upsetting voters. Tory policy sidesteps the issue by pretending that punitive cuts are the only viable option – appealing to people’s callousness and self-interest rather than their generosity. We need politicians to be braver, and confront the public with a difficult but important question: with an ageing population, do we want to keep paying less tax and have overstretched, underfunded services and rising inequality, or are we willing to pay a more tax and have better services?

We must also keep up the pressure on all governments to combat tax avoidance and evasion. In 2015, £34 billion of tax was owed but never paid, which is far more than the UK’s annual contributions to the EU. HMRC should be given a massive boost in funds so that they can do a better job of collecting what is owed. Such investment would surely pay returns in the long term.

If we can collect more tax and expand public services to meet demand, that would also create more rewarding jobs for young people in teaching, nursing and medicine.

Those on the Leave side say they are not xenophobic, they are just raising legitimate concerns about pressures on public services. I can only imagine that these concerns must feel very real when you are also competing with migrants for work. But if you insist on arguing that migration is the main problem with public services, when all the evidence suggests that the causes are far more complex – ageing population, government cuts, unfair taxation – then that is xenophobic, whether you intend it or not.

Yes, we currently send money to the EU, and after Brexit that money could be used for UK public services. But the net figure is clearly much lower than the misleading £350 million per week which all the Leave figures hastily backed away from after the referendum result. The figure I’ve heard recently is £160 million per week. That’s still lots of money, but are people like Theresa May really going to ring-fence that to fund public services? It seems more likely that they’d use it to give more tax breaks to wealthy people and benefits for Conservative voters such as pensioners. It might simply disappear as our economy takes a hit, or it may all be needed to plug gaps for those who have lost EU funding – farmers, universities, public infrastructure projects etc.

3: Immigration statistics are bogus.

For example, overseas students are counted as immigrants. This is bonkers. They are coming here for a limited period of time, often paying massive fees to UK universities, buying food and accommodation from local businesses, learning our language, loving our education and culture. Most of them are young, healthy people without dependents, and they don’t buy houses. So the pressure they put on resources is limited, and their contribution is massive. They live mainly close to universities, in cities, which on the whole are happy to have them as part of the cosmopolitan mix. Why on earth would we want to make it harder for these people to come here?

If we are going to have a sensible pubic debate about appropriate levels of immigration, we need a much better understanding of what that blanket label actually refers to – who is coming here and why.

4: Fighting fear with fear doesn’t work. 

Cameron and Osborne’s gamble was that establishment figures could scare voters into choosing the safer option. That strategy seemed to have worked in the Scottish independence referendum and the last general election.

Clearly, Project Fear failed in the EU referendum. But is there any evidence that it ever really worked? During the Scottish referendum campaign, as the No campaign finger-wagged their way through endless dire warnings about possible consequences, support for independence grew steadily, leaving the result much closer than expected, and SNP popularity at unprecedented levels. In the 2015 general election, a lot of people simply preferred Cameron to Miliband as PM. And in the London Mayoral election, none of the shit thrown at Sadiq Khan stuck in the end.

The biggest fear at the heart of the referendum campaign was fear of immigrants, and that trumped fear of change and fear of recession. When people are already frightened of something, they need reassurance, not to have politicians try to frighten them of something else. It’s like dealing with someone who is scared of mice by throwing spiders at them to try and distract them.

Things might have turned out different if someone on the Remain side had offered something concrete to assuage people’s fears. For example: a promise to put a small tax on financial transactions, with the funds raised used to expand schools and hospitals in areas with high immigration. If Brexit doesn’t deliver the vast reductions in immigration that many Leave voters were hoping for, such measures could help to reduce some of the anxiety and resentment.

5: For those who voted Remain, there are still some positives…I hope.

It’s tough to lose, especially when you expected to win. But we need to pick ourselves up and think about what can be done now.

It’s possible – being optimistic here for a moment – that EU exit might force Brits to start confronting what is wrong with Britain itself rather than blaming problems on other people. Surely that would be good. UKIP will no doubt still try to lay every ill at the door of the immigrants and Brussels bureaucrats, but it will be harder for such claims to carry weight now that they have got what they wanted.

Almost half the population wants to stay in, so compromise looks more likely than the all-out exit that many Leavers hope for. Leaving the single market, for example, increasingly looks like an almost impossible decision for any politician to take because of its negative impact on UK businesses. And the EU is adamant that single market means free movement of Labour.

It’s still possible that Brexit won’t happen; more likely that it will turn out to be something partial that retains many ties with Europe. Even if EU migration is somehow restricted, overall immigration is likely to stay much higher than Leave voters wanted. If that happens, what comes next is anyone’s guess. Leave voters would likely feel even more betrayed by mainstream politics – that could be dangerous, but also an opportunity for a more hopeful, honest politics to emerge.

Scotland is in an incredibly interesting position. If it can find a way to remain in the EU, it could offer a new home for those disappointed by Brexit, and willing to move a few hundred miles to a place that shares their values. Economically, Scotland could struggle alone – but if the Brexit ship carries on sinking then the union may no longer offer economic stability.

As the dust settles, it looks like May and her gang have inherited an electorate many of whom now have massively over-egged expectations about how Brexit will help them. The referendum campaign has left the Tories with a still-divided party, a divided Kingdom, a Union drifting apart, and an economy probably heading for recession. These Tories, who told us again and again that voting Labour would bring the country to ruins, have done exactly that. They have regrouped with cyborg-like efficiency following the referendum, but if Brexit unravels they could come spectacularly unstuck.

As for BoJo, he has bounced back yet again. A man capable of leading us into a crisis, but not capable of leading us out. He shat the bed and then ran off, only to land a top job in the reshuffle. It now looks like his real similarity with Churchill is not some mythic Great British leadership qualities, but his racist and colonialist attitudes. How will these play out now that he is foreign secretary? As someone posted on Twitter: ‘May to civil servant: When I wrote F.O. next to Boris Johnson, that’s not what I meant.’ We can only hope he screws up so badly that it finishes him off for good.

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