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.

Teach ballet to dogs

Yet another splendid plan from David Cameron: teach English to Muslim women living in the UK, to help them integrate and reduce the risk of becoming radicalised.

 

The PM has made it clear that there is no simple cause and effect going on here. Nevertheless, he says, not speaking English probably contributes to a lack of integration, which might make people at more risk of something or other, affecting something something, and in the end you get more terrorists.

 

Cameron apparently said this actual sentence:

“some of these people have come from quite patriarchal societies and perhaps the menfolk haven’t wanted them to speak English” (source: here)

 

First, calling them ‘menfolk’ instead of just ‘men’ makes them sound like some tribe whose primitive rituals he is documenting during an expedition in the 1800s. Picture him in a bright white pith helmet, striding purposefully around our inner cities, instructing people with brown skin on how to enunciate properly.

 

Second, if there is any truth in this statement, then Muslim women who have male family members trying to influence their language abilities now also have a highly privileged white man they have never met trying to influence their language abilities. Is that supposed to be an improvement? It is reminiscent of Spivak’s critique of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men.’

 

Inspired by all of this, here are some more bold policy ideas based on imaginary chains of possible influence that certainly seem plausible inside my own mind. I hope Team Cameron will give them full consideration:

  • Teach ballet to dogs to prevent them fouling our streets.
  • Teach camouflage to black people to decrease their likelihood of being shot by police.
  • Teach tax evasion to junior doctors to help them get by on lower wages.
  • Teach badminton to lesbian wheelchair users to make them get out more.
  • Teach law to criminals to stop them filling our jails.
  • Teach swimming to Syrian migrants to enable them to avoid drowning.
  • Teach Mandarin to bigots to broaden their horizons.
  • Teach suicide bombing to pigeons to reduce their numbers.

 

All of the above will definitely work.

Power, surveillance and digital media

Yesterday I was teaching some of my students about Foucault, power and surveillance. These themes have never been more relevant to everyday life. The expansion of digital communications has created innumerable opportunities for the exercise of power through monitoring human activity, creating new kinds of vulnerabilities. This is especially the case for children and young people, whose lives are increasingly being played out online, warts and all.

Take Paris Brown, a 17 year old appointed in 2013 as the UK’s first youth crime commissioner. Her remit was to represent young people’s views to the police in Kent, and she invited them to use social media to do so. But social media came back to bite her. The tabloid press dredged up offensive posts from her Twitter account, including ill-advised racist, homophobic and violent comments, probably written whilst drunk. Her reputation was trashed, and a few days later she resigned.

Taken literally, the Tweets are lewd and unpleasant. Thinking about the context, however, it looks like this was just an adolescent seeking attention, perhaps showing off to her friends, expressing anger and confusion in a clumsy and foolish way, and pushing social boundaries to see what would happen. So – normal teenager stuff. For my generation growing up, you could say and do stupid stuff to get a reaction, cause a bit of outrage, and it was rarely recorded. That has all changed.

I also talked to my students about the UK government’s monitoring of communications through GCHQ. Afterwards, the question came up: is this sort of surveillance really such a bad thing? One student pointed out that GCHQ came out of Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park, including cracking the Enigma code during World War II, which helped defeat the Nazis. GCHQ’s current work involves foiling terrorist plots, saving lives. What’s wrong with that?

Clearly it is too simplistic to suggest that surveillance systems are driven by malice, like a bunch of Bond villains trawling people’s emails in a secret underground lair. Surveillance is more rational than that: the state is threatened by actions such as terrorism, and the production of knowledge is a crucial way of exercising of power to regulate these threatening actions.

But in any kind of rationality, there is always an irrationality. The power exercised by GCHQ doesn’t just block terrorism. It helps to produce terrorism as a definable thing – a set of ideas and subjectivities that can be monitored, documented and regulated.

Mass surveillance also has unintended consequences, like the unpleasant side effects of a medical treatment. Storing all electronic communication in the name of counter terrorism compromises the privacy of entire populations. That changes the nature of social life, in ways that may be hard to perceive but which are nonetheless pervasive. Autonomy is inevitably curtailed. An email, for instance, might look like communication between two people, but it isn’t. Other people can examine it, log it, store it. It could be used in a court of law at a later date in some way that is impossible to foresee.

We don’t have to look hard to find examples of such powers being used abusively. I imagine many of those who helped gather information for the East German Stasi believed that they were doing good, protecting their state from dangerous ideologies. The power they exercised no doubt enabled certain things, protected certain values – but it also crushed people and ideas that didn’t fit with the dominant view. It is all too easy for power to slip into violence.

Foucault poses the question of how to let power flow whilst avoiding it solidifying into authoritarian forms of domination. There are no easy answers. But we have to at least keep asking the question. It may well be that many of those working in surveillance wrestle with this on a daily basis. However, if you believe Edward Snowden’s description of America’s National Security Agency, the employees there were definitely not questioning what they were doing enough, or even at all – and that is when power becomes dangerous.

Alan Turing’s groundbreaking role in surveillance may have helped to win WWII, but look what happened to him: suicide, following persecution for his sexuality. The state monitored his private activities, criminalised him and subjected him to enforced medical castration. Government interference in the most intimate of matters caused him irreparable harm. It is an unfortunate irony that the machines he dreamt up are now being used to insert surveillance ever deeper into people’s lives.

Corbyn mania

Jeremy Corbyn is a threat to our national security, our economic security, and the security of your family. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership poses a threat to our national security, a threat to our economic security, and to the security of your family. The Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, now threatens not only our national security, but also the future of our economy, the future of your family, and the future of every single subatomic particle involved in your entire existence, including the ones we haven’t discovered yet. And Jeremy Corbyn will continue to be described in this way for as long as the cameras keep rolling.

Jeremy Corbyn is so obviously unelectable that we are spending all of our energy explaining to the electorate just how unelectable he really is, to make sure they understand.

Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to wear a suit and tie is a worrying sign of his antipathy towards Great British traditions, and his u-turn on wearing a suit and tie shows that he is too easily influenced. Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to wear, or not wear, a poppy, which may be red or white, is an insult to the Queen and the veterans who fought for our freedoms. Jeremy Corbyn did not sing a song about the Queen, and this non-singing was a narrow-minded, bigoted affront to our much-loved monarch. His decision to sing the song in future is a disgraceful betrayal of his own principles. Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to agree, in a BBC interview, to kneel before the Queen, is a national disgrace and a gross abdication of his responsibilities as a party leader.

Jeremy Corbyn describes the IRA as “great craic” and says that Hezbollah militants “just need a hug”. Jeremy Corbyn thinks that Batteries Not Included was superior to ET, and that the Police Academy films got better as time went on. Jeremy Corbyn insists that the acting in Hollyoaks is quite good, and was genuinely disappointed when Judy Murray was voted off Strictly. Jeremy Corbyn thinks it would be “really, really cool” to form a soft rock covers band called “The Jeremies” with Jeremy Clarkson, Jeremy Paxman, and a Jeremy Beadle look-a-like standing in for the dead Jeremy Beadle.

Jeremy Corbyn keeps forgetting whether envelopes go in the paper recycling bin or the packaging one. Jeremy Corbyn’s glasses show dangerous levels of pixellated jaggy artefacts when viewed in low resolution JPEGs. Jeremy Corbyn still thinks it is hilarious to answer his mobile phone by shouting “whazzaap!”

Corbyn jaggies
Terrible jaggies on Jeremy Corbyn’s glasses in lo-res JPEGs: an insult to Britain, The Queen, politics etc

Jeremy Corbyn is too old, too tall, too short, too grey, too left, too rebellious, too red, too pale, too republican, too weak, too strong, too straight, too male, too woolly, too wrinkly, too bearded, too direct, too ordinary, too inflexible, too dogmatic, too democratic and too autocratic. His voice is too brittle, his hair is too uneven, his smile is too angular, his clothes are always the wrong colour, size and style. His teeth are not white enough, his skin is not tight enough, his bow is not deep enough. His feet slope too steeply, his chin is too simple, his eyes are too elliptical and his policies are incoherent outdated rehashed fantasies from the past which no-one will ever vote for at all. If you type Jeremy Corbyn’s phone number into a calculator and turn it upside down it says “bumtrousers”.

Jeremy Corbyn is a socialist, a trade unionist, a communist, a Marxist, a Leninist, a Stalinist, a sexist, a racist and a cyclist. Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet appointments show his terrible lack of judgment, and have brought politics into disrepute. There are too many men, not enough women, the wrong distribution of women, too many lefties, too many people who set fire to hotel curtains ten years ago, not enough experience, too many divisions, not enough ethnic minorities, not enough working class disabled lesbian transgenderpeople, not enough [**add more here. Midgets/dwarves? Cancer survivors? Possibly link to Madeline McCann somehow**]

Jeremy Corbyn is utterly inept at evading journalists’ questions. He is disturbingly incapable of the obfuscation, on-message repetition and trite focus-grouped sound bite shite required for his profession. He struggles to give the same answer over and over again, and his reluctance to trade in facile clichés is deeply troubling.

Jeremy Corbyn’s toxicity is so potent that even the tiniest exposure to his face on TV will pollute your children forever. Jeremy Corbyn will come into your house, Jeremy Corbyn will eat your crisps, Jeremy Corbyn will do a dump in your toilet without flushing, and use up all the toilet roll without buying any more.

We respect Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate and congratulate him on his victory. It is a remarkable achievement, and we will do everything in our power to undermine it. We are on your side. We are all in it together. We support hard working families. We want a Britain for the strivers, not the shirkers, in which work always etc etc. Something about curtains in the morning. A Britain where those with the broadest shoulders bear the something something. A Britain based on some other things that initially sound good but on closer inspection turn out to be vacuous. A Britain dominated by English values, although the other UK nations do make quite nice holiday destinations. A Britain whose sense of its own importance in the world is vastly overinflated. A Britain that is truly Great again.

We did not extort public funds through parliamentary expenses. We did not deregulate the banks, or bail them out with billions of made up government money when they crashed. We did not defend the right of bankers to continue receiving lavish bonuses. We did not try to tax pasties or caravans, nor did we hastily change those plans in the face of popular opposition.

We did not exaggerate the case for war, or contribute to death and destruction in distant lands through the questionable deployment of our armed forces. We did not refuse asylum to people fleeing foreign conflicts, some of which we did not help to start. We did not turn a blind eye to widespread child sexual abuse. We did not allow the police to cover up the avoidable deaths of 96 football fans. We do not keep pushing for ever more privatisation of the NHS. We have not sold off major public assets to people who were already rich. We have not invited state run companies from other countries to operate our railways at a profit.

We have not persisted with an outmoded, unrepresentative electoral system. We have not allowed tax avoidance to continue on a massive scale. We have not presided over increasing poverty, inequality, the use of food banks and widespread public disillusionment with mainstream politics. We did not appoint a cabinet mostly made up of millionaires to oversee massive cuts in services for poor people. We did not appoint profit-making companies to reduce the benefits bill by inaccurately assessing disabled people’s fitness to work, and these assessments have not led to any deaths. We did not introduce tuition fees for higher education, and by not doing this we have not left many young people with crippling debts.

We did not claim public funds for a duck house, or for pornography. We did not award peerages to tax exiles. We did not take drugs or use prostitutes. We do not have a leader with a face that looks a bit like an oversalted ham, and he did not put his genitals inside the mouth of a dead pig [**CHECK – have photos emerged yet, what do they show?**]. We do not have a boss with a shrivelled punched-up raisin head whose journalists did not bribe police or hack the phones of murdered children.

Jeremy Corbyn wants to go back to old ideas from the mid 1970s, which no-one will vote for because they are ridiculous idealistic garbage which no-one will vote for. We have fresh new exciting modern ideas, developed by Thatcher in the late 1970s, and by Blair in the 1990s, which have led to untold prosperity and joy for the country. Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas can bring only despair and a return to the three day week. Jeremy Corbyn is made up of too many molecules, his name has too many syllables, his initials are blasphemous, and he’s so old and out of touch he probably doesn’t even realise that Zayn Malik has left One Direction, if he’s even heard of them, which he probably hasn’t.

We congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on his overwhelming victory, and wish him all the best in his new role. [outro music: Things Can Only Get Better by D:Ream]