In the last two weeks I have been on two demonstrations. The first was an anti-fascist mobilisation to counter a march by the so-called Democratic Football Lads’ Alliance (DFLA) aka Tommy Robinson’s would-be stormtroopers. The second, a week later, was the People’s Vote March. The first was like many demonstrations, too numerous to recall, that I have been on since I started political activity in the early 1970s: small, but not tiny; lots of red and black; megaphones with slogans that we knew how to
join in with. When I got out of the tube at Oxford Circus, the vast majority of people around me were tourists and shoppers, quite unaware of the demonstration.
The People’s Vote March was like only one other I recall, which was the huge demo against the Iraq War in 2003 (the Stop Trump march may have been similar, but I was not in the UK at the time). At Green Park underground just after 11, it seemed almost everyone was heading to the demo, carrying homemade placards or EU flags, wearing Bollocks to Brexit stickers, talking about Brexit. Piccadilly was full of demonstrators. I knew then it would be massive. Another indication was seeing former work
colleagues saying on Facebook that they were coming or messaging me to meet up. An American friend who has been politically active since the sixties once remarked apropos of the movement against the Vietnam War, that you could tell if something was a mass movement if your grandmother was involved.
The main difference between the Iraq War demo and the People’s Vote March was the lack of an organised left presence last weekend, aside from a left contingent I joined, under the Another Europe is Possible banner (there was of course a huge LibDem presence in 2003 and arguably they were the main political beneficiaries of the anti-war movement in electoral terms).
This absence on October 20th is down to the division in what remains of the far left over Brexit, and the ambivalent stance of Jeremy Corbyn and much of the trade union leadership. Even where union memberships have been surveyed showing Unite, Unison and the GMB with two-to-one majorities in favour of a public vote, unions were not formally represented on the march, though there were the odd banners from branches. Similarly, although feeling in many of the Labour Party’s constituency parties was made very clear at the recent conference, with an unprecedented number of resolutions about Brexit aimed at shifting the leadership’s stance (and cheers for Keir Starmer when he insisted Remain be on any ballot paper in a vote on the terms of Brexit), there were few CLP banners. There was a Green Party presence too.
The reaction from some of the so-called ‘Lexit’ left to this enormous demonstration has varied from a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ tone, to shrill denunciations of the marchers as selfish, rich members of the ‘metropolitan elite’ who are ‘worried about getting to their second homes in Tuscany and the Loire’.
But leaving caricatures aside, let’s look at the main reasons why some believe that the People’s Vote March was not one that the left should have had anything to do with. This is what I have gathered from various articles in the last two days:
* It was overwhelmingly middle class
*It was mobilized by the mainstream media
* It was organized by the right wing of Labour, the LibDems and other establishment groups
* It was funded by George Soros
* Its main motive was to undermine Jeremy Corbyn
* It was fundamentally in support of big business and the neoliberal EU
* A People’s Vote will be antidemocratic and will drive those ‘left behind’ voters, who saw the EU referendum as their one chance to influence politics, further into the arms of the far right
The class character of the people on the march is one of those questions which is not amenable to a definitive answer. One of the problems being, what does ‘middle-class’ mean? Southern? Urban? White collar/professional? Educated to degree level or above? If ‘middle class’ means most of the above, then the fact is that marches through central London are mostly middle class, including the anti-Iraq War march. The left is itself mostly middle class. Actually, the population is mostly middle class (ABC1s now constitute around 55 per cent of the population). It’s also a funny thing that when junior doctors or university lecturers are on strike, they are members of the proletariat but when they’re on an anti-Brexit march they are paid-up members of the prosecco-drinking, Guardian-reading middle classes.
Yes, the Evening Standard had a wrap-around ad for the demo (what the argument that the media mobilised for it seems to come down to, along with the support of the Guardian and Independent). Yes, George Osborne is using the Standard as a stick with which to beat Theresa May. But London also stands to lose massively if Brexit goes ahead in its likely form, so it makes sense for the Standard to oppose it, as does the Mayor of London and most London MPs, including left as well as centrist Labour ones. This
leaves aside entirely the fact that the vast majority of the tabloid press is banging the drum for Brexit. Nor do these people mention the inconvenient facts that the Mirror mobilised for the anti-Iraq War demo and the Mail gave out free copies on it.
If the critics do not mean its literal social composition but the class forces which it represents, then we come to the notion that it was “fundamentally in support of the interests of big business and the neoliberal EU”, but that would be as true in their eyes if it was made up entirely of retired miners from South Wales. The march did indeed have backers like Alistair Campbell and a couple of Tory MPs. The overall organization was an umbrella group with constituent groups including Open Britain, the
European Movement UK, Britain for Europe, Scientists for EU, Healthier In, Our Future Our Choice, For Our Future’s Sake, Wales For Europe & InFacts. The march on the day had a lot of other groups represented. If we go beyond this, we come to the ‘Marxist’ question: whose interests was it serving?
This is surely the nub, rather than questions about its social composition or who spoke at the rally or that Soros funded it (an Anti-Semitic dog whistle there from the Morning Star, thanks for that). The argument appears to be that it represents an intervention by big business into the debate, that moreover, the Labour right wanted to use it to drive a wedge between Corbyn and his supporters, and that to have a vote on the deal plays into the hands of the far right.
I do accept the argument that to have another vote will produce a huge backlash, led by Farage, the ERG and the Tommy Robinson crowd, backed by the Mail and the rest of the right-wing press screaming about treason, but we cannot afford to run scared from these people. The evidence is that the Brexit being prepared for us is a right wing Tory project to finish what Thatcher started, to have a bonfire of regulations, an even more hostile environment for immigrants, a free-for-all for the bosses, a race to the
bottom, tax haven Britain, open to US capital in the NHS and other public services, with cheap and unregulated American food imports full of antibiotics, and a backsliding on any commitment to battling climate change. As for it being mainly a ploy to overthrow Corbyn, because some speakers and marchers shouted Where’s Jeremy Corbyn? Is, in my opinion, ridiculous. That isn’t, as the saying goes, what got all those people out of bed on Saturday.
It is highly inconvenient for the Lexit left that the people who constitute the real hope for change in the UK, those who want to fight racism, who want a radical government to roll back cuts and privatization, who are committed to social progress, the young, both white and people of colour who live alongside each other in diverse urban areas, are overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU. Why? Because first of all, they don’t want to live in Tory Brexit Britain and also because they don’t want a radical government diverted from what they want it to do for years while it picks up the pieces the Tory Brexiters have left in their wake.
Above all, it is unbelievably patronising to view the 700,000 people who bothered to march as mere dupes of David Milliband or Alistair Campbell. To refuse to engage with their concerns about jobs, about the future of their children and grandchildren, about the fate of their fellow workers and friends who came in good faith from the EU to establish lives in Britain, about the NHS, about higher education, about the future of scientific research and the arts, and the future of the planet. All that is simply dismissed, because they know best. They know it was ‘really’ about big business, or Corbyn. They also think the turmoil Brexit has created and will create is fertile ground for the left, even though the evidence is quite the contrary: the Leave campaign and the toxicity it spread has led to more hate crime, more openly expressed racism and a resurgent English nationalism and nostalgia for the days of Empire.