Brexit Left Politics Westminster

The People’s March, Saturday 20th October

Reading Time: 8 minutes

On Saturday 20th October, an estimated 700 thousand people marched in what may have been the biggest demonstration since the Iraq war. The official title of the march was ‘The March for a People’s Vote’ referring to the demand made by the organisers for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal, which would include the option to remain in the European Union. There were more people there than on any demo I’d been to in years and we didn’t get anywhere near any of the speeches (probably a good thing).

However, it was actually a more generalised ‘March against Brexit’ and its likely effects and many people there had ambivalent feelings on the concept of the second referendum and its likely outcome. I came with my Mum and her friends, who are die-hard Remainers supporting the European Union, although my feelings on the matter are a little more ambiguous; I will address this ambivalence now.

When it came to the vote on Brexit in 2016, I spoiled my ballot paper. If the same vote was held today I would probably vote to remain in the EU. However, I feel I should be honest. Until shortly before the vote, I thought I was going to vote leave. I know people who did vote leave with good intentions and I feel uncomfortable with describing every Brexit voter as a racist along the lines of Trump supporters in the USA. It’s been a few years since I have been on any protest, I used to go a lot with the Socialist Party of England and Wales when I was a member but having become burnt out, disillusioned and largely politically inactive it was not necessarily my first choice of activity for a Saturday afternoon.

There are many reasons not to like the EU. One of them is the treatment of refugees by European governments and the fact agreements such as Dublin 1991 make it easier for wealthier states to refuse quotas of refugees, while countries such as Greece and Spain, with external borders, largely pay for and organise border control themselves for the whole of the EU. Another one is the issues with undemocratic EU institutions and the EU’s frequent lack of accountability and transparency in its decisions. The EU does not help this problem; the texts its bureaucracy releases are frequently ‘unreadable’ as with the notorious events surrounding the Lisbon treaty, where countries were ‘forced to vote until they got it right’. Things like the ‘Troika’s’ treatment of Greece in 2012 when the country was unable to pay its debts and the imposition of severe austerity on the country which left some people almost starving. The examples of Hungary, Poland and now Italy show the EU is often ineffective in upholding the liberal democracy it claims to value.  

During the referendum campaign, businesses and many ‘establishment’ politicians campaigned to remain in the EU. Staying in the EU was said to benefit business whether that’s due to financial stability created by the trading bloc or whether it’s due to EU laws which create a favourable environment for businesses to operate; many of these were the same companies who wanted less ‘red tape’ to interfere with treatment of their workers. So the ‘Lexit’ argument is something I am familiar with, as there are good reasons to be sceptical or suspicious of the EU. Some people simply voted Brexit as a protest which they didn’t expect to win and it is doubtful most or even many Brexit voters would have had Theresa May’s current shitshow in mind when they voted to leave in 2016.

The remain campaign in 2016 left much to be desired. I was not convinced by some of the fear mongering rhetoric in the campaign which didn’t really spell out exactly what the consequences would be to Brexit. There was one advert I saw in the Daily Mirror the day before the vote which simply showed a black hole and warned people to not step into an uncertain future, without giving any details as to what could happen. This made it easier for the Brexit campaign to say it was all ‘project fear’, despite multiple visions of what Brexit would be and few ideas among the lead campaigners of the implications. What a contrast to the Scottish independence campaign who produced a 900-page document about the implications of independence and how they would be resolved.

However, there is a difference between being a critic of the EU and agreeing with Brexit in its current form. One of the main reasons I did not vote to leave in the end is because of the Labour MP Jo Cox being killed by a far-right Brexit supporter in the first political assassination in Britain for years. I could sense a huge far right backlash coming and whichever way the referendum went it wouldn’t have been taking place under ‘socialism’ but under the most right-wing government in decades, heavily promoted by UKIP and other anti-immigration groups. The British far right adopted Brexit as its cause and since the referendum minorities have been subjected to increasing levels of hate crime with the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policy having been ramped up.

Donald Trump called himself ‘Mr Brexit’ and said Brexit would be ‘a great thing’ and many European right wing populists also took a positive view of the situation. Many right-wing racists responded with delight to the idea of ‘casting off the shackles’ of the ‘EUSSR’ and even bringing back the death penalty and the British Empire. Tories on the right of the party have responded with glee to the idea of getting rid of the Human Rights Act and not being accountable to the European Court of Human Rights. Parts of the left are almost as bad. The Morning Star even implied the Brexit marchers were funded by George Soros.

Recent events have shown both main parties’ ‘plans’ for Brexit are fanciful if not non-existent, with Theresa May claiming her Brexit deal was ‘95% negotiated’ last week, then Juncker responding that it was 0% negotiated! The example which showed the government’s cluelessness most of all was when David Davis claimed he had done studies on Brexit showing that afterwards all would be well, then later had to admit he hadn’t completed anything, and the research the department had done showed a uniformly negative impact on the economy. There is even talk of a shortage of toilet rolls, food and other essential supplies. While these outcomes may be exaggerated, the government’s incompetence is not.

The Brexit march was heavily advertised in London newspapers such as the Evening Standard. It was somewhat similar to the Iraq War protest in 2003, where entire trains were booked for the demo. The weather was unusually sunny and hot for this time of year, which helped the high turnout. There were a very wide range of marchers on the demo, including ‘Tories against Brexit’, Labour, the Green Party and Left Unity (I didn’t even know they were still around!) again resembling the political makeup of the large Iraq war demo in 2003. A couple of people I spoke to said Brexit shouldn’t be a ‘party political’ issue when I was surprised ‘Tories against Brexit’ were there, which seemed strange when it is down to the Tories that the referendum even took place!

The Brexit march demanded a ‘People’s Vote’ or a second referendum on Brexit. However, I think there is every chance the leave side would win again and whatever the result, the campaign has the potential to be even nastier than the first one. Although I would like a vote on the final Brexit deal. However, people on demonstrations frequently do not agree with all or even many of the main demands of the organisers but may simply want to express their outrage and dissatisfaction. As such I don’t think this is something people with socialist principles can ignore.

Barring a few placards the majority of the organised left seemed absent. There may be a range of reasons for this, either from a pro-Lexit stance to an opposition to marching alongside people among whom will be Tories and liberals. These positions are understandable but along with a wide perception that Corbyn voted to leave, and his support for triggering Article 50 straight away, their virtual absence adds to an impression that the left are either indifferent or support Brexit. This isn’t helped by claims the march ‘strengthened capitalism’ when some of the UK’s richest men voted Brexit, such as James Dyson and James Ratcliffe. You still sometimes hear the idea remain voters are privileged and part of the ‘middle class’, although much of inner-city London and other working-class areas voted solidly remain.

The overall feeling of the demo was very non-threatening with none of the aggressive policing I’ve seen on anti-cuts and anti-war demos in the past. There were hardly any police around except for a small section where there was a pro-military demo near to the end point (I later found out this was a demo to highlight the problems of soldiers with PTSD, so not even necessarily opposed to the march). There wasn’t any sort of aggressive vibe from any of the marchers although obviously people were angry about Brexit. Although there were loads of people giving out stickers, especially at the start, it was somewhat weird to be on a demo and not to be met with large numbers of paper sellers and leafletters (although we took a Left Unity sign at the start). As the march went towards Parliament Square it passed a separate demonstration against the treatment of political prisoners in Iran. I couldn’t see whether there was much interaction between the two groups.

Most people there seemed to be ordinary people who were concerned about Brexit; the home-made placards and costumes were often very entertaining. From what I observed the march was about evenly spread between men and women, with many people being ordinary Londoners but with many having come down from Scotland or elsewhere in the UK. However, most seemed to come from the south-east, and the organisation of large demos in central London, with little organisation in the rest of the country, has long been criticised as a barrier to participation for people who live in rural areas since as long as I’ve been politically involved. Many of these areas are places where most people voted Brexit or where large numbers did not vote.

I did not see any ‘Rothschilds’ or other antisemitic or racist imagery in any of the banners which has been threatening and off putting on other demos I’ve attended, although it may be that it was there and I just didn’t see it. I unfortunately saw a TERF ‘Fair Play for Women’ sticker on the ground along with some other leaflets, although that may have been there before the march took place. Given pro-EU parties such as the Green Party have been hit by scandals involving transphobia, it is unsurprising some people there may have held such views. However, given rising levels of anti-trans hate crime, these views must not be given any sort of platform.

From what I saw on the march there were a real mix of ages and backgrounds, including many children, there was also a much higher number of women than what I’ve seen on, for example, many anti-cuts demonstrations. However, overall it was quite white and ‘English’, although this is an issue on many demonstrations, so this protest was hardly unusual here, and there are many barriers to participation in wider social movements for people of colour and other minority communities. This underlines the importance of building a movement where everyone is safe to participate, particularly those disproportionately affected by the impact of Brexit.

The current government is woefully unprepared for Brexit, and the Labour opposition are little better. As the Article 50 ‘negotiation period’ draws rapidly to an end, we are looking towards the possibility of increased levels of hate crime, social unrest and possibly even shortages of food, drugs and other essential items.

This isn’t even going into the implications for the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland. You don’t have to be a member of some sort of elite to oppose or be concerned about what’s going on. I don’t even know if I want a second referendum (especially the dog’s dinner we can be sure the state would make of the questions) and don’t necessarily agree with all the politics of the organisers. But despite my mixed feelings I felt it was largely a positive experience as it is important to show opposition to what could be an out and out disaster.

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