Report of ‘The Convention’

“The Convention: Think Anew, Act Anew – Another Vote is Possible” in London on 11 January 2019 was a masterpiece of the art of conference programming: so many things that needed to be said were matched with the right people to say them, in a mixture of set-piece speeches, panel sessions and literary festival-style intellectual conversations.

It seems odd to write a report of a one-day political conference and call it a masterpiece, as if it were a review of a play, or any other work of art, but if someone has managed to produce a masterpiece, then why not?  The first person to write an artistic review of a rock gig probably felt the same way.  And with the Brexit countdown clock standing at 77 days, The Convention was exactly where one Northern pop legend felt he needed to be at this moment in his country’s history, so maybe political conferences are the new rock ‘n’ roll.

The Convention was organised and put on at short notice by author and journalist Henry Porter, and Open Democracy’s Anthony Barnett.  There were an almost mindboggling 11 panel discussions and 5 speeches in the day’s programme, providing a rich banquet spanning up-to-the-minute information and deep insight.

The venue was the beautiful 1920s circular hall of the Emmanuel Evangelical Church, Westminster, just a few streets away from the Houses of Parliament.  A large congregation of the Remain faithful, perhaps 300 or more, had paid their £5 and assembled at short notice.  With the stakes high, just four days before parliament votes on the Theresa May Brexit deal, the promises of salvation written in a circle on the dome of ceiling were somehow reassuring.

A real strength of the event was that for once Scotland and Ireland got their fair share of the spotlight.  But a Northern Umbrella review of the event must note that, Jarvis Cocker notwithstanding, there was little or no specific North of England perspective, or indeed any English regional perspective in it.  Just like it would be too easy and wrong to criticise a Remain activists’ event held on a Friday daytime for being largely attended by the retired middle class, it would be too easy and wrong to criticise the organisers for the lack of a specifically Northern voice at this event.   Despite the fantastic efforts of Leeds for Europe and other organisations in putting on the Great Northern Stop Brexit conference in September 2018, the fact is that since 2016 the North has not organised itself often enough as the North, and it has not made enough of a noise to make the absence of a distinctive place for it on the platform of an event like this unthinkable.  That is something Northern Umbrella exists to try and remedy.

The Lucas Plan

The event began with a keynote opening speech by the UK’s sole Green MP Caroline Lucas, entitled “How do we ensure that Project Hope overcomes Project Fear?”.  It could be called a landmark speech.  She asked and answered three sets of questions:

  1. How do we address the very real grievances that led so many to vote for Brexit in the first place? Those living in communities with proud histories, but which have been hollowed out by de-industrialisation and decades of neglect, compounded in recent years by an ideologically-driven assault on public services in the name of austerity?
  2. How do we make staying and fighting for the Europe we want a pathway to change – to a society that isn’t just less grim than what we have now, but is genuinely fair, green and fulfilling? How do we inspire people with a vision of the way membership of the EU can make a positive and practical improvement to their lives?  How do we ensure that Project Hope overcomes Project Fear?
  3. How do we renew our democracy? How do we genuinely take control?  How do we shift the framework entirely and hand power to people not just for one vote, but forever, so that our country can unite around a new settlement that gains popular consent across the Brexit divide?

Here is the full transcript.  The message of ending austerity with a green new deal of investment in people, places, public services and a green economy, allied with a constitutional reform programme for the UK including devolution and proportional representation is exactly the one that Northern Umbrella supports.  And the messenger, the transparently in-good-faith, compassionate and passionate Caroline Lucas, was perfect.

It was described as “the speech the Leader of the Opposition should have made the day after the Brexit referendum on 24 June 2016”.  Lucas’s desire to be radical about addressing the injustices underlying the Brexit vote and building the country anew, whilst rejecting the fantasy of Lexit and simply wanting England to take its place as a normal European country, is an agenda that chimes perfectly with the deep beliefs of the many thousands of young people who poured into the Labour party after Jeremy Corbyn became leader – the kind of people now organised under the banner Another Europe is Possible.

An understandable but nevertheless serious weakness of the event was that those young pro-European Corbynistas – so far from the doctrinaire, sectarian lefty bogeymen the Remain centrists can imagine them to be – were not represented in its audience.  Hopefully they will see Caroline Lucas give pretty much the same speech at Another Europe is Possible’s London rally on Monday 14 January, and hear her distinctive call for real democratic modernisation in England.

Labour – right and left – is institutionally incapable of acknowledging why a Westminster General Election with first past the post voting for single member seats, with the result decided in a small number of randomly-located marginals, is fundamentally such a depressing rather than energising democratic experience, and why therefore more people are not clamouring for it.  But the young Corbynistas do get it, and they do want to change it.

Pet Grieve

The other two setpiece politicians’ speeches were by Conservative remain rebel Dominic Grieve and the SNP’s Joanna Cherry.

Grieve appeared in the hall and received a standing ovation before he had said a word.  A genuinely self-effacing Tory gent of the very old school, he seemed surprised and touched by this reception – almost looking over his shoulder to see who the audience were cheering for.  The ovation was a nice gesture by an almost exclusively non-Tory audience: the Tory remain rebels are under a lot of pressure as traitors to their own tribe, and need to feel the love from a Remain audience.  His speech was good, whilst also reminding us that here was a man thrust into the limelight, rather than seeking it.

Joanna Cherry, MP for Edinburgh South West, was an important addition to the line-up, reminding everyone that the SNP is Westminster’s third largest party as well the Scottish government.  Scotland has been treated with contempt at every stage of the Brexit process and is rightly furious about being dragged out of the EU against her will.  Yet, despite the fact that no-deal Brexit chaos would make the SNP’s ultimate goal of Scottish independence almost a certainty, the SNP was nevertheless working hard for the Remain cause.  Economic disaster was in nobody’s interest, in Scotland or the rest of UK.

Love, prosperity and culture

The rest of the morning was rich in information, with talks and panel sessions covering:  news from the campaign frontline, Peter Kellner on the latest opinion polls, freedom of movement, the practical issues around organising another referendum, and understanding the thinking of “remainers now” – people who had voted leave in 2016 but had now changed their minds.  Tara Connolly, just off the plane from Belfast, made a speech bringing home what a massive blow Brexit could be for Northern Ireland, despite it having voted convincingly for Remain.  Young people there have grown up with peace and no border as normality, but it is all now stupidly being put at risk.

There is no space to review all the sessions in detail, so a few general impressions and memorable moments will have to suffice.

Overall, what was striking was how welcome the voices of non-politicians and in particular women, genuinely were.  The combative approach, and (God forbid) the ‘mansplaining’ style, were not completely absent but they really did feel like yesterday’s thing.  One of the best things about the conference was that Alistair Campbell, and all the poison he would have represented and introduced, was not there;  it would be nice to think that one of the masterstrokes of the organisers was deliberately not to invite him.

Almost all the memorable moments were from women.  Eloise Todd of Best for Britain, so clear, so straightforward and practical about what we have to do, and how we should go about doing it.  Germana Canzi, one of the 3 million EU citizens denied a vote (and generally demeaned and insulted by the country which they have made their home and make such a massive contribution to), spoke eloquently but it was a throwaway comment of her’s that hit home hardest: “we hear how the BBC Today programme speaks about us too, you know”.  So utterly shameful.  For Emma Knuckey, a deeply sensitive health worker who voted for Leave partly to get more money for the NHS, it was this treatment of her EU citizen colleagues as pawns in a game that was the emotional driver for rejecting the Leave message and switching to Remain.

Jessica Simor QC’s session was entitled “The true cost of the end of Freedom of Movement on love, prosperity and culture”.  Perhaps best known as a tenacious battler of Brexit thugs and liars like Andrew Neil and Daniel Hannan on Twitter, this remarkable title seemed to liberate her and her panellists to rise above the usual fray and be calm, thoughtful and compelling.  The key message was: the only achievement of Theresa May’s Brexit deal is a negative one -to remove our freedom to live and love across borders.  Laura Shields, one of the 1.4 million British citizens living abroad in the EU, made the telling point that freedom to work in the EU had been the making of so many working class Brits, not just the luxury of the elite.  The £30k annual income restriction the UK has said it will impose on incomers to the UK had been noted in the EU, and would be reciprocated, she said – dealing another blow to Britain’s terrible record of declining opportunity for working class kids.

The morning session ended with a star turn from Jarvis Cocker.  It barely matters what exactly he said, his overall message was that England just needs to stop the faking and be more at ease with itself.  What Theresa May really needs more than anything else, is a dancing lesson from Jarvis.

The afternoon session

The afternoon session involved no fewer than five panel sessions and two in-depth conversations.

The five panels covered how a fresh referendum can avoid the cheating and lawbreaking that characterised the first one; an “EU reality check” – whether UK would in fact be welcomed back by the Europeans if we chose to remain; how to avoid the deep divisions a fresh referendum is predicted to open up; how the Remain campaign in a second referendum campaign should be done; and finally, whether another British politics is possible.

The two conversations were really fascinating, and would alone have justified the conference fee: Scotland’s Lesley Riddoch talking to the Irish Times’s Fintan O’Toole and Open Democracy’s Anthony Barnett on “The strange passions of Brexit: what has got into the English?”; and Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson talking to novelist Jonathan Coe and broadcaster James O’Brien about “Fact, Fiction and Brexit”.  Sadly, no space to review them all; instead, highlights.

Power corruption and lies

The panel contributions that stuck in the mind were from Open Democracy’s Adam Ramsay and The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr on their investigative journalism into the funding of the 2016 campaign.  They made a great Mulder and Scully double-act: Ramsay cool and calm, Cadwalladr sparkier and disarmingly unashamed to say how shocking and upsetting it has been to her to discover the depths of the darkness and dishonesty revealed when you start to shine a light on the British establishment, the super-rich and the real rulers of the world.

Adam Ramsay made the straightforward logical statement that Britain could not set itself up as the money-laundering capital of the world, and not expect dirty money to start infecting its politics.  He and Carol laid out how dark money had unlawfully been routed through the DUP; how Arron Banks was more likely a conduit than the source of the biggest single campaign donation in British political history; how the whole scandal is being shut down and ignored by the police and the BBC.  He matter-of-factly noted that Italian investigators of the mafia say from bitter experience that they find Britain to be the world’s most corrupt country.

An Englishman, a Scotswoman and an Irishman

Perhaps the single most impactful session of the day, certainly from the Northern Umbrella perspective, but also in terms of audience engagement, was the question of what has got into the English.  The immediate political practicalities of stopping Brexit were swapped for an overdue delve into the national soul.

Both Fintan O’Toole and Anthony Barnett have written brilliant and insightful books on this: O’Toole Heroic Failure: Brexit and the politics of pain and Barnett The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump.  Both locate Brexit in the damaged national psychology of the English.  After the session, copies of both flew off the bookstall.

Chair Lesley Riddoch is one of the leading thinkers and doers of the remarkable political and intellectual renaissance that swept Scotland during the independence referendum of 2014.  Reproducing the thinking in her book Blossom: what Scotland needs to flourish in a way appropriate for the North of England, is essentially Northern Umbrella’s mission.

Fintan O’Toole is every inch the Dublin literary figure, a worthy successor to a long line of such intellectuals.  Lyrical, urbane, he might have swallowed the Blarney stone, not just kissed it.  But his message for the English is brutal, as getting the hard truth from an old friend can be.

Basically, he has perfectly diagnosed the psychology behind the support for Brexit.  In his book, arrow after arrow hits bullseye, and an exposed nerve.  His central thesis is that Brexit is essentially the result of the English overindulging in self-pity, taking a perverse pleasure in imagining themselves oppressed.  The babyboomer generation have taken a bad turn in response to their guilt at their own failure to maintain and develop the welfare state established after the war by their own parents’ heroic generation.

Engaging a keen Brexiter in argument cannot the same again after grasping O’Toole’s ideas, as was experienced by Northern Umbrella immediately after the conference when chatting to a Brexiteer couple in the Marquis of Granby pub.

Anthony Barnett is a gentleman and a scholar, who separately alighted on the same essential insight.  The English must drop their delusions of grandeur before they can move forward to the real destiny, to take their place amongst equals as one of the nations of Europe.

Their nerves jangled, the audience woke up and responded well to Riddoch’s keen appetite to pin down new insight in the best Q&A session of the day.  Can the English move forward without having to live through a painful and humiliating Brexit disaster?  Must every generation crucify its own Christ? answered Fintan O’Toole, quoting George Bernard Shaw.

The gauntlet

Lesley Riddoch noted that the energy in the room was very reminiscent of Scotland during 2014, but it is coming very late in the day: why didn’t this discussion happen in 2016?   And she specifically identified that the English regional dimension was missing from the debate.

The gauntlet is thrown down to Northern Umbrella to explore these deep questions of identity and national/regional soul.  Watch this space.

 

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2017 & 2018 – looking back

On the last day of 2018, it’s interesting to go back to blog posts on Northern Umbrella from the last two years.  And as soon as possible in the new year, there will be a post looking forward to 2019.

2017

The very first blogged post on this site was on 20 December 2016, looking forward to 2017.  Looking back at it, some things have not changed: the prediction that the Brexit talks would go badly, because they could not possibly go well, has stood the test of time, as has the prediction that the Brexiteers would blame everybody but themselves for this predicament and quickly start crying ‘betrayal’.

Yet other things have changed a lot: the idea that UKIP’s Paul Nuttall would be built up as Labour’s nemesis in the North seems almost comical now.  But it was serious at the time.

On 20 December 2016, this blog said: “…the money and the media have got Paul Nuttall all lined up.  Prepare for the deluge.”  On 21 December Copeland’s young, healthy and locally-popular pro-nuclear Labour MP Jamie Reed took the highly unusual step of quitting mid-term as an MP, for no apparent good reason.  On 13 January, Stoke Central MP and Peter Mandelson-protegé Tristram Hunt suddenly announced he was also quitting, forcing a by-election in the city known as “Britain’s Brexit capital”.  Suddenly Jeremy Corbyn’s revitalised Labour party was fighting for its life in by-elections for two strongly pro-Brexit Northern seats*.  (*For Northern Umbrella, Stoke counts as being in the North when it suits us.)

But Labour’s pro-Corbyn members worked very hard, Paul Nuttall turned out to be Walter Mitty and, funnily enough, it was the personal appeal of Theresa May to Brexit supporters that split the anti-Labour vote and saw UKIP well beaten in Stoke on 23 February.  However, the Tories won well in Copeland, and the rapid evaporation of UKIP that followed was doubtless the key factor in persuading Theresa May to announce her snap general election in April.

The 2017 general election result was arguably a bigger surprise than the 2016 Brexit referendum result.  Against the odds, it turned out Jeremy Corbyn’s message of justice, respect and common decency was popular, especially among the young.  The North was a big part of that – anybody who saw the crowds watching Corbyn speak stood on a fire engine outside the Tyne Theatre Newcastle, or outside St George’s Hall Liverpool, or at Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park, knew that Corbyn was connecting with young Northerners in an incredibly positive way.   Such was Corbyn’s success, that the astonishingly vicious and dishonest personal attacks on him by New Labour politicians and media pundits stopped, for as long as five minutes.

However, looking back at the original Northern Umbrella post, its main message was that the North would remain “vulnerable to the propaganda onslaught” of the London media for as long as it had no independent region-wide media of its own.  Back in August 2014, when Robin McAlpine of Scotland’s Common Weal spoke to a meeting in Preston organised by the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, he said that those supporting meaningful regional devolution for the North of England would be better off setting up a new independent Northern news source than setting up a new political party.

Unfortunately, as of New Year’s Eve 2018, that lack of a North-wide independent viewpoint has not changed.  In Scotland they now have the Common Space website and The National daily printed newspaper.  In the North, despite local successes such as Sheffield’s Now Then or the Salford Star, other than the valiant Big Issue North, we still have nothing independent of the increasingly dodgy BBC.

2018

Northern Umbrella relaunched in June 2018 with the mission of “uniting the North against Brexit”.

Looking back at the report of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation/Best for Britain meeting in Manchester in July, it is remarkable to see how much has been achieved in five short months in the battle to change the Brexit debate, and yet also how much has stayed the same.

Paul Salveson’s key point was that the North needed to wake up to the fact that Brexit is almost perfectly designed to devastate the strongest and brightest sectors of the North’s economy.  Natalie Bennett’s key point was that the North’s biggest democratic and constitutional problem was the broken Westminster system, much more than the flaws of the EU.

Best for Britain Chief Executive Eloise Todd’s key point was to say that although everything was going wrong for Theresa May in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, 10 Downing Street’s UK media manipulation operation was clever and actually going quite well.  Downing Street’s objective was and is to frame the Brexit choice as either the Government’s Brexit deal or to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 with no deal at all.  Central to the strategy was and is to ‘disappear’ Remain as a credible or viable option.  Eloise told us that only people power would be able to counteract this media operation.

All three of these key points have been steadily sinking in across the North, which is among the parts of the country where people are changing their minds fastest about the wisdom of going through with Brexit.

On 23 September, many thousands marched in Liverpool in favour of a “final say” referendum on the Brexit deal, with remain as an option on the ballot, and – despite the best efforts of Len McCluskey – the Labour party conference voted overwhelmingly to change its policy to leave that option open.

On 20 October, hundreds of thousands marched in London in favour of the final say referendum.  The march was reported by the BBC et al for one day’s news cycle, but its real significance – that the tide of public opinion has turned and a consistent majority now want to remain in the EU – was not.   Not by much, admittedly – the country is still deeply, deeply divided – but by a bigger margin than the Brexiteers brandish as the unchallengeable “will of the people”: 53/47.

More generally, people are having second thoughts in massive numbers.  This is what people thought in August:

Do you agree or disagree with the statement ‘Brexit is an historic mistake and only now people are realising it’?

  • Agree strongly/tend to agree 44%
  • Disagree strongly/tend to disagree 30%
  • Neither agree nor disagree/don’t know 25%

On 14 November, Theresa May came out with a statement that is actually true: that there are now only three options left on the table – her deal, no deal or no Brexit.  This first mention of the No Brexit option by the Prime Minister was a major step forward in the campaign for Remain.

On the same day, Donald Tusk made it perfectly clear that No Brexit is not only an option that remains a possibility, it is the EU’s preferred outcome: “The option we are best prepared for is No Brexit”.  Yet the meaning of both May and Tusk’s statements was not properly discussed.  Instead the media gave and continues to give acres of newsprint and hours of coverage to politicians pretending that Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement can be renegotiated.

Here’s the truth: there are no good options in the shambles we have got ourselves in.  But withdrawing our Treaty of Lisbon Article 50 notification and remaining in the EU is by a country mile the least worst option, and, as Donald Tusk has said, by far the simplest of the available options to do.  This was massively reinforced by the European Court of Justice ruling (in response to a case brought by Scottish Green MSP Andy Wightman, doubted and ridiculed by many) that the UK can unilaterally revoke its Article 50 notification.

Amazingly, as at 31 December, despite so many disasters, the strategy of disappearing the Remain option is still alive and still lies at the core of the way the BBC is covering the issue.  In the next two weeks, in the run up to the vote in the House of Commons the propaganda to portray Theresa May’s abysmal Brexit deal as the only alternative to the chaos and pain of a ‘crash out’ Brexit will resume.

The only way to counteract this is still people power, and we need to come out of our corner as fast as Barry McGuigan as soon as the bell sounds to start round 2,019.  More on this in the next blog.

Barry-McGuigan

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Our titanic shambles

This post is going to torture some more analogies with the Titanic.  If you don’t have time for all that, here’s its conclusion:

On Saturday 20 October, don’t go shopping, or to the football, go to London for the People’s Vote March.  At least that way, you will be able to look your kids – or if you don’t have children, your neighbours’ kids – in the eye and say, at least I tried.

Sailing By

So here we all are on this amazing ship, sailing across the ocean.  On 23 June 2016, by democratic vote of all the passengers, it was narrowly decided that the ship was going to sail for Shangri-la.  Captain Theresa May took command of the vessel and started to plot her course towards it.  Facing criticism that she was taking too long to do this, she suddenly set sail and announced that on 29 March 2019 we would reach a certain point off the coast of Newfoundland, and from there we would find and sail to Shangri-la.

The trouble is, there’s a bloody great big iceberg in the way.

Captain May used to be doubtful Shangri-la even exists, and she knows all about the iceberg and the damage it can do, but she is obsessed with the promise she has made.  So she is desperately trying to steer a course that will deliver on her promise, by hitting the iceberg in such a way that, although the ship will be holed below the waterline, the leaks will be containable and the ship can sail on.

Many of the ship’s officers disagree with Captain May’s plan.  Led by former Second Mate Boris Johnson, who has resigned his commission, they are trying to seize the wheel and steer the ship directly at the iceberg, to ram it and smash it up.  Boris is telling the passengers that this can be done because this is a Great British ship and it is unsinkable, and many of the passengers believe it.

Boris knows his plan is a gamble, so he is prudently also making plans to ensure that, if the ship does in fact sink, he and the first class passengers will be able to grab all the places on the limited lifeboats.  Regrettably, this will involve locking all the exits from the lower decks.

The ship’s surgeon, Dr Liam Fox, has already sorted his place on a lifeboat, and has even had the foresight to sign a contract with an American shipping company, who have a cunning plan to salvage the wreck and make a packet from its scrap value.

In the luxurious first class ballroom, the fabulous party that has been running since the 1980s is still going on.  Life is wonderful, and it’s so reassuring darling to know that one has a seat in a lifeboat.  Apparently, there’s another super party going on aboard the Carpathia!

In the less luxurious, but still very comfortable, second class lounge, many of the passengers are looking out of the windows at the iceberg with increasing alarm.  They know that there won’t be enough places for them on the lifeboats.  They didn’t even vote to set sail for Shangri-la anyway, they voted for a cruise around the Mediterranean and the Baltic, visiting some charming European ports.  Earlier, they sent a message to the captain, saying: there’s an iceberg ahead, the ship will sink, please turn the boat around.  They got no reply, so they are going to give the plan another go.

Down in steerage class, sailing on the Titanic has never been as much fun as being on the upper decks anyway.  Most of the older passengers just want to get to Shangri-la as they were promised, as soon as possible, so please can we get on with it?  In Shangri-la, everything will be like what it was when they were young. They didn’t have much, but they were happy.

Some people are talking about an iceberg, but others say that this is just Project Fear from the lah-di-dah types in second class who have sour grapes because they lost the vote on the European cruise they wanted.

Meanwhile, in nooks and corners of the steerage decks, socialist agitator Chief Petty Officer Corbyn is holding meetings.  He’s telling the people how unfair it is that first class is so luxurious, when in steerage class, you pay a rip-off fare to get crap food and no windows.  Many of the younger passengers like what he’s saying, and agree that the ship shouldn’t be throwing away tons of uneaten food from the first class buffet every mealtime, when the passengers in steerage are going hungry.

They cheer when he says that when the Titanic puts into port at Shangri-la, it will be re-fitted so that the steerage passengers can get a bunk to sleep in, rather than keep building more and more first class suites that aren’t even occupied.

Upstairs in the second class lounge, some of the passengers can hear the cheering and don’t like the sound of it.  How long will it be until Chief Petty Officer Corbyn starts demanding a reduction in second class meals and privileges too?

Some of the older steerage passengers say they remember that old sea dog Corbyn from years ago; they tell the youngsters they’ve heard it all before, and it’s just a pipe-dream.

And finally, down in the ship’s engine room and the ship’s kitchens, doing the hardest and dirtiest work, are the Titanic’s crew.  The ship’s owners brought them in, mostly from Poland and Romania.  They were told they couldn’t have a vote on the ship’s destination.

Ship of Fools 

A group of passengers and crew get together on an outside deck.  They look out over the rail into the dark, cold ocean below.  What should they do on this amazing but horribly unjust old ship of fools?

The ship is big and strong, and on every deck the lights are blazing and bands are playing; it just seems unbelievable that it could ever sink and they could end up in that freezing water.

But there looms the iceberg ahead, and the ship is heading straight at it.

Some argue that it’s already too late to steer clear.  Others that the ship is such a disgrace that it deserves to go down and take everyone with it – drowning is apparently a peaceful death anyway.  Far too many participants in the meeting want to ignore the iceberg and go over old arguments about whether Shangri-la really exists, and about the conduct of the 2016 vote on the ship’s destination. It’s a cacophony.

Finally, amid the uproar, a sensible woman from the “Best for the Titanic” campaign group takes the floor and grabs the meeting’s attention.

This ship has many problems but it’s the only one we’ve got.  To coin a phrase, we are literally all in it together.  We must discuss the ship’s destination, and the way things are shared out between first, second and third class, but right now the only thing that matters is not to hit the bloody iceberg!

We shouldn’t want to sink quickly and we shouldn’t want to sink slowly.  Whilst there’s any chance still left, we must never, ever give up the battle to keep the ship afloat and to keep everybody out of the freezing cold water. But dealing with the ship’s officers is going to be a complicated business.

She describes her plan.  Captain May has gone insane, and cannot be persuaded out of her impossible scheme to attempt a soft collision with the iceberg.  We can only prise her cold hands off the ship’s wheel with the assistance of Second Mate Johnson’s gang of crooks and charlatans.  When we do this, it is vital that we persuade some of the ship’s horrible old reactionary non-commissioned officers, the so-called PLP, not to run to Captain May’s aid.

But then, having clapped Captain May in irons, we must immediately pivot and get the ship’s officers previously loyal to Captain May to join forces with Chief Petty Officer Corbyn’s people to throw Boris overboard, seize control of the wheel, steer clear of the iceberg, and press the big red button on the bridge that brings the ship to a stop.  Only in this way can we stay afloat.  And only then can there be the luxury of time for a proper debate involving the whole ship on the exact whereabouts of Shangri-la.  There is no time to lose.

Further uproar. The plan is ridiculous, impossible – it can’t be done.  It pays insufficient attention to the legitimate complaints of the passengers in steerage class, shouts out a shaggy-haired ragamuffin called John Harris.

Well, says the sensible woman to everyone else, somebody tell us a better plan that can work in the little time we have left.  Silence.

Over the ship’s tannoy comes an announcement: “Passengers, we are pleased to bring you live on air yet another debate on the vital question of the day: hard collision, soft collision – which is the best way to hit the iceberg?”

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Labour in Liverpool – reflections

brexit march flag liver building

There’s still some confusion about what happened on Brexit at the Labour party conference in Liverpool and what it means.

Northern Umbrella’s take on it is that it was a serious step forward towards getting a new referendum on Brexit, albeit one which was deliberately obscured by a masterful piece of political spinning by John McDonnell and Len McCluskey.  However, the overall situation remains extremely grave.  We are still on the Titanic, and we have to change course or we hit the iceberg.  More on that in the final section of this piece.  But first the good news.

March for the Many

The People’s Vote March for the Many was a great success.  There was an excellent turnout, the weather was kind, and an impressively long and colourful column of marchers wended its way through town from St Georges Hall to the Pier Head, for a well-organised rally in front of the Liver Building.

The great British class divide of an anti-Brexit march was much in evidence, with the majority of marchers looking vaguely liberal and middle class.  But they cared enough to turn out, so no sniping please.  Probably nobody knows better than Jeremy Corbyn how hard it is to get that many people onto the streets for a march.  If so many people do come out, it means something.

In the speeches, Tim Roache, the General Secretary of GMB union led off with really good, straightforward common sense, whilst Tottenham MP David Lammy staked his claim to be the leading spokesperson for Labour remainers.  Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson made the point that back in the 1980s/90s EU regeneration money saved the city of Liverpool, when the British Government had written the place off.  Liverpool had not forgotten, and in the referendum, had voted remain.

A highlight of the speeches was Everton and England football legend Peter Reid who, speaking in perhaps the ultimate Scouse accent, made some excellent points and cracked some good jokes.  Looking out over the sea of EU flags in the crowd, he signed off with “I have to go to Goodison for the game now, and all I can say is, keep the blue flag flying here!”

Options on the table

Meanwhile, at the conference hall, the march was complemented by some seriously awesome politicking by Another Europe is Possible.  They are a group of young Labour party activists who worked incredibly hard all summer to ensure a new Brexit referendum was the key debate at Liverpool.  They achieved this by getting 150 constituency Labour parties to submit motions on Brexit.  They then worked their socks off at the actual conference – including at the gruelling 5 hour ‘compositing’ meeting on Sunday afternoon – to ensure that a satisfactorily worded motion was put and carried.  Here is their account of what happened.

In short, the final motion as passed calls on Labour MPs to vote down the Government’s proposed Brexit deal if it fails to meet “the six tests” (of which the key one is “the exact same benefits as EU membership”, which were David Davis’s promise).  If this happens, Labour will try to bring down the Government and get a general election.  If it fails to get a general election, then in the words of the motion: “Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”  As Keir Starmer said in his conference speech, that means that “nobody is ruling out remain as an option”.  For that, he got a standing ovation.

The context to that outpouring of delight was that on the Sunday and the Monday, both Len McCluskey and John McDonnell had said that for Labour to support a referendum, the question would need to be restricted to a yes/no on the Government’s Brexit deal, a totally absurd position which would imply Labour calling on the people to vote for crashing out without a deal, if they had previously voted the deal down in parliament.

It’s possible that John McDonnell and Len McCluskey were confused or badly briefed – after all, they were both having a superhumanly busy time.  But far more likely is that they were deliberately pursuing a policy of “creative ambiguity”, sending a message to Labour-supporting Leave voters that they were still on their side.

It is thought that over 80% of Labour party members now support a new referendum, and of those almost all will want remain to be an option on the ballot paper.  But McDonnell and McCluskey know that, amongst their target voters in their target seats for the next general election, the numbers look nothing like that.  Later on Monday, McDonnell clarified that his earlier comments were mistaken.  But the retraction got a lot less coverage than the initial statement, and the “mistaken” statement had already done its work on the target voters.

Love Corbyn Hate Brexit

As well as working hard on the conference motion, Another Europe is Possible did a fabulous job of political messaging and sloganeering.  Their two slogans, captured on placards, tote bags and teeshirts were “Stop Tory Brexit” and “Love Corbyn Hate Brexit”.  Both contained very important messages.

“Love Corbyn Hate Brexit” sounds corny, but it did the vital task of distancing the anti-Brexit movement in Labour from the worst of the deranged Corbyn-haters of the Parliamentary Labour Party.  Somehow the slogan sums up the generation of young people who have joined the Labour party and completely revitalised it.  It probably did Alastair Campbell’s blood pressure no good either.

They also took on the myths of ‘Lexit’ (left wing Brexit).  Jeremy Corbyn is nothing if not the child of the Bennite Labour left of the 1970s and 80s.  The Bennites were the original ‘Lexiters’: impeccable internationalists, but always against EU membership, with principled objections to the EU “bosses’ club” and the giving up of absolute national sovereignty that EU membership required.  They voted against it in 1975 and famously put withdrawal from Europe (as Brexit it was then known) into the 1983 Labour election manifesto.  Although they are in a small minority, there are still Lexiters amongst the Labour party activists.  They were in evidence in Liverpool, especially at the Momentum fringe conference/political festival The World Transformed.

As a slogan “Stop Tory Brexit” makes the crucial point that left wing Brexit is not on the table.  As Ann Pettifor said at the Pier Head and at The World Transformed, the only Brexit on offer is one which will make us all vassals of Wall Street and Donald Trump.  Ann Pettifor claimed her credentials as a former Lexiter, and then argued that any true leftie should analyse the situation and conclude that remain is the correct option in the circumstances: “when the facts change, I change my mind”.  This is almost certainly Jeremy Corbyn’s position.

So, altogether a great job done by Another Europe is Possible.  They’re a great bunch of folks: let’s hope they are the future of the Labour party.  And when the annals are written, they deserve their place on the honour roll of those who stopped Brexit, or died tryin’.

But now for the Titanic struggle

titanic_in_iceberg_alley

Despite the real progress on stopping Brexit in Liverpool, Northern Umbrella could not leave Liverpool feeling entirely happy.  Being in Liverpool felt like being on the Titanic.

Yes, Labour had a very successful conference and had done what many would have thought impossible under the Corbynistas: look like a party preparing seriously to win a general election and enter government.  But it was this very focus on a general election and preparing for power that created the uneasy feeling.

Because at the moment the issue is not the next general election, it is 29 March 2019, Brexit Day.  29 March 2019 is a big bloody iceberg and it will sink this country unless we change course and avoid it.  And it is coming up very fast indeed.  There may still be time to time to avoid it, but there is certainly no time to waste.

The lesson of the Titanic, and of the whole first half of the 20th century, is that however permanent and unsinkable your way of life, and your whole civilisation, appears, in fact it can suddenly end frighteningly fast.  And then you find out that being alone in the North Atlantic is a very cold place indeed.

Regenerated Liverpool is a city transformed from what it was 25 years ago.  As somebody once said about Sheffield, it’s a rich city awash with cash – once a week, on Saturday night.  The revellers of all ages tottering about between the ritzy bars and nightspots of the city centre seemed to resemble nothing more than the passengers in the first class saloons and ballrooms of the Titanic.

Apparently carefree, it seems unthinkable that the party could end.  It’s not their job to look out for icebergs ahead, and they are certainly not doing it.  But in fact the whole vessel of the Liverpool economy is highly brittle and there aren’t enough lifeboats.

The World Transformed in its converted factory at Hinterlands felt like a political meeting being held down below decks in steerage class.  Earnest agitators railing against the iniquities of the capitalist system, coming up with academic analyses and long term plans to bring justice to the world.  Which is all worthy and valid in its way, but it just would be more useful at the moment to be on the bow shouting “iceberg ahead!”

If the Labour left and Momentum do not focus on avoiding 29 March 2019, then the next general election won’t be worth winning.  Crash out Brexit won’t just be about empty shelves at the supermarket in the days after 29 March.  It will also be about the financial crash and economic slump the initial shock will provoke.

When the ship sinks, ship’s lieutenant Dominic Raab will be first to lock the gates on the exits from the lower decks, grab a baby and push people out of the way to bag one of the limited places in the lifeboats.  Dominic Raab has apparently already sold all his pounds and put his personal savings into gold.  A little mini-me of the serious disaster capitalists like George Osborne’s BlackRock, who in a year’s time will be buying your repossessed house from the bank so they can rent it back to you.

The Titanic analogy isn’t exact.  Unlike Theresa May, the captain of the Titanic wasn’t a rigid robot unswervingly obsessed and detached from reality.  He didn’t have a crew half-composed of pirates actually working for some shadowy pirate-king on Grand Cayman, like Theresa May does with Dominic Raab, Liam Fox, and the rest.  He didn’t have a discharged officer like Boris Johnson swilling around the ship’s bridge waving a bottle of rum.

And, hopefully, he didn’t have a complement of passengers who have spotted the iceberg, understand the danger it poses, and are willing to seize control of the wheel to steer clear at the last minute.  That’s what we are going to have to do in the next few months.

It’s a Titanic job – who’s in?

 

 

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Brexit crunch time in Liverpool

On Saturday 22 September the Labour Party assembles in Liverpool for its annual conference.  On Sunday 23 September, 12 noon, the People’s Vote March for the Many will form up outside St George’s Hall and march to the Pier Head.  Their demand: that the Labour conference should discuss and vote on motions for a new referendum to sort out the mess that is Brexit.

180726 Unite the North against Brexit logoIt’s crunch time.  Britain is circling the drain, and will shortly pass the point of no return where we can’t stop going down the plughole and into the very nasty cesspit of ‘no deal Brexit’.

Theresa May’s Chequers plan, that last pathetic attempt to get a ‘have your cake and eat it’ Brexit, has been killed twice, first by David Davis/Boris Johnson and then by Michel Barnier, although it staggers on as a zombie.  Theresa May’s only real remaining hope now is the so-called ‘blind Brexit’: a dodgy deal a few pages long which keeps the lorries moving at Dover on 30 March, but which kicks forward most of the details of future arrangements.

The problem with such a blind Brexit deal is that if we accept it, then when after we leave the EU on 29 March and become in EU terms a ‘third country’, they will take us to the cleaners.  Meanwhile, Donald Trump and every other country in the World Trade Organisation, is waiting in the wings to take us to the cleaners too.  We will discover the hard way that in this world, when you don’t have a strategically secure economy – and Britain doesn’t – you get kicked around.

So British MPs won’t accept a blind Brexit, and the risk will be that the EU will close down the negotiations and start focusing on its own preparations for Britain crashing out with no deal.

Bank of England governor Mark Carney has told Theresa May’s cabinet that a no deal Brexit could be as crippling as the 2008 financial crisis.  As Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism points out, “Carney is wrong: a crash-out would be worse… The UK government will be utterly overwhelmed.  It will face real economy problems it is not remotely equipped to handle, and worse, for which it is making hardly any preparation, and will also be hit with stress to its banking system and a probable banking crisis.”

In these circumstances, any hopes any of us might have for making the North of England a better place, with a stronger, fairer, greener economy; an independent media; rescued public services; revived neighbourhoods, villages and town centres; all underpinned by genuinely democratic civic society – we can forget them.  That’s why Northern Umbrella has suspended working on these things to focus exclusively on stopping the Brexit madness.

We do have a way out.  It’s called withdrawing our Article 50 notification and remaining in the EU.  Best for Britain calls it the big red button to stop Brexit.  The only way to make that step democratic is to hold a new referendum.

big red button

Although a new referendum will be welcomed by the many Leave voters across the North who have now changed their mind and want to Remain, it will be viewed with suspicion by those who voted for Brexit as a signal that they wanted real change.

It will therefore be paramount that the new Remain campaign shows how Remain will come with a guarantee of a better North.  It will be disastrous to offer nothing except going back to 23 June 2016.  This task was explored in depth at Leeds for Europe’s fantastic, inspiring conference on 8 September.  The job was summed up perfectly in the event’s title: The Great Northern Stop Brexit Conference – Creating A Vision of a New Britain Without Brexit.  (See report here.)

Decision time: Corbyn – in for Britain?

corbyn in for britain

The new, mass-membership Labour party can and should be at the forefront of creating and delivering this new North.  Labour now has 540,000 members who are overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit.

‘Lexit’ (left wing Brexit) is stone dead.  Although there are principled theoretical positions on the left of Labour against the EU, it has now been demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that in practice we cannot retrieve the British egg from the EU omelette without immense damage, and that Brexit would only put power in the hands of the global billionaire class and their extreme right wing “nationalist international”.

A crucial development over the summer has been that mainstream pro-Corbyn, anti-Brexit Labour party members have finally got out of the shadow of grotesques like Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, who have put using Brexit as a weapon in their dirty war to recapture control of the Labour party above the actual job of stopping Brexit.  Not unreasonably, given the siege Corbyn has been under from these truly horrible people, Corbyn supporters have been shy of causing a big fuss over Brexit.  But, thankfully, this has all now changed.

Over the summer, Another Europe is Possible has been going all over the country with their Left Against Brexit tour.  Over 100 constituency Labour parties have passed motions in favour of a referendum, and Labour members now feel they can say what they think about Brexit, without their position being twisted by Blairites to be used in their vendetta against Corbyn.

Meanwhile, Best for Britain’s polling has shown that the tide has turned against Brexit in the North, with a huge swing in opinion among Leave voters who live in Northern cities and towns – traditional Labour areas.

And now, in a real game-changer, the trades unions have come out for a referendum.  TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady made the case in a very straightforward and relatable way.  Polls show that members of Unite, GMB and Unison now want a referendum by a margin of 2 to 1.

Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy on Brexit to date has been to try to keep his head down whilst the Tories tear themselves apart over it.  The line has been: the Tories are buggering up the Brexit negotiations; give us a general election and let us come into power and do a better job.  Not unreasonable – Brexit was not Labour’s idea, the Brexit vote result was not Labour’s fault, but many working people, not least in the North of England, voted for it.  Keir Starmer’s tests for Theresa May’s Brexit deal (including David Davis’s own promise of Brexit offering “the exact same benefits of EU membership”) were good and clever.

But that strategy has now run out of road.  Time’s up.  There is no longer enough time to have a general election, elect a Corbyn government, and restart negotiations with the EU.  All there is time for now is a referendum on whatever sorry exit deal Theresa May comes back from Brussels with.

So, the Labour annual party conference in Liverpool is the perfect time for Corbyn to announce his support for an updated new policy, demanding a referendum, and unite the Labour movement around it.  It is the perfect chance, but it is also the last chance.  In Liverpool, it’s Brexit crunch time.

Labour and the new North – part of the solution, but also part of the problem

Let us not kid ourselves that when it comes to the problem of renewing the North of England, today’s Labour party in the North is on its own the solution.  It is certainly part of the solution, but not all of it.

Because so many Labour MPs in the North are very much part of the problem: their support for the unreformed Westminster Labour-Tory duopoly system of single member seats, the majority of which are safe and barely contested at elections.  Similarly, the support of the Labour establishment for the democratic disgrace of the first past the post system for local council elections, and no elections for regional bodies at all.  The best thing Scotland ever did was break the stranglehold of ‘first past the post’ on its politics.

We need democratic reform – as the Sheffield Green Party’s Natalie Bennett said at the Great North Stop Brexit Conference, we need to make the North an actual democracy, because currently, it isn’t.  Some good Labour MPs, such as the Yorkshire MP Jon Trickett, get this and are moving on it.  Too many others aren’t – and that includes Corbynistas.  But that’s a debate for another day, and another post on Northern Umbrella.

The key thing to do now is to unite the North against Brexit, and recognise that to do that, we need the Labour party on board.  Please join the march in Liverpool on Sunday 23 September.

This is what a successful speech outside St George’s Hall looks like.  Show ’em how it’s done, Bill.

shankly speaks

 

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The tide turns in the North

Across Britain, the tide is turning against Brexit, and the shift in opinion is showing strongest in the North of England.

Best for Britain has released the results of the most extensive and sophisticated opinion poll yet on the public’s latest views on Brexit.  Over 15,000 people were polled by YouGov and this has been converted into an estimate of how each Westminster constituency would vote leave/remain if there was an EU referendum tomorrow.  In this post, Northern Umbrella analyses Best for Britain’s numbers for the North.

The national headline is that there are now 341 Westminster constituencies in Great Britain that would vote for Remain, compared to 291 that would vote for Leave.  MPs for seats which have switched from being leave-supporting in 2016 to remain-supporting in August 2018 include Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg.  The implication is clear: every concerned citizen should be pushing MPs for a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal brought back by Theresa May, with the option to remain in the EU being on the ballot paper.

Labour’s heartlands are changing their mind – and Liverpool leads the way

The analysis of ‘swing seats’ – places that voted for leave in 2016 but would vote for remain now – shows that the strongest changes of opinion are in Labour’s traditional heartlands including the West Midlands, South Wales, and the North of England.

The biggest swings in Britain are in the Liverpool area: Liverpool Walton (MP Dan Carden, Labour) has moved from being 46.2% for Remain in 2016 to 60.5% today – a 14.3% swing.  Knowsley (MP George Howarth, Labour), has swung from 48% for Remain, the same percentage as the referendum result nationwide, to being 61% in favour of Remain.

This is interesting, because on 22-25 September the Labour Party conference will be in Liverpool.  This is our big chance to bring home to Labour party members and MPs that the Labour-supporting areas across the country that voted for Brexit are now waking up to the reality that Tory Brexit was never intended to benefit them, never will benefit them, and so they have changed their minds – they do not support Brexit any more.

unite liverpool against brexit

The North is shifting against Brexit – but there’s more work to do

The first map, taken from the Polimapper website, shows the estimated result of the 2016 referendum in the North’s Westminster constituencies.  In this map, seats that had a majority for remain are shown in blue, and seats with a majority for leave are shown in red.

The second map shows the findings from Best for Britain’s new August 2018 poll.  In this map, seats polling for remain are shown in yellow, those still polling for leave in green.  This map shows that 35 seats have swung to remain, leaving the new total across the North 70 seats for Remain (45% of the North’s seats) and 86 seats for Leave (55% of seats).  Less than 45% of the area is yellow because the less densely populated rural seats tend to support Leave.

2016 eu ref estimated vote by westminster parl const

aug 2018 poll estimated vote by westminster parl const

Analysis of the changes

The maps of the North show an interesting geography, as discussed below.  What the maps don’t show, but the tables at the bottom of this post do, is that no fewer than 32 of the 35 seats which have swung from Leave in 2016 to Remain in 2018 are Labour-held seats, and just 3 Conservative.

Looking at the map of Remain-supporting areas across the North, the wider Liverpool City Region area stands out as the spiritual home of Remain in the North: all its seats are now estimated to have a majority for Remain, with big swings in formerly pro-leave towns like St Helens and Runcorn/Widnes (Halton).  Nearby Ellesmere Port and West Lancashire have also swung to Remain.

In the rest of Lancashire, the key cities of Preston, Blackburn and Lancaster/Fleetwood have swung from leave to remain.  In the rest of Cheshire, Warrington South and Weaver Vale have joined Chester, Tatton and Macclesfield in favour of Remain.  The Labour seat of High Peak in Derbyshire (which counts as the North for the Northern Umbrella) has swung to Remain.  In Cumbria, opinion is shifting, but no changes yet – the North’s last Lib Dem seat of Westmorland & Lonsdale is still the only place for Remain.

In the North East, there has been a big swing of 11% from Leave to Remain in Gateshead, with Blaydon and Jarrow now too close to call.  They join Tynemouth, Tory Hexham, two of the three Newcastle seats and the City of Durham as pro-Remain seats.  Meanwhile the rest of the region, including all of Tees Valley, is still polling as being in favour of Leave – which is a shame, as a hard Brexit that affects the supply chains of the region’s manufacturing industries (including Nissan in Sunderland, but not just Nissan) will hit the North East harder than anywhere else in the whole of UK.  There is much work to do in the North East and Tees Valley.

In Yorkshire, a huge 12% swing to Remain sees Hull North (MP, Diana Johnson, Labour) proudly join York and Harrogate as the only pro-Remain seats in the whole of North and East Yorkshire.  But the swing to Remain sweeps up eight further seats in Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Calderdale and Huddersfield.  West Yorkshire’s seats now break 13-9 for Remain, whilst South Yorkshire’s now break 4-10 remain/leave.  Leave’s continuing strongholds include Wakefield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham.  However, Barnsley Central has the biggest shift towards remain of anywhere in the North: a giant 17% swing from only 32% for Remain at the 2016 referendum to 49% for it now – nearly there!

In Greater Manchester, nine seats have swung to leave, including seats in Salford, Bury, Rochdale, Oldham, Tameside and Stockport, to join those in Manchester and Trafford.  Greater Manchester’s seats now break 17-10 for Remain.  The only Leave strongholds left are Bolton and Wigan.  This is something that the new Best for Bolton group is aiming to fix urgently, as there is literally zero chance that either Theresa May’s or Boris Johnson’s favoured form of Brexit will be good for places like Bolton and Wigan.

Best for Bolton: taking the campaign to the people

Best for Bolton is a great example of a local campaign to get the word out that a people’s vote to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU is not only a viable option for Britain, but is the best and simplest way to save us from a Liam Fox/Donald Trump Brexit nightmare future.   The data tables below show that views are already changing – the campaign aims to build on that and spread it further.   Many towns and cities in the North already have a campaign group like this: we now need something similar everywhere.

Best for Bolton logo

Best for Bolton was set up following the meeting “Uniting the North against Brexit” on 24 July (report here), and will be running a stall at the Bolton Food and Drink Festival on Sat 25 August, 9am-3pm. The stall will have a ‘Brexitometer’, and loads of information about the campaign to stop Brexit – come to one of the North’s biggest food festivals and meet them!

Bolton North East MP Sir David Crausby (Labour) is already signed up for a people’s vote; only two more MPs to go.  Meanwhile the data tables below show that only 0.4% more of a swing is needed to get a majority of voters in Bolton West into the Remain camp.

The North’s data seat by seat

The tables at the bottom of this post show all 156 Westminster constituencies and their MPs in the Northern Umbrella’s definition of the North of England (the same as the official definition, except for including High Peak in Derbyshire, but excluding Northern Lincolnshire).  For each seat, the tables show the estimated vote at the 2016 referendum, the estimated vote in favour of Remain now (as at August 2018), and the swing towards Remain.  The constituencies in each part of the North are listed in order of today’s estimated level of support for Remain.

Write to your MP!

The names of the MPs whose seats have swung to Remain are highlighted in bold.  Northerners concerned about the future of our region are strongly encouraged to write to these MPs.  All Brexit options hit the North harder than anywhere else in UK, and all Brexit options leave us immeasurably worse off than the option to stay in the EU on our existing terms, the option that expires in 29 March 2019.

Brexit leaves us as a desperate basket case drifting in the cold North Atlantic, ready to be sold by Liam Fox and friends for shafting by Donald Trump.  Although many Northerners are waking up to this reality, not enough have.  We haven’t much time to act.  These MPs know this, and they should not be forgiven if they act against the best interests of their constituents, especially in places which have now changed their minds and favour Remain.

Last word – this is what united against Brexit looks like

Best for Britain’s estimate is that now every single Westminster seat in Scotland enjoys a big majority for Remain.  The North should look to Scotland more than it currently does, and nowhere more than on the question of Brexit: whatever their views on Scottish independence, an overwhelming majority of Scots do not want Brexit.  Would that the North of England had such a clear view of its own best interests.

aug 2018 poll scotland

The data tables

Pale yellow: Remain in 2016; Remain now.  Pale green: Leave in 2016; Leave now      Bright yellow bold: Leave in 2016; has now swung to Remain.

Liverpool City Region

liv list

Yorkshire

yorks list

Greater Manchester

GM list

Cheshire, Warrington & High Peak

cwhp list

Lancashire & Cumbria

lancs cumbria list

North East & Tees Valley

ne tv list

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24 July meeting in Manchester

24 July B4B HMF brexit event flier

A good crowd of around 50 active citizens from across the North of England came to The Wharf pub/restaurant in Manchester’s Castlefield canal basin area on a delightful summer’s evening, to attend the joint Best for Britain/Hannah Mitchell Foundation event “Uniting the North against Brexit”.

They heard from three excellent speakers before contributing to a very high quality question & answer session, ably chaired by Best for Britain’s Northern campaign manager, Charles Gibson.  The speakers were Eloise Todd, Chief Executive of Best for Britain; Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green Party, and Sheffield Green Party super-activist; and Professor Paul Salveson, General Secretary of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, the campaign for democratic devolution for the North of England.

Eloise Todd spoke first.  She explained Best for Britain’s role as a non-party political campaign dedicated solely to making sure that Britain gets a democratic vote on the final Brexit deal, in which ‘remain in the EU’ is an option on the ballot paper.  It does not campaign to accept a soft Brexit, and it has no hidden additional political agenda – for example, relating to seizing control of existing political parties or setting up new ones.  Eloise, who is from Hull, has pressed pause on her career in the development charity sector to save the North of England that she loves, and Britain as a whole, from the disaster of Brexit.

Best for Britain is working both at the grassroots, including across the North, and at the Westminster parliamentary/London national media level.  Eloise is working across party divides at Westminster, including with the Tory remain rebels, to win important votes in parliament.  Highlights have included the crucial vote in November 2017 that ensured a meaningful parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal, and the near-miss in July 2018 on remaining in the customs union.

Eloise Todd’s key message was that we have no more than the two months of August and September to change the game on Brexit.  We need to ensure that the British public understands that Britain still has the option to remain in the EU on the same advantageous terms we already enjoy, and that this is by far the best option for Britain in the current situation.  This would be done by revoking or withdrawing our Lisbon Treaty Article 50 notification that we intend to leave the EU.  However, this option expires on 31 March 2019.  After that date, Britain’s negotiating position becomes even weaker than it already is, whether we go through with Brexit, or try to rejoin the EU.

During the autumn of 2018, Brexit preparations by private businesses and government will go past the point of no return, and Brexit will be too late to stop.  Therefore it is essential that every person attending the meetings acts quickly to spread the word.  The public debate must be brought to a head at the time of the ‘party conference season’ in the second half of September.

Eloise made a number of excellent other points, and one of the most interesting was the observation that although everybody says with good reason that Theresa May’s Government is in a state of continuous crisis, in fact the No.10 Downing Street media spin machine is doing one thing quite well: it is doing a good job of preparing the ground to frame Autumn 2018’s debate as being between Theresa May’s Brexit and a chaotic No Deal Brexit.  By ramping up concern over the chaos that would accompany a no-deal Brexit, it is preparing the British public for a wave of relief when some – any – kind of exit deal with the EU is reached.  The plan is to spin the deal as delivering the people’s will to have Brexit, and as a great success compared to the disaster that would have struck had there been no deal.  The fact that the deal will be a very poor one compared to the deal we already have as members of the EU, will be glossed over.  The Tories’ key aim is to make the British public believe that the ‘revoke Article 50’ option, to remain in the EU on our existing terms, does not exist, despite the fact that EU politicians continuously say that they would welcome us with open arms if Britain changed its mind and decided to stay in.

Natalie Bennett then spoke.  Few Westminster politicians make the sheer number of public appearances and stump speeches that Natalie makes, in every corner of UK, and she proves that the greatest political vitality in this country lies away from Westminster.  She has also become a highly expert public speaker, and is one of the most thoughtful and interesting speakers active on the British political scene.  Never content to give the people only what they wanted to hear – and could have guessed beforehand what she would say – she always makes the effort to go one step further and challenge her audience to think about some new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas as well.

An Australian by birth, an agricultural scientist by training, and formerly a journalist by career (including as editor of The Guardian Weekly), on stepping down as leader of the Green Party of England & Wales in 2015, she made the positive decision to become a Northerner, moving from London to Sheffield because it is a better place to live, and be politically active.

Natalie campaigned hard for Remain in 2016, and with her Green Party colleagues was among the few that made the positive case for EU membership, which the official Remain campaign chose to avoid.  EU citizenship is an incredible plus for British people, not just for its economic benefits, but for the freedom, opportunities and security that it offers.  She made the memorable point that freedom of movement and residence is a two-way deal: as an example, it means that any young British person can move to Rome, try life in a beautiful and historic city, get involved in a relationship with someone unsuitable, have fun and grow.

She is the first to say that the EU as an institution is very far from perfect, not least in terms of the democratic deficit, but she is a believer in reforming and improving what we have already got – ‘Another Europe is Possible’.  And it must never be forgotten that, even in its existing flawed state, the EU offers British people environmental, workplace and human rights protections better than anything we get from Westminster alone.  ‘Take back control’ was the slogan that resonated strongly across the North – but the North must take back control from the highly democratically-flawed Westminster system.

Natalie’s key point was to underline the issue of urgency.  Theresa May’s government needs to be defeated. Theresa May is not going to change her mind on offering a referendum, and therefore she needs to be removed.  Only MPs can do this, and it needs to happen in October, which means the public pressure needs to be built in the next two months.  Natalie said that things can happen fast in politics when there is a need for it, and nothing is impossible.

Paul Salveson spoke third.  Paul introduced himself and the Hannah Mitchell Foundation (HMF), the campaign for democratic devolution for the North.  HMF was set up to press for a progressive regionalism, very much part of the concept of “a Europe of the regions”.

Hannah Mitchell herself was a socialist and feminist.  She was brought up on a remote farm in the High Peak, and ran away to become a dressmaker in Bolton, and ended up becoming one of the first female councillors in the country, representing Newton Heath for the Independent Labour party on Manchester City Council.  Hannah Mitchell was a staunch internationalist and was part of the women’s international league against that war.  So she would have been an EU remainer.  Also relevant to the current fight, she was also always happy to work across party boundaries (she observed in her autobiography that she had sometimes found it easier to get support from Conservative members of Manchester Corporation for her projects to improve the lives of women and families in Manchester than it was to get support her male Labour Party colleagues).

Paul agreed with all Eloise’s and Natalie’s points and also noted the issue that Brexit endangered the peace in Northern Ireland.

Paul’s key point was that Brexit is gearing up to be a disaster for the North of England in particular.  The Government’s own Brexit impact studies say so.  All the North of England’s manufacturing and service industries will be hammered.  There is a paradox that the people and places which voted most strongly for Brexit will the places worst hit by it.  This risks very ugly outcomes.  The only way out of this mess is radical reform to bring power closer to the people both at the regional and neighbourhood level, backed up by major investment in all the North’s places and communities.

The Question & Answer session from the floor followed, which allowed the speakers to go deeper into the points they had covered in their speeches, and brought in new ones that they had not.

Overall the meeting reinforced a strong sense of the urgency of the situation.  The people attending who are already active in their local areas on Brexit left with a strong resolve to redouble their efforts in the coming months, and the many of the people from HMF left with the strong idea in their minds to focus their activism on stopping Brexit for the period of what is in effect a national emergency.

One outcome of the meeting is the formation of the ‘Best for Bolton’ group, to fight the cause in a town that voted for Brexit, and there will be more on this in a future post.

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