Only the Brexitometers can save us now

The North of England is now the hottest windiest part of the front line in the battle to save the whole UK from Brexit and disaster, or – at best – inexorable, sorry decline.  Northern Labour MPs claiming to represent their constituents’ views could soon end up being the people who condemn the North, selling it for a handful of beads.

And so, with 50 48 days to go, there is no alternative than to persevere in the mission of changing opinion in the North, and – crucially – showing these MPs that more people have already changed their minds on Brexit in the North than anywhere else.

This post attempts to show the full range of activities going on this weekend across the North to take the word out on to the streets.  It may be the first attempt to consolidate the activities by the different anti-Brexit groups into a single list.  It’s pretty low-tech, and apologies for that.  If anybody is already doing it better, please get in touch.

180726 Unite the North against Brexit logo

Take one step back and look at this madness

If Theresa May persists in pursuing her Brexit deal, she will be looking to increase the number of Labour rebel MPs voting for her Blind Brexit.  She is posing as a maniac in a suicide vest – do as I say or I will blow us all up.  It’s a plan that only works if she looks maniacal enough to press the detonator – and by God, she is doing a good job of that.

Enter Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit ‘compromise’ deal, offered yesterday.  It’s pitched as sweet reason, a midpoint between the extremes of Leave and Remain, something to unite a divided country around.

But if you just pause, take one step back, and look at it, the insanity of it all is revealed.   If Hard Brexit, No Deal Brexit or Theresa May’s Blind Brexit are crazy self-harm, then Soft Brexit (including the concept offered by Jeremy Corbyn to Theresa May yesterday) is just simply pointless – milder self-harm, but needless self-harm all the same.

Ask a simple question: can the proponents of soft Brexit point to anything that is better than the deal we already have now, as full members of the EU with our votes and our veto, and our various special opt-outs highly advantageous to us.  Then boggle with amazement and anger that this question is deliberately not being asked by the BBC, as part of its policy to ‘disappear’ Remain as an option.

So let’s get out onto the streets and ask it ourselves!

Street smarts

The genius who invented the Brexitometer deserves an award.  Can there be any better way to open up a conversation about Brexit than to ask people to put a coloured dot next to their preference among the remaining Brexit options?  The Brexitometer allows people of all points of view to express their opinions freely, whilst also creating the possibility of opening up minds to thinking differently.

It shows people that their neighbours and fellow citizens hold a wider diversity of point of view than they may perhaps have realised.

And it just brilliantly undermines and demolishes the claim that asking people what they think is “a democratic abomination” – The Sun’s political editor Trevor Kavanagh’s way of describing giving the final say on Brexit to the people through a ratification referendum.

Leeds Crossgates Brexitometer 2 Feb

The Brexitometer Central Facebook page is a valiant attempt to keep abreast of the all the Brexitometer efforts across the country, and this amazing web map shows the results of previous Brexitometer exercises across the country.  Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be one single place on the internet where you can check what Brexitometer activity is coming up in your area.

Navigating the political minefield

Inevitably, the movement to Stop Brexit has its political divides and enmities, which can sometimes be confusing and dispiriting for the less tribal citizens who want to get involved. But the vituperation that can be found on the internet is very rarely found in person, on the ground.  In reality, what unites Remainers is greater than any political divide.  In exactly the same way that deep down what unites Remainers and Leavers is stronger than what divides us.

The European Movement UK, and its many local affiliates, provides a great, non party-political umbrella for Remain campaigners to gather under.  So does Best for Britain.  In the North, Leeds for Europe has taken the lead within the regional on uniting the North against Brexit.

Meanwhile, more non-aligned left wing folk, especially young people, members of the Green party, and members of the Labour party for whom the slogan ‘Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit’ is a good summary of their position, might prefer the Another Europe is Possible group (also previously called the Left Against Brexit).

The strongest enmity in the Remain movement is actually within the Labour party – between the former New Labour establishment, its MPs, apparatchiks, and longstanding members and the Corbynistas who now control the party at the national level, but not everywhere at the regional and local level.   The Corbynistas are understandably frustrated with the Labour MPs who give a higher priority to using Brexit as a means of seizing back control of the party than in actually stopping it.  But other Labour party members are understandably disappointed that Corbyn isn’t doing better on Brexit and better in the polls, given the shambles the Tory government is in.  Nevertheless, in all cases, the overwhelming majority getting involved are good people acting in good faith.

One upshot of all this is that you won’t find information on what Another Europe are doing on the Peoples Vote website, and vice-versa.  So this listing by Northern Umbrella *may* be the only place on the internet where such a thing exists.  We hope not, because there is definitely room to do it better, and more high tech.  But we will provide it until we can point to someone else doing it better.

Street campaigning activities in the North for Remain, Saturday 9 February 2019 

This list is last minute and will inevitably be incomplete, but is worth putting together just to show the range of places where things are going on.  We will aim to do better and get it our earlier for forthcoming weekends.  All additional information gratefully received – email us here.   Every event is on Sat 9 Feb, unless otherwise indicated.

For further information, check and  Anything being organised by anyone else will be added as information comes in.

North East/Tees Valley

Darlington.  10am. Peoples Vote.  Meet outside Model T pub

Jarrow.  10.30am. Another Europe is Possible.  Meet 73 Ellison Street NE32 3JU

Saltburn.  11am.  Peoples Vote.  Meet outside Sainsburys, Milton St

Washington.  1pm.  Peoples Vote.  Meet outside Washington Old Hall


Batley.  10.45am.  Another Europe.  Meet outside Batley library

Barnsley.  11am.  Peoples Vote.  Meet at Wombwell railway station

Bradford. 11am.  Another Europe.  Meet on Great Horton Road outside Tesco

Pontefract.  10.30am.  Peoples Vote.  Meet outside Argos

Rotherham.  2pm.  Another Europe.  Meet at Clifton Park & Museum

Wakefield (Crofton) 11.30am.  Peoples Vote.  Meet at Crofton Academy

North West

Ashton-under-Lyne.  11am.  Peoples Vote.  Meet at Ashton bus station

Bolton.  10am-1pm.  Best for Britain.  Outside Waterstones, Deansgate

Manchester, Blackley.  10am.  Another Europe.  Meet at City North library,

Manchester, Wythenshawe.  11am.  Another Europe Meet at Wythenshawe Town Centre Metro

Oldham.  1.30pm.  Another Europe & Peoples Vote (yippee!).  Meet at Oldham Central Bus Station

Stoke-on-Trent*.  11am.  Peoples Vote UK.  Meet in the Knave of Clubs car park.  [*Northern Umbrella reserves the right to count Stoke as the North when it feels like it]

Wigan.  12 noon.  Another Europe.  Meet 4 Market Place, outside Tui

NOTE: Northern Umbrella is compiling this list, but has no responsibility for organising any of these events and cannot verify whether or not the information is correct.

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Tha Brexit, tha owns it

The Brexit debate already has quite enough angry invective, especially from somewhat gammony middle-aged men.  But unfortunately what the Westminster village is serving up now, with just 53 days left on the Brexit countdown clock, demands fury.  So, with apologies to Lynsey de Paul for pinching her lyrics, here goes.

If you haven’t got time to read it all, in summary: if you break it, you own it.  If North of England Labour MPs end up as the crucial votes to get Theresa May’s Brexit deal over the line, then the inexorable decline and despair of the region resulting must be hung around their necks like the albatross.

nothing has changed

It’s not complicated.  Tory Brexit offers not one single thing that will help fix any of the North of England’s problems in any way.  It will just make all of them massively worse.  For Labour MPs this should be absolutely basic.

Yet, last week in the House of Commons, Northern Labour MPs played a vital part in passing ‘the Brady amendment’, the bad taste joke that sends Theresa May back to Brussels to negotiate ‘alternative arrangements’ to the Irish border backstop that neither Brady, May nor anyone else can describe.

It’s a debacle that destroys what little remained of the UK’s international diplomatic reputation and – unless reversed – will in time destroy the United Kingdom itself.

It’s hard for anybody who gives a damn about our country’s future not to despair.  But whilst there remains any slim chance of stopping Brexit, there is no better option than to soldier on.  The indefatigable Brexitometer volunteers are an inspiration.

Our message is simple: in the North, the 2016 Brexit vote was never about the EU, it was about the state of us.  So let’s take a long hard look at ourselves, and get serious about our choices.  Amazingly, there is still time to drop Brexit and get on instead with addressing our actual problems – our society, our environment, our economy and our democracy.  Or we can choose Tory Brexit and ruin.

This shit is our shit

Say what you like about Sir Graham Brady, but the Salford-born MP for Altrincham, Chairman of the Tory 1922 committee and former Chairman of the Durham University Conservative Association, is unquestionably a Northerner.  As is Tadcaster-born former Yorkshire miner and Rother Valley MP Sir Kevin Barron.  As is Tynemouth-born former Northumberland miner and Blyth Valley MP Ronnie Campbell.  As is the Beswick-born, global warming-denying Labour MP for Manchester Blackley, Graham Stringer.  The three Labour MPs are all working class boys made good, and they are all well rooted in the communities they represent.  They are also three of the Northern MPs who voted with Brady last week.

And it’s not just the pale, male and decidedly stale.  Laura Smith, 34 year-old former schoolteacher and now Labour MP for Crewe & Nantwich, and Liverpool-born Labour MP for West Lancashire Rosie Cooper, are both unquestionably Northerners too.  They were among the 14 Labour MPs who voted against the Yvette Cooper and Dominic Grieve amendments that would have wrestled control of the Brexit process away from Theresa May and her Tory minority administration, and given it back to parliament.  These 14 Labour MPs exactly cancelled out the 14 Tory remainer rebels and gave Theresa May all the votes she needed to retain power over parliamentary business.  These 14 Labour MPs are personally responsible for an excited Boris Johnson being able to bounce onto live TV to tell the nation to rejoice for the great achievement of a reunified Tory party.

In other news in the last week, Nissan announced that it is not investing further in its Sunderland plant, Airbus as good as announced that it is leaving as soon as possible, and the European Medicines Agency left London for Amsterdam, which spells the beginning of the end for Britain’s competitive edge in pharmaceuticals.  In a single week, we have seen the death sentence pronounced on three of the four remaining jewels in the North of England’s manufacturing crown.  This will leave the North with one last world class manufacturing industry: warplanes and weapons.

Brexit.  Call it the craziest own-goal in football history, call it a self-indulgent, weirdly camp, masochistic act of self-pity borne of a misplaced sense of both superiority and grievance (© Fintan O’Toole), call it what you like, but we Northerners own a big piece of this shit.  The North of England voted for Brexit, by approximately 56%-44%.

If we’re honest with ourselves – and it is time to be honest with ourselves – it’s part of any Northerner’s comfort blanket to blame London for the misfortunes that befall the North.  But although this colossal fuck up is being enacted in Westminster, it is being done by ‘England-outside-London’ for England-outside-London.  For once, London didn’t do this to us; we are doing it to ourselves.

Every single one of those Northern Labour MPs, whether young and diligent, or old, tired and cynical, did what they did safe in the knowledge that they had enough voters in their own constituencies behind them.  Some did it because they think their duty is to be their constituents’ voice even if they don’t agree with them, some did it simply to help their chances of getting re-elected.  Some did it from a perfectly preserved 1983 ‘Lexit’ stance, some did it some did it because they are just dodgy old rogues.  But in all cases it is absolutely wrong to say that what they did was not democratic politics in action.

Although there is good evidence that working class Northerners are among the people who have changed their minds the most on Brexit between 2016 and today, and it is certainly true that the opinion polls show that the UK would vote by 54-46 to remain in the EU if another vote was held, the fact is that the vast majority of people have not changed their minds.

Such is the state of madness we have got ourselves into, that it doesn’t matter that neither these Labour MPs nor anybody else is able to describe what tangible good Brexit will do for anybody’s actual lives, because Leave voters themselves are not asking this question.  All that seems to matter is whether the Leave vote, the will of the people, is being seen through to the bitter end.

An image-canny, ideologically flexible MP like Doncaster’s Caroline Flint can see this, and so prepares the ground for getting into bed with Dominic Raab by emoting about respecting the vote.

Pro- or anti-Brexit is now a political tribal identity as strong as ‘right wing’ or ‘left wing’.  As strong maybe (whisper it) as Northerner or Southerner.  And when someone accuses your tribe of being thick, or deluded, or even just honestly mistaken, the general tendency is not to examine the evidence behind the accusation but to fight back on the emotional level and double down on the original point of view.

Let’s admit it: we supposedly wonderful, honest, caring, funny, plain-speaking, well-meaning, hard-working, passionate but common sense-loving Northerners are not averse to a spot of tribalism.

Is God to blame?

Most Northerners who voted for Brexit did so in what for them was good faith.  Yes, some Northern Brexit voters are nasty white supremacists, or absurd empire nostalgists.  But most were good people acting in good faith.

Yes, they were conned and deluded by the shameless lies of the Bad Boys of Brexit.  But they were conned and deluded partly because they wanted to be conned and deluded.  They wanted to believe.  They wanted to believe in their own country as a place that would help them and their families, rather than be a country that would continually rip them off and ruthlessly attack their dignity in times of need.  ‘Believe in Britain’ was as powerful as slogan as ‘Take Back Control’.

They wanted to believe so much, that they were willing to overrule the evidence of their own eyes that Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were obvious shysters.  Or to be more precise, they knew they were being lied to, but they chose to believe it anyway.  It’s so similar to religious TV in the USA, it’s scary.

I am haunted by a conversation with a 20-something, working class, lesbian Yorkshirewoman, who told me that “Come Brexit”, deep rooted but austerity-ravaged community facilities in her neighbourhood were going to stop closing, and things in her life were going to get better.

Subconsciously she was harking back to a more religious Northern past, when people were happy to believe that “Come Glory” wrongs would be righted, the last would be first, and justice would be done.

On referendum day, she and millions of others took back control and promptly handed it to Liam Fox to hand over to Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, and the rest of the vicious, banal, planet-destroying international kleptocrats, who are lying in wait to right royally do her, and the rest of us, over.

It was and is a giant mistake.  Nobody likes to admit to a mistake.  But it’s preferable to being screwed by Donald Trump.

Where are we?  Rock Bottom. 

Let’s be clear where we are now.  We’re in the mire.

Labour and the Tory ERG have bullshitted on for months about going back to the beginning with the EU to renegotiate an exit deal, but back in November Theresa May got it dead right when she said there were only three possibilities still left in play: her deal, Brexit with no deal, and No Brexit.

What happened last week was that Theresa May disowned her own deal.  The EU won’t renegotiate the Irish border backstop not only because – to their credit – they won’t sell the Irish down the river, but also because it is not meaningfully logically possible.  If there is a border customs arrangement acceptable to both the UK and the EU that can be found, then it will be found during the two years of the transition period, and the backstop will be unnecessary.  But if there isn’t, it won’t, and that’s why there needs to be a backstop.

Those who support sports teams prone to relegation will know well that point in the season where your fate is no longer entirely in your own hands.  That’s what happened last week in the Brexit process.

Even if Theresa May comes home from Brussels with something that looks like a concession from the EU, and puts her vaguely amended deal back to parliament, there is now no longer enough time for a legally orderly Brexit on 29 March.  There are too many pieces of legislation needing to go through the British parliament, never mind the vagaries of getting the amended deal through the 751-member European parliament.  So we will shortly be going back to the EU27 on our knees pleading with them to extend the Brexit day deadline, not for a public referendum to ratify the original deal (which they might grant), but simply to help us out with some crummy amended version of the deal.  They may extract a price.  Or they may have lost patience with us and decide to toss us over the cliff.

The only action that is still entirely within our own hands is to unilaterally revoke our notification of intention to withdraw from the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.  And looking at last week’s parliamentary arithmetic, that looks like it is going to require a mathematical miracle.  A point in the season that those who support sports teams prone to relegation will also be well familiar with.

Tragedies, we got ‘em

Brexit is going to go badly wrong.  No Deal Brexit, particularly if it happens on 29 March, will be carnage from the off.  By contrast, if we do sign Theresa May’s deal after all, then it won’t be so bad in the early days – there will be food on the supermarket shelves and medicines in the chemists.  But the North’s economy will go into a steady, inexorable decline.

The trade talks with the EU, which only start when we leave, will be horrible, and will go on for ever.  People tend to forget that the withdrawal agreement was the easy bit.  The EU is waiting for the UK to become a third country before it really starts playing hardball with us.

The one great achievement of Maggie Thatcher’s economic policy, the selling of the UK to Japanese manufacturers and others as a stable, reliable base for them inside the EU single market, has now been killed and can’t be revived.  With No Deal, most non-military advanced manufacturing will be gone within months.  With May’s deal, it will be run down more gradually over a few years.

A truly impressive achievement of the New Labour years, the creation of the image of Cool Britannia as an open, welcoming country for international university students and researchers, has been profoundly damaged.  The North’s university campuses, which have been doing so well even as much of the rest of the North has struggled, will cease thriving.  Because universities are now over-leveraged businesses rather than groves of academe, many will go bust.  Expect to see vice-chancellors and other professional administrators sprinting for the exits with holdalls full of cash.  In some Northern cities, it’s going to be like the last chopper out of Saigon.

Meanwhile, the Trump White House is literally standing in line waiting to shaft us.  Chlorinated chicken for tea will be the least of our worries.  Northerners’ pensions and financial assets, and the region’s accumulated social and physical capital (for example, our NHS) will become a kind of financial strip mine for Wall Street.  They will extract everything they can and then walk away, leaving behind penury.

But the thing we can be absolutely sure of is that when Brexit goes wrong, Rees-Mogg and Farage won’t be blaming themselves.  They’re going to blame literally anybody and everybody else.

The tragic irony is that, deep down, a large proportion of Brexit voters don’t even really want to leave the European Union.  Their comfort zone is to be inside the European Union, enjoying their pensions and Spanish holidays and fully-stocked supermarket shelves, with the luxury of someone else being to blame for betraying them, and keeping them in the EU against their will.  That is most probably the real ‘will of the people’.

Remedy?  Why don’t we rub it out and start it again

Lesley Riddoch wrote a fantastic opinion piece in The Scotsman calling on Northerners and Midlanders to direct their rage at Westminster, not the EU.  (What a shame that we have to go to Scotland to get a decent newspaper independent of London.)

Representative democracy is the right answer, but we need a better version of it than the antiquated and unfit Westminster system.

The core of the problem is the single seat system with first-past-the-post elections.  This creates the tendency towards a two party duopoly in which Labour conspire as much as Tory to deny real democratic choice.

Few want a general election – look at the Brexitometer results.  One reason that a general election does not arouse much enthusiasm (contrast for example with the hundreds of thousands of people coming out to march for a fresh referendum) is that it is not really a very democratic exercise.

Westminster seats are all single member seats and the vast majority of them are safe for one of the two parties.  Therefore the campaign only really takes place in the marginal seats.  And even in the marginal seats, the experience is too often not about voting for a candidate or party you feel enthusiastic about, but rather about voting tactically to keep out the candidate of the party you are against.  Negative campaigning dominates.

During the campaign, tactical voting is encouraged by the two main parties, squeezing the vote for independents and smaller parties – lend us your vote, don’t waste it!  But then as soon as the vote is in, those votes are presented by them to be genuine support, locking in the two party system.  Theresa May delights to say that in 2017 80% of people voted for parties who promised to leave the EU.  They did indeed, but she draws the wrong lesson from it.

We should reform to the Irish system for Westminster and local council elections, and for a new regional government assembly for the North.  In the Republic of Ireland, each constituency elects 4 or 5 members, and voters list all candidates in order of preference (single transferable vote).  This means that everybody’s vote counts, everybody gets to express a preference for the person as well as the party label, and every candidate has to give the voters a positive reason to vote for them.  When the election is done, the support for each party is proportionally represented in parliament, and almost every voter feels that they are represented by a person they expressed a preference for.  It is noticeable that the Irish appear to be much more content with their democracy and their politicians than we are.

Getting reform to the system won’t be easy, and Labour will be as much an obstacle as the Tories.  The status quo is protected by the majority of MPs who have safe seats.  This means that they have to fight a competitive election just once in their political career – the selection meeting of their local party for their candidate for the vacant seat – and then they can settle back, often for decades on end.  The system does throw up some good people, but sadly, not enough.

Getting rid of the system may require destroying the Labour machine.  This is what it took in Scotland, and nowhere was more solidly, reliably Labour than there.  For Scotland, it’s been worth it, and things are looking up for communities across that country, although of course they will be hammered by Brexit too.

Maybe that will be no great loss, because it looks like the dream of a radical, reforming Corbyn government has died in recent weeks.  Corbyn simply left his pivot from constructive ambiguity to loud ‘n’ proud backing for the young people of Britain (who are 80% for Remain) too late.  It’s a tragedy and it’s also an irony: who would have guessed that, of all things, triangulation would be the ruination of Jeremy Corbyn!  But that’s what a two party system does to everyone.

Maybe it’s not too late for Corbyn, but it feels like it is.  Had he pivoted to Remain earlier, so many young people (and older citizens willing to pound the streets for votes) would have done anything for him.  Now, it may well be that whatever he says, he won’t be able to get them to listen to him any more.  Let’s wait and see.

Meanwhile, trusting the Labour party and trusting the existing electoral system is about trusting John Mann to negotiate with some random Tory minister to get serious new money for coalfield communities.  Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.

With sympathy – oh I get it.  Harmony – you said it. 

The prospect of Brexit is so bleak that there really is no point this side of 29 March in doing anything else than keeping fighting, and hoping for our miracle.

The Brexitometer volunteers are the heroes of the hour.  Going out in all weathers, to engage the people in discussion and seek their views on the big Brexit questions of the day.  Only they can save us now.

Here is the result from Cross Gates in East Leeds, a working class stronghold of Leave in the city of Leeds.

Leeds Crossgates Brexitometer 2 Feb

Here is the result from Wombwell, near Barnsley, pit village and former stronghold of Arthur’s Army, which voted massively for Leave in 2016.

Wombwell Brexitometer 2 Feb

Both a bit different from what you might expect listening to the BBC’s narrative of what is going on.

Back in July 2018 Eloise Todd told a public meeting in Manchester that the 10 Downing Street game plan was to disappear Remain as an option.  The narrative would be, it’s either Theresa May’s deal, or the bloodcurdling prospect of No Deal.

The BBC has stuck religiously to those instructions through thick and thin.  It simply blacks out news that doesn’t fit the narrative.  Rest assured that the BBC will not be honestly reporting that revoking Article 50 is enjoying widespread and growing support, even in some of the most strongly pro-Leave areas.  The Scots have been through all this before with the BBC.

But if the Brexitometer volunteers keep going, and keep getting information about the results they are getting out through social media, eventually even the BBC will be forced to play catch up and report what is happening.  Probably initially to try to ridicule it.  First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you… then you win.  Let’s hope so.

Here are the Barnsley Brexitometer volunteers’ takeaways from a chilly Saturday in Wombwell:

  • Barnsley folk are warm & friendly regardless
  • No amount of evidence will change some views that we’re scaremongering, or in any case “we’ll be right, we’ve survived worse!”
  • Something needs to change in our political system
  • Lots of support for Remaining!

Let’s take heart from that.  There’s no future for England without bringing Wombwell with us.

The next post will look at where the Brexitometers are going next.

eurovision 1977





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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.


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.


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.


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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


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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