Don’t ban Brexit at the table – but set yourself some rules!

Posted on December 23, 2019


Millions of words of analysis have now been scribbled in an attempt to explain how, after nine years of crippling austerity, people voted for those who imposed it. For all of that – and I’m not blameless in contributing to the noise – one thing is abundantly clear, as it was to those of us on the doorsteps: the wall of noise that the Tories built about Brexit was impossible to penetrate. It was a hard-learnt lesson.

Rumour has it that one of the slogans considered by the shadowy spin-doctors in Cummings’s dungeon was ‘Tell them again’. I’m no expert in the art of marketizing politics in catchphrases, but it seems just as good as the stuff about getting it done. Both ideas caught an understanding of what many people felt as well as what they thought. There were plenty of teachers out on the knocker supporting Labour and we should have been a bit sharper. I’ll explain.

A few years back, Channel 4 did a documentary series in which celebrities tried their hand at teaching in a comprehensive school. Some of them made a pretty good fist of it, albeit that they had a range of elaborate and expensive materials at their disposal which would not have been available to your average practitioner on a dull Tuesday afternoon. The historian David Starkey brought in some treasured artefacts to bring the ancient world alive to his temporary charges. But one kid remained stubbornly unimpressed. That happens, by the way.

There followed an uncomfortable interchange between truculent teenager and irate teacher which, from the comfort and security of the living room, was as hilarious as it was predictable. This ended with the unlovely Starkey calling the kid fat, lazy and stupid. More popcorn, please. We never found out quite how it played out in the immediate future because it was television and not real life. But in the real world of teaching, someone would have had to take Starkey aside and explain two things to him.

First, you don’t get anyone to listen to you if you insult them. You forfeit the right to be taken seriously if you’re rude, dismissive and impatient. Second – and this is the really difficult bit – if you’re to have an ongoing relationship with someone with whom you’ve got off on the wrong foot, you need to be patient, scrupulous and thoughtful in everything you do.

To millions of people, Labour’s failure to honour its promise of respecting the referendum result looked rude and patronising. Like the kid in Starkey’s class, many of them had plenty of experience of being written off in a whole range of ways. What they needed was honesty and respect; to many of them it didn’t look like they were getting it. The fact that the political party established on the principle of protecting the interests of working people still expected their vote, cut no ice. The job of the left, in and out of the Labour Party, it to begin the painstaking process of rebuilding that relationship which has been so damaged. I’ll come to how we might do that in a moment, but in the meantime….

….this will be the fourth Christmas since the Brexit referendum. Listening to talk-radio chatter, there seems to be a view that there needs to be a moratorium on the B-word when we settle down to the sprouts. I can’t help thinking that’s a mistake – but I’ll concede that two basic ground rules would help. First, no gloating or grizzling, depending which side you’re one. Second, a firm commitment to no-one coming back next year to say, ‘I told you so’.

Whether we like it or not, within a few weeks the process will have started and whatever clumsy, halting form it will take, it will be irreversible for the foreseeable future. When the unwelcome uncle, florid from booze and rich food, tries to put you right, just tell him you’ve accepted the election result and wait for him to fall into flatulent silence as the day wears on.

There is, of course, a tempting alternative. Point out to him that the Tories have already started on their project: selling off defence procurement; backtracking on the ‘promises’ about the minimum wage; making threatening noises about banning strikes; saying nothing about how to provide social care. Tell him that in a year’s time all the people who put their faith in the Tories will see the awful error of their ways as their communities continue to wither through lack of proper funding. Let him know that Brexit – whatever it is and whatever it means – will probably shrink the economy and that the victims will be those who are worst off.

Don’t do it. Remember Starkey and his rudeness. People don’t change their minds by being hectored and threatened – especially by losers.

You could point out that the challenge for all of us is to address the startling inequality that we encounter every day and that you’re going to make your contribution to your own community. You could reinforce the fact that the planet is burning before our eyes and that you’re going to contribute to protest and promoting alternatives. You might want to express your support for those taking industrial action to protect their nursing jobs, university funding, rail safety and the postal service. In short, you can make a commitment to act, not just talk.

And if we all do some of the above and we all do it together and by doing so, we begin to build bridges and make connections between ourselves, not only might we be able to endure five years of blustering Tory horseshit, we might even build the better society that eventually exposes Johnson and his like for the charlatans we know them to be.

Happy Christmas and a fighting new year. Pass the sprouts.


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