Julie Ward on taking internationalism to the streets
The General Election result was deeply disappointing for all those who campaigned to stop Boris Johnson, but the disappointment and dread post December 12th is not just for progressive pro-Europeans here in the UK – it also rings warning bells across Europe.
The UK has historically been held in great affection by most of our neighbours who adore our pop stars, watch our television programmes and learn our language from an early age. Quaint British customs are aped adoringly and our aberrations usually forgiven. But those watching the regressive Westminster political drama from across the sea have, like many of us, continued to hope that somehow we would find a way to stop the slide into dangerous isolationism outside the EU. Barring a miracle that hope now seems to have been extinguished.
When the ill-advised referendum took place in 2016 the eyes of the world were upon us. I heard a touching story from a Lithuanian colleague, MEP Laima Andrikienė, whose nonagenarian mother stayed up all night to watch the results. Laima did not and awoke on the morning of June 24th to hear her mother saying, “We’ve lost!”
This story has haunted me. The collective ownership of British values by pro-European non-Brits, especially by those whose recent memories of totalitarianism and fascism remain intact and ingrained, is not easily understood by either the British public or our politicians, many of whom choose to remember the far-distant Empire rather than deeply reflect on the consequences of two world wars. There is an appalling absence of historical referencing in public discourse to such an extent that a poll conducted by the HMDT in the lead up to Holocaust Memorial Day in 2019 found that more than 2.6 million British people believe the holocaust is a myth. The survey also found that 8% of our population claim the scale of the genocide has been exaggerated.
Aspects of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ echoed the sentiments of 1930s Germany – for example, the 2013 ‘go home’ vans. Instead of countering this Conservative pandering to right wing populism, the Labour Party cooked up its own version with the infamous anti-immigrant mugs. Instead of boldly championing the benefits of freedom of movement from the outset the Labour leadership joined in the hue and cry with the ill-advised call for “British jobs for British workers” rather than campaign along the lines of “decent work for all workers”.
After years of politicians of all colours telling us that the EU was responsible for the problems in our NHS and our education service, for increased crime and disorder and for general interfering in British society, it’s no wonder that Johnson’s simplistic ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan translated into votes from a certain demographic.
This election was most certainly about Brexit and it’s a shame the Labour Party did not face up to that and embrace the opportunity to boldly champion its progressive internationalist values. The party’s dogged focusing on domestic issues, whilst shunning the biggest political question of our time, has done it no favours. By sitting on the fence for the last few years we leaked support on both sides of the argument. Even many of those who voted for us in 2017 had grown fed up with waiting for a decisive position, whilst EU27 citizens have, quite frankly, felt abandoned by Labour.
So, as we exit a political, economic, cultural and social union that has acted as the scaffold for a European peace project, and provided a relative buffer against the worst excesses of Conservative economic and anti-trade union policies, we would do well to reflect on the future of Europe, not just the future of a threatened United Kingdom with a resurgent nationalism in Scotland and Ireland.
The Party of European Socialists must become more not less important in Labour’s future relationships. We must take our place within all its structures alongside comrades from Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and many of the Balkan states who are, ironically, desperate for accession to the EU. We must be more present in PES Women, where people like Barking & Dagenham Labour councillor Sanchia Alasia have already made their mark. We must stand in solidarity with socialist and democrat LGBTIQA+ comrades through the PES Rainbow Rose network, and we must support our young members to attend the regular Young European Socialists summer camps. We must also work at grassroots level with social partners and encourage networking via organisations such as SOLIDAR and the European Anti-Poverty Network. Like liberation theologists, our work must now be on the streets, visibly on the side of the poor and vulnerable, standing with all those who are other.