Question Time's studio audience. Photo: Getty Images
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The Left must speak to us all, not just our own aspiration

I was an "ordinary voter" during the election campaign. It gave me a terrifying window into the state of British politics.

In Labour’s post-defeat analysis, the most striking thing I’ve heard is Jon Cruddas on the simple, but fundamental point that the series of micro-policies the party strung together did not form a coherent whole. What was missing, he said, was an ‘overall, coherent, animated sense of who we are.’ In old fashioned times this was called an ideology, but one assumes that nowadays such terminology would frighten the horses. Bizarrely in fact, virtually anything overtly political seems to be perceived extremely scary, as I discovered during my pre-election stint as an ‘ordinary voter’ on various broadcast panels and programmes.

In their quest for ‘ordinary voters’ the broadcast media needs to demonstrate both ordinariness and balance, and the way they go about this also serves as a handy (if depressingly sheep-like) barometer of the national mood, or more precisely, of their perception of the national mood. And so, pre-show priming invariably involved an assessment of the percentage probability of which way we panelists were likely to vote and what issues were important to us.  So far so good. However it soon emerged that we had been selected for our personal circumstances and predicted responses, rather than for our political thinking. As someone running a social enterprise I was there to talk about VAT and business rates rather than the need to get rid of Trident, and whilst I wasn’t exactly gagged for sounding off about that, along with the shame of food banks and the dismantling of the welfare state, I did get several nervous ‘heads up’ that this type of talk was too ‘left wing’ and was therefore disrupting the carefully constructed balance. In order to keep to the ordinary agenda it would be better if I focused on issues that affected me.

This is extremely telling. In their role as barometers of the national mood, the message from the broadcasters is that the ordinary concerns of ordinary voters are largely personal, that people vote about things that directly affect them.

This is why food banks are deemed to be such a marginal issue – the percentage of people who actually use them is tiny, so what is everyone else bothered about?  Once you start talking about the social, economic, and political effects on the rest of society, not to mention a concern for the people who have use them, you’ve gone into ‘politics’ and spoilt the pre-constructed balance as well as over stepping the mark for an ordinary person.

When the broadcast media follows this path it ends up with ordinary people doing exactly what Jon Cruddas said of the Labour Party – they focus on a series of disconnected micro policies, largely domestically based, rather than an overarching direction and vision built on an analysis of how we got where we are. As it is ordinary people who vote, and who are the subject of the much vaunted focus groups and polls, which are apparently the main feeding ground for policy makers, you can see how reductive the whole process is.  Add to this is the frenzy over key marginals and the debate becomes ever narrower, especially when the broadcasters complete this unhealthy cycle by reading it off as ‘the national mood’ and reflecting it all back again.

This affects the left far more than the right, largely because the right has positioned itself as the status quo, and apart from a few platitudes about Queen, country and hard working families, it doesn’t need a thorough going narrative about who and what they are  - because they already are, they are the ‘establishment’ and it’s up to the challengers to come up with a compelling reason to get them out. Which clearly didn’t happen. Part of the problem is that politics itself has become depoliticized, reduced to a shopping list of promises, with the main parties parading as the personal shopper best-suited to meet your needs. This is the gated-community version of reality, where the ultimate goal is for individuals to cut themselves off from the rest of society, rather than having us see ourselves as inter-connected citizens with a stake in what goes on around us.

The post-election talk of aspiration is a manifestation of this atomisation, because it’s about personal aspiration, not aspiration for the common good. Unfortunately the lie, initiated by one M Thatcher, that there is no such thing as society, appears to have slipped in round the back when no one was looking and etched itself into some universal law. In the words of Bill Hicks - I wasn’t at that meeting. This means that progressive and left -leaning parties and organisations need to start from scratch and make the case that there is such a thing, as this is surely the basis of an ‘overall, coherent, animated sense of who we are’ that Cruddas is talking about. It would also help if politicians – and broadcasters – didn’t underestimate we ordinary voters so much. The idea that we can’t understand/stomach/care about/respond to a bigger vision is rubbish. It’s what we’re crying out for.

Julia Brosnan is Co-Director of Dovetail: the change-making agency, and a member of The Equality Trust. 

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”