I must start with a confession: I am one of those people who voted for Brexit. However, I am not racist, nor am I uninformed. My reasons for voting to leave is that I have come to view the EU as an anti-democratic force imposing a neoliberal agenda that causes economic injustice and inequality for working people in member states.
I am not anti-European, in fact, I am a Europhile. However, I will refrain from using the age-old argument that 'many of my best friends are Europeans' and instead note that I speak passable Spanish, Italian and French. Indeed, being from County Kerry in Ireland, and having a Glaswegian father, some would argue that it's my English that needs improving.
Having been previously involved in community activism, I was also active in the trade union movement for many years, having held local representative and full-time national roles in a number of major trade unions. Unfortunately, in recent years, I have become somewhat disillusioned with politics, leading to ‘a plague on all your houses approach’. Consequently, I have not been politically active for a number of years.
This has now changed. Having been aware of the SLF for some time and found myself consistently in agreement with its values, principles and perspectives, I recently joined, as building a genuinely radical liberal party that seeks to stand for a more just, fair and peaceful society is something I very much wish to be involved with. Moreover, I think the opportunity exists now, more than ever, to achieve these aims. And engaging working class voters, a natural constituency for SLF core beliefs is, in my opinion, one of the keys to fulfilling this potential.
We have all been made aware that there are a significant number of working class voters who do not vote. When working as a Politics teacher, I recall having to explain to my students about the concept of ‘voter apathy’ as a reason for voters abstaining in elections. The problem is, I don’t think there is such a thing as 'voter apathy'. Nearly everyone I talk to, whether they follow politics or not, have views on what is happening around them. We must never forget the fact that most people care. Nearly everyone – skilled workers, unskilled workers or unemployed – has a view about issues that impact on their lives; housing, jobs, immigration, the health service and so on.
I do not believe that 35% of voters in this country, nearly twenty million men and women, just do not care. Of course they do. What is true is that many of our fellow compatriots feel abandoned by the political parties. They are alienated. They are aggrieved. But they are not apathetic. We need to reengage with these men and women. Obviously this is easier said than done, due to them being ignored for so long, but focussing on bread and butter issues that impact upon their lives is imperative. The opportunity clearly exists to expose the ‘apathetic fallacy’ for what it is and to engage with them.
However, labelling people as being ignorant or racist because they voted a particular way, as we saw after the referendum, plays into the elitist narrative that has led so many to abandon the main political parties in the first place. Instead of criticising these people, many of whom have never voted before, wouldn't it be better to speak to them and show that we are actually listening and can hear what they are saying?
52% of our fellow citizens are not racist or ignorant. The real message of the referendum was the expression of political and economic dislocation that many across our country quite legitimately feel. And by dismissing their views and alienating them even further, we are providing a fertile breeding ground for more extreme parties.
I remember campaigning in West London in the late 1990s and early 2000s and hearing how Kosovan refugees were the cause of all the ills plaguing the nation. The BNP was running particularly strongly at the time and we often had people say to us on the doorstep or at street stalls that they were BNP supporters. Rather than dismiss them, I would engage with them, and 99% of the time, you discovered that there were bread and butter issues at the root of the anger; the person in question had lost their job, their daughter couldn't get a council house, their spouse was on a hospital waiting list, the grandkids couldn't get in the local school, and so on. They weren't racist. They weren't uninformed. They were simply angry. But nobody was listening.
And by the way, this is how you fight racism: you take it on by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and trying to see things as they do. We do not have to agree. In fact, we will vehemently disagree, and not veer from our principles. But we will engage. And we will demonstrate our willingness to fight on their behalf to address their genuine concerns. Though we may not succeed in winning over everybody, by simply dismissing those who differ from us we will fail to win over anybody.
Above all, in the current political void, we need a party to stand up and show their willingness to fight on behalf of the alienated, abandoned and disillusioned. The way to do this is to lay out a programme of genuine economic and social justice that demonstrates our understanding of what is driving the discontent in the country and provides genuine solutions to address the inequality, injustice and distress that plagues our nation.
We should be providing a vision of what a post-Brexit UK will look like, consistent with the underlying principles as propounded by the SLF. Rather than looking back at the referendum in anger, we have to look forward with optimism: an optimism based on the strength of our arguments, our unflagging commitment to economic and social justice, and our resolute determination to build a just and fair society. Presenting the nation with a clearly defined, bold and radical vision is the only way to achieve this.
My own vision of what is possible is best summed up in a quotation that I keep framed on my wall from one of my political heroes, Joseph Chamberlain, back in 1886:
“We will make a government of the people, in which all shall co-operate in order to secure to every man its natural rights, his right to existence and to enjoyment of it. I shall be told tomorrow that this is Socialism. I have learnt not to be afraid of words that are flung in my face instead of argument…Our object is the elevation of the poor – of the masses of the people – a levelling up of them by which we shall do something to remove the excessive inequality in social life which is now one of the greatest dangers as well as a great injury to the state.”
Radical Joe’s words are as relevant now as they have ever been. And whoever is willing to follow this clarion call, to stand up and genuinely fight to build a more just and equal society will find that many people, such as I, ready to stand shoulder to shoulder alongside them.