The pro-European, pro-transformation movement has come a long way in a year

A lot has changed from last year.

A year ago, I travelled from up from Sheffield for the first Leeds for Europe Northern Stop Brexit conference without much idea of what to expect.

I knew, and was excited by the fact, that the focus of the day was on how we needed to transform Britain, to address the reason why so many people were angry and fed up with the state of our nation and had expressed that in 2016. And I knew that tickets had sold out in double-quick time.

But the mood in 2018 was uncertain. Many people just getting started in the new local pro-European movements across the North had little political experience. I remember one contributor getting up to say they’d just started a new local group in Bolton, and asking for tips.

The idea that it was actually possible to stop Brexit was just starting to gain traction, and many felt that they were fighting enormous odds in their communities.

What a difference a year makes!

The tickets sold out just as quickly this year, the crowd was just as energised and determined, but this is a movement that has come a long way.

They’re street stall veterans – well aware that there’s little point in wasting valuable time on “hard Leavers” and focused on not just winning a People’s Vote, but on winning that vote by persuading possible swing voters.

They’re veterans now too at rallies and events – able to swap tips on best sound systems, venues and booking arrangements with aplomb.

And the diversity and power of the speakers has grown. Undoubted star of the show this year was Michael Heseltine, who gave a master class in speechmaking, and got the same standing ovation that I saw him get at a People’s Vote in Derby.

That was despite the fact this is not natural Tory ground. An audience member in Derby said to me afterwards: “I never thought I’d stand up and clap a Tory.”

A further reminder of how much the Tory Party of Boris Johnson is really located at the  extreme Right of British politics – the Brexit Party with floppier hair and fewer pints – came when Simon Allison from Conservatives for a Peoples Vote cut up his party membership card before the cheering crowd.

“Civilisation is built on regulation,” Lord Heseltine said. This was a reminder of the protections for workers, for the natural world, for our food supplies, from the EU. 

And more broadly, a reminder that Margaret Thatcher and her political successors have succeeded in shifting the political landscape far, far to the Right of what would once have been regarded as mainstream politics.

We also heard from Lord Heseltine, “This government relies on Trump.” A simple statement, with a pregnant pause left after it, to allow the listener to reflect on the dangers of that position.

That built on the earlier reflections of Will Hutton, that in today’s interconnected world, you’re either allied with our friends and neighbours in the EU – with whom we share a history, values and traditions, or you end up with China and the US, countries with very different views to ours, and direction few want to travel in.

Green MEP Magid Magid reminded us of the importance of young people to this struggle – as he called again for votes at 16, with a reminder of just how crucial creating a functioning, democratic, truly representative government is to the future of the UK.

Hilary Benn pointed out how fast parliamentarians were shifting their position on the Peoples Vote, as the only democratic way out of this Brexit chaos. “Write to your MP to ask them to back it,” he urged.

But I started my contributions with what I think was one of the most crucial messages from the day, that we were there at all.

A year ago, few would have been confident that would be the case, that in September 2019 Brexit would not have happened, and that we would still have everything to play for in keeping the best possible “deal” that we can have in our relationship with our neighbours – membership of the European Union.

What the coming weeks will bring is deeply uncertain. But I was cheered that the chief economist of Deloitte this morning crunched the numbers from the bookmakers, and concluded the odds suggested there’s an 80% chance we won’t leave the EU on October 31. I think there’s something in the “wisdom of crowds” thesis.

But more I believe in the people collectively as a political force. And what we saw at the weekend was a political force – a force for a transformed Britain that is a vital, democratic part of the European Union – that has come a very long way.

Even should Article 50 be revoked tomorrow, it will be a continuing new movement celebrating free movement and our ties with our neighbours, protecting the regulations so hard fought for in the past, working for the new start that economically, socially, environmentally, educationally, Britain so desperately needs.

Natalie Bennett is a former leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a member of the House of Lords

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6 Responses to “The pro-European, pro-transformation movement has come a long way in a year”

  1. Tom Sacold

    The anti-democratic, neo-liberal, capitalist club of the EU will never allow real socialist policies to endanger the profits of the multinational corporations based in the EU. They will keep their borders open to enable low wage workers to continue to flood the labour markets to keep wage costs down and profits up.

  2. BobB

    Can I say how much I admire Tom Sacold’s contributions here: always concise and, above all, consistent. He asks the question “can the EU ever allow real socialist policies” and answers it with admirable clarity – “No”. The problem is, it’s the wrong question! The questions should be: are we facing a threat of an authoritarian right, as Europe did in the 1930’s, when broad coalitions of liberals and socialists had to unite to defend democratic institutions, however flawed. Does the EU represent one defence against such authoritarianism? Is there, on top of that, a threat of devastating climate change that will hit the global poor hardest, which can only be combatted by transnational organisations like the EU? The answers to all those questions are “Yes”. And it’s only after they’ve been addressed that you can start to think about “real socialist policies”.

  3. Tom Sacold

    BobB. You , and many others in the Labour movement, are too negative. Always saying what we don’t want, what we are against. Almost sounding too afraid of standing up to be heard supporting a socialist future. Remember how Blair and New Labour used this lack of self-confidence and negativity to create a perverted version of the Labour Party as a neo-liberal party that was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes” (remember the tax regime under Blair & Brown was fundamentally the same as under the Tories).

    We need to be positive in our campaigning. We need to say what we want and how we can get it. And most Labour members I know want socialism. That was why I voted for Jeremy Corbyn as leader and still believe that under the surface Jeremy is a strong socialist who wants to set us free from the neo-liberal capitalist club of the EU.

  4. steve

    BobB:” a threat of devastating climate change that will hit the global poor hardest, which can only be combatted by transnational organisations like the EU?”

    Less than a year ago the EU green-lighted a subsidy of £billions to the fossil fuel and nuclear industries.

    A few years before that, despite intensive campaigning by Green activists, the EU refused to outlaw SF6 gas (23,500 times more environmentally damaging than CO2) even though there are safe alternative options.

    EU Greens have dismissed Right Wing EU president Von Der Leyen’s so-called ‘Green New Deal’ as only going as far as her coporate controllers will let her. EU Greens voted against Der Leyen for president.

    The EU is currently paying Turkey billions in order to prevent immigrants reaching the EU. Thus the EU implements Far Right polices in order an attempt to deny electoral opportunities to the Far Right section of its own electorate who want to see those same Far Right policies implemented.

    If only we could herald the EU as the defender of peace, the environment and economic justice!

    The gains that have been achieved have be achieved as a result of intensive campaigning – i.e. the EU cave-in of the secretly negotiated TTIP that was to be foisted upon us by an EU that (via the Commission and EU Court) always gives primacy to corporate interests.

  5. Bob B

    Tom: you say that I’m too negative. I say, look at the evidence. Are we on the verge of socialism, or at a time when we have to defend what we’ve got in terms of those democratic, human and welfare rights that people have fought for over centuries and that are now threatened by Trump, Johnson, Farage etc.
    Steve: you point out the problems with the EU. So is your conclusion that Brexit is a good thing? Whatever the problems with the EU it has done far less damage to global peace or to the environment than the US or the authoritarian nationalists of Russia and China. You quote the EU Greens – but they say: ‘Remain and Reform’.

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