For two months in the run-up to Christmas 2015 I worked the night shift at a Royal Mail sorting office in Peterborough. Media commentators are often quick to appoint themselves as experts on the labour market, but most have never stepped inside – let alone been employed in – places where Brits work alongside Eastern European migrants. I have, and the experience made me even more determined to vote Remain in the EU referendum today.
If there is an EU migration crisis in Britain then Peterborough is its ground zero: the city has seen one of the biggest influxes of EU migrants in recent years. According to the 2011 census 9.3% of its population moved to the city from overseas between 2004 and 2009. The 2011 census found that 18.4% of Peterborough’s residents – and in reality probably more today – were born outside the UK: one of the highest percentages for any council area outside London.
The workforce at the sorting office was roughly a third EU migrants, a third working-class young Brits, and a third older British workers – mostly men like me – who wanted a bit of extra spending money for Christmas. Migration has caused pressures in Peterborough – the council is considering opening primary schools in converted railway depots – but in the sorting office there was little friction between the three groups.
And far from being sidelined by EU workers, indigenous Brits like me with a good knowledge of English (and postcodes – we were sorting parcels by hand) got preferment because of our skills: we had the lighter duty of throwing parcels into the correct trolleys rather than lugging these heavy trolleys on and off lorries in a freezing yard. Skilled British workers were more likely to be asked to do overtime, and when some of us applied for permanent jobs after Christmas the ‘Dad’s Army’ of older, British workers were much more successful than EU migrants. But without these migrants the Christmas post would simply not have been delivered.
These Eastern European migrants were certainly not putting British people out of jobs. The reason that EU migrants have flocked to Peterborough is a tribute to the city’s economic success, not its failure: at 5.2% the jobless rate is bang on the national average. Whatever the economic faults of the current government, and the insecurity of too many jobs, the unemployment rate is lower than it has been for ten years, while wages are rising, not falling.
Facile generalisations about EU workers undercutting British workers and taking their jobs underestimate the handicaps that Eastern European migrants face: in all but the most menial of jobs (which British workers mostly refuse to do anyway) they are less employable than most of their British counterparts. That they still want to come here to plug labour shortages is a tribute to their grit and resourcefulness, not an affront to the working class.
Tabloid headlines about migration infantilise the working class as passive victims of cheap labour, and a one-dimensional lump of people obsessed about migration. In fact, only 15% of the population can now be termed working class in the traditional sense, as low-paid white collar jobs have overtaken blue collar ones; but survey after survey has shown that all low-paid workers worry as much about the NHS, the economy and terrorism as they do about immigration. As Paul Mason has shrewdly pointed out, it is absurd to call a vote for Brexit a ‘working class revolt’ given that this so-called revolt is masterminded by the Sun and the Daily Mail, two papers with a venomous hatred of organised labour.
There is of course a strong patriotic, centre-Left case for EU membership that is consistent with defending public services, British workers and British borders, and combating terrorism. The NHS relies on foreign-born workers. Our EU membership has moved the British border from Dover to Calais, and far from the EU letting terrorists roam free the European Arrest Warrant has helped bring terror suspects to justice. The recent deal that David Cameron secured means that new EU migrants will have to wait four years before drawing most benefits. Membership of the EU guarantees an opt-out from excessive working hours, paid holidays for part-time and contract workers, and almost all environmentalists agree that EU membership has made our water and air cleaner.
It’s a pity that the Remain camp has relied so much on Project Fear when they could have more profitably pursued Project Optimism. There’s evidence that these positive messages have finally begun to hammer home, thanks to good debate performances by the likes of Sadiq Khan and Ruth Davidson in the final days of the campaign. But it’s deeply depressing that apart from Khan and the ubiquitous Brexiter Gisela Stuart, Labour politicians have been almost invisible during this campaign: I’ve found myself agreeing with John Major more than with anyone on my own side, and Ruth Davidson has done more to advance the progressive case for EU membership than any Labour frontbencher. The positive Labour case for Europe has been so weakly put that I’ve had to agree with the positive Tory case instead.
A couple of miles from my home is a huge field of beautiful wild flowers: a recent addition to the landscape thanks to EU subsidies which reward farmers for setting aside some of their land as a haven for bees, birds and other flora and fauna.
I’m not pretending that a field of wild flowers in Northamptonshire will swing many voters. But it’s a potent sign that Europe has finally reformed the Common Agricultural Policy, which for decades subsidised farmers to produce lakes of undrunk wine and tons of rotting tomatoes. Instead the CAP nowadays does a lot to incentivise environmentally benign farming practices, as well as helping smaller farmers and protecting regional specialties: far from homogenising our food, many foodies credit the EU with helping to revive Herefordshire cider, Stilton cheese and Welsh lamb by granting them protected regional status. There may be legitimate grievances about the Common Fisheries Policy, which has decimated the British fishing industry, but it’s often used as a scapegoat: fishermen’s woes have been largely caused by overfishing and a reduction in fish consumption, not EU regulation. Fishing quotas have in fact seen cod and haddock stock rebound.
Tangible symbols of EU membership like that field have only rarely been glimpsed during this ugly campaign, whose most abiding image has been middle-aged men in suits insulting each other. Too often it’s been about the past, not the future. Voters under the age of 45, like me, have been left bemused by constant discussion about what Ted Heath and Harold Wilson promised or did not promise at the time of the last referendum in 1975 – before half of today’s voters were even born.
Too often, Euro-myths from the Leave camp have gone unchallenged. The European Convention on Human Rights, often cited as a reason for Brexit, has nothing whatsoever to do with the EU (and far from being an import from Europe, it’s a British export that was drafted by British lawyers in the wake of World War Two).
Arguing that economic growth has been lower in Europe than all other continents apart from Antarctica makes a good soundbite, but it’s simply not true: in fact Eurozone countries’ economies are growing faster than the UK’s and as fast as the US’s (In the first quarter of 2016, GDP in the Eurozone grew 0.5% compared with 0.4% in the UK and 0.5% in the US).
Voters are repeatedly told that 3 million people who were born in other EU countries live in the UK as of 2015. But seldom have voters been reminded that this 3 million figure is less than 5% of the British population (currently 64.5 million), and includes several hundred thousand British people who just happened to have been born overseas (like Boris Johnson, for example, who was born in New York). And rarely are they told that at least 1.2 million Britons have moved in the opposite direction and now live in EU countries – a freedom that Brexit will put in jeopardy long-term.
No-one in the Brexit camp has convincingly explained how the UK could remain part of the single market without free movement of people and continuing to pay the EU for the privilege (as both Norway and Switzerland have to, at almost the same rate per capita as what the UK currently pays to be a member of the EU). The option of being part of a single market without free movement currently only applies to accession states like Albania, whose low-skilled workers EU states are keen to keep out: hardly a sensible model for the world’s fifth-largest economy to emulate.
No-one in the Brexit camp has a clue what leaving would mean for the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, for the million Brits living in other EU states, or for the future of British universities which increasingly depend on the EU for students and research funding. As Stephen Bush has argued persuasively in the New Statesman, post-Brexit it’s not clear why EU states would have any incentive to give Britain a good deal, as they would be much more keen to protect their own economic interests and discourage other EU states from quitting.
As for controlling our borders, Brexit advocates forget that the UK has never been part of the borderless ‘Schengen’ area: all EU nationals arriving in Britain have to show their passports, and more than 2,000 were turned away last year. Not a huge number but proof nevertheless that we’re not a borderless soft touch. Yes, there is a migrant crisis: but it’s a global crisis and Europe is getting off lightly. A million refugees from Syria have settled in EU states (combined population: 510 million) since the civil war began, a figure that is dwarfed by the two million living in Jordan and Lebanon (combined population: 11 million).
That the Brexit campaign has done so well, in spite of such obvious holes in its case, says much about the crisis in public trust of politicians, and the small-minded bigotry of our media (much of it fuelled by Boris Johnson, who a former colleague has revealed would regularly make up anti-EU stories when he was Brussels correspondent at the Daily Telegraph). The assassination of Jo Cox MP may or may not have been linked to the tidal wave of hatred, fear and fury unleashed by this referendum campaign. But it’s an undeniable tragedy that it’s only after a good MP has been murdered that the media stops to ponder whether co-operation, consensus and internationalism might be worthy concepts, and that it’s just possible that not all MPs are carpet-baggers on the make.
Just as many on the Right have seen the EU referendum as a proxy vote on multi-culturalism, or David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party, many on the Left have fallen into a similar trap. Too many see the EU referendum as an opinion poll on what they think of neo-liberal economics, the European Central Bank’s treatment of Greece, or even domestic policies like Royal Mail privatisation (by the way, it’s not true that Royal Mail had to be privatised because of EU rules, as Labour MEP Lucy Anderson has explained).
Far from being forward-looking, “Lexit” advocates often rely on hoary old quotes from Tony Benn and Barbara Castle from four decades ago. Such commentators are quick to cite Greece as proof that the EU is a neo-liberal capitalist club in hock to big business. But they forget that both the Syriza government and the Greek people themselves are opposed to Brexit – and that they oppose Greece leaving the EU, albeit reluctantly. Even Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister and one of the biggest critics of the EU to be found, is opposed to Britain leaving.
Lexit backers have also relied on their own set of conspiracy theories. Some even believe that Jeremy Corbyn – not normally seen as anybody’s stooge – has somehow been brainwashed, Manchurian candidate-style, into backing a Remain vote. They have not stopped to think that maybe what Jeremy says – that the EU has many faults but that it’s better to stay in, albeit reluctantly – is the same as what Jeremy thinks. I agree that Corbyn could have been a lot more energetic, combative and clear in his campaigning. But to argue that Corbyn has suppressed his inner desire for Brexit, which he thinks his leadership would benefit from, is absurd: Corbyn has publicly differed from most of his cabinet on Trident renewal, the monarchy and military intervention in Syria so why would he not publicly differ from them on EU membership as well?
It is pie in the sky that a vote for Brexit would magically usher in ‘another Europe’, and a golden age of socialism in the UK, by dividing the Tories and allowing the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government in 2020, as my old friend Joe Guinan has argued in Open Democracy. A far more likely outcome, as even Corbyn must realise, would be the emergence of a Eurosceptic Tory leader – probably Boris Johnson, though this is far from certain – and a venomous post-mortem in the Labour party, involving a leadership challenge that may not remove Corbyn but could wound him mortally in the run-up to the 2020 election.
Despite the tied opinion polls I still expect Remain to win narrowly tomorrow – I’ve met too many farmers, elderly Tories and hard-nosed realists who are reluctantly voting Remain to think that they will be outnumbered. But if we do vote to stay in it will be despite, not because of, those on the Left who have opted to sit this referendum campaign out, in the idle hope that the Tories will simply implode. Of course the referendum is only being held because of the internal politics of the Tory party, not because it is in the national interest to hold one. But that does not mean the Left should be indifferent towards the referendum’s outcome.
Sometimes you do need to make common cause with political opponents on matters of sovereignty and constitutional change. The petulance of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, refusing to be seen sharing a platform with Tories, may yet come to haunt them once the reality of a Jingoistic Boris Johnson premiership kicks in.