From the local elections in May until the Referendum vote I spent my time out and about every day as the “Remain campaign organiser” in my own West Leeds constituency area, now a“safe” Labour seat described in my day as MP by a national tabloid as ‘white van man land plus some Asians”. In the last twenty years manufacturing (primarily engineering) has declined even further and the ethnic minority presence has moved from 6% in one of the four component wards to 18%. The ward that is the least diverse and hit hardest by manufacturing decline and economic recession, marked by a shift to part time, temporary work and more for women than men, an area politically tackled by UKIP, quickly revealed a solidly “leave” voting intention. Notably it had an older demographic. The more diverse neighbourhood was divided between ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ and the ward characterised by a larger group of public sector workers and those who had experience of further or higher education, young professionals with families, were mainly voting remain. However, put together throughout the campaign it became clearer and clearer that Leeds West would vote leave and though Leeds as a whole just voted at 50.02% to remain the national vote would be to quit the European Union. The national vote was to quit, leaving a deep sense of divisions.
Three reflections emerge; the crudity of polarising referendum as a means of tackling complex issues; the nature and depth of the divisions and thirdly the shifting, the unresolved relationship between direct and representative democracy. These reflections could be closely interlinked.
Firstly, to hold a referendum on a simplistic “for or against” agenda reduced complex political questions to crudely polarised binary positioning, more typical of a TV dancing, cooking or reality show. There was no real preparation for the vote, following years of educational neglect of what the European union comprised of, how it operates, and the history of its development (not least influenced through its principles and leadership by Catholic social teaching as experience in Europe). The complex interrelation of the European Union’s institutions and responsibilities, budgets and accountability were far from clear to voters. Rarely have members of the European Parliament for example appeared on news bulletins or in media commentaries prior to this vote. Even senior politicians claimed that the European Court of Human Rights was part of the European Union when it is not. Years of informational and explanatory neglect could not be caught up in a few weeks of campaigning - not least in the fire-fight of the divisive campaign. Referendums are not the way to tackle complex political, economic and social issues without a ferocious and misleading reductionism. Notably some years ago in America the independent candidate Ross Perot argued for a “virtual town hall” of permanent referendum as the new social media means of doing politics. He listed hundreds of social issues on which voters could express their policy views at the click of a key but when pressed on the major issue of a city budget he proposed that because “budgets were too complex for ordinary people to vote on” budgets should be “left in the hands of ‘experts”! So much for real economic transparency and accountability.
Secondly, in the age of social media voting what emerges is the need for a renegotiation of the relationship between “direct democracy” and “representative democracy” in which Members of Parliament and Councillors are elected regularly to take decisions on the basis of manifesto commitments and decisions in political groupingson behalf of the voters. Not everyone has time to been involved regularly in all the daily decisions but at the same time representative democracy cannot just mean voting on election day and leaving representatives to get on with it without contact until the next election. Significantly, t,he paradox of increasing globalisation is an intensification of demands of more ‘localism”, not least in the spirit of ‘subsidiarity”, bringing decisions as close as possible to the people and communities they affect. In our political context increasing the powers, numbers and responsibilities of local councillors (even at the expense of reducing the number of MPs) would be one means of rebuilding connections locally with representative democracy. Even clarifying the roles of MPs and Councillors with clearer and more specific job descriptions would be a start as at presenteven the best MPs tend to become local ‘super councillors’. For too long local councillors have been treated as second class politicians instead of being regarded as community leaders and ‘binders’. The age of the local councillor is yet to come but that implies more that a few respected “City Mayors”. In the age of social media what “representation” of local communities could now involve ought to be a catalyst for renegotiating the relationship between ‘direct’ and ‘representational democracy” that is accountable and restores both access andsome trust in politics.
But a divisive referendum and the need to renegotiate the relationship between ‘direct’ and ‘representational democracy’ can not neglect the current context which the referendum vote has exposed. Much immediate response commentary has moved to analyse who voted which way to expose faultlines that were emerging from demographical polling well before the vote took place. The lines werealready there, such older people for ‘leave’ , younger for ‘remain’. That older versus younger trope played throughout, ending in young people blaming the older for jeopardising their future. But it is risky to trust demographical algorithms. Despite all the commentary on the intergenerational chasm for example a recent analysis by the London School of Economics’ Professor of Politics Michael Bruter, shows that the turnout among young people aged 18-24 was almost double the level widely reported. It has been demonstrated that the false figure came from information from Sky Data based on data compiled after last year’s general election. Rather than 36% in fact some 64% of those young people registered did vote. In other words the media impression that young people could not be bothered to vote was a blaming myth. On the other hand this illustrates that not all young people voted remain. In other words quick binary assumptions at this stage may be more divisive than need be.
Nevertheless the referendum vote has laid bare divisions and dissatisfactions across a wide range of economic political and social concerns. Although the issue of immigration was raised late in the campaign and made an impact, to dismiss all leave voters as anti immigrants or worse as racists is shabby analysis. Of course the question of immigration levels and open borders was and is, a real issue not least in communities experiencing what they feel is a disproportionate impact, though notably areas with least impact if immigration tended to vote for leaving. But the ‘leave’ campaign became a portmanteau for a wide range of views ranging from concerns about perceived ‘sovereignty” to believing that withdrawal would mean a better redistribution of public funds.
However, in West Leeds many voted for leave who had not participated in elections before or who had voted UKIP or Labour but still felt disaffected and disenfranchised. Experiencing the struggle to get by on part time work, cope with child care or care of elderly parents and at the same time feeling locked out of the expanding city centre economy with its bars and restaurants quite a few used the referendum as a vehicle to register their protest at being effectively locked out. What’s more the pressure of isolation that low pay and poverty generate was relieved by a sense of solidarity as people came out to declare to their friends and neighbours that they were going to vote leave. It became a protest of solidarity that was personally affirming. In other words leave voting became a coming together for many who had experience the pressure of increased individualisation, isolation and neglect. The industrial world of solidarity at work had long gone but had not been replaced by neighbourhood solidarity.
Simply relying on elections to representational democracy is not a sustainable answer. Some years ago as the liberal and conservative vote fell back in the local elections to the city council and in one ward in west Leeds the main challenge came from the British National Party. Leaflets were distributed, the candidate and campaigners for Labour got around the homes canvassing and held the seat on election day. There was celebration at ‘seeing off the BNP’ but though their vote was smaller they could not be simply dismissed. Majority voting leaves a minority dissatisfied. Losing an election does not usually mean simply giving up and the real mistake in retrospect was to dismiss the BNP by ignoring them and hoping their voters would simply evaporate rather than engaging and working together on real underlying causes of discontent and fear. In Leeds our Leeds Citizen’s organisation has just held an assembly to launch this year’s ‘listening campaign’ using the methods of ‘one to one’ personal conversations building up in our institutions and organisation, not convinced that Facebook can replace face to face meetings or believing that Twitter is talking with each other. Moreover we are aiming to “deepen our listening’ by deliberately approaching those for one to ones with whom we may feel we have a difference or we do not know, reaching out to those we may not initially like in order to ensure that we do not get locked into social media ‘like click’ ghettoes. In practice this involves crossing the room in our parish groups to speak with someone we have not properly spoken to and then encouraging our member groups and institutions to ‘cross the street’ and hold meeting with groups they have so far failed to connect to or meet with.
Jean Vanier of the L’Arche communities has just published a timely guidebook for our times entitled “Life’s Great Questions” in which he urges us to cross borders and break down all boundaries keeping us apartnot least to reach those ‘ostracised and treated as lesser citizens’; he writes “so let us listen and look around. Let us experience the dividedness of reality. And then let us see that we are not confined to this dividedness of reality. We can grow! We can choose to walk across the street, to blur the line and to step over the boundary in order to meet the other.
Jesus steps over many boundaries. He shares loaves and fishes with the poor on the hillside. He becomes friends with tax collectors. He even eats with Pharisees, the very people who are most suspicious of him. Astonishingly, “he said also to the man who had invited him, ‘When you give given a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return andyou be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you’ (Luke 14;12-14). It is important to see that Jesus does not say that the people invited will be better off but that ‘you (the well off host) will be blessed’. By sharing a table, by inviting those who are very different from us, those who are most rejected, we discover something beautiful. By facing our fears, by uncovering the walls of protection within us that keep us from even being able to look upon our brothers and sisters, the nature of our hearts begins to change. Nor only our human family beginning to be healed, but also our own hearts”.
John Battle is the former MP for Leeds West, a resident of Leeds and now a leader with Leeds Citizens organising. | @battlejohn