Taking Control: The Concerns of Working People and the EU

13/06/2016 12:34 | Updated 13 June 2016

There is a shrill cry of pain reverberating around Hull, around Humberside, even around South Hampstead. It can be heard in Vienna and in Vermont. It can be heard in New York and in Norfolk. It is the cry of a generation left behind: millions of faded dreams, millions of disillusioned hopes, millions of broken promises. It wasn't supposed to be like this. The growing prosperity, the improving standards of living, the onward march of technology: all this was supposed to entrench perpetual boom without the bust; all this was supposed to trickle down, so that the benefits of a modern era were shared with the many. Perhaps to some extent it did. Do we not all have smartphones now? Do we not all have e-mails and twitter and Facebook accounts now? Do we not have technology taking over every second of our day, our home lives interrupted by the gentle buzz of the work phone as the day fades into night? And yet. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Yes, globalisation has won. But for the working man and woman, it is a hollow victory.

Entire communities that were dependent on manufacturing are abandoned by the onward drive of financial services. Unemployment persists, or it has given way to insecure, poorly paid, drudgery. Inflation of wages has not kept pace with inflation of property prices and rents. Simply living and breathing is more expensive now than at any time that most of us can remember. Years of local government pay freezes, real terms cuts, budget cuts and a shrinking of the state have left us with a public realm that is increasingly incapable of looking after the less well-off and safeguarding the vulnerable. Who is going to pay the baby-boomers' pensions when the demographically disadvantaged present generation of workers cannot afford to put roofs over our own heads, or to save for our own futures? When supposedly well-off city professionals (although not the bankers) are living in shoeboxes, struggling to pay the rent, and groaning under the weight of tens of thousands of pounds of student debt, then what hope is there for everyone else? Despair is all around.

Is it any wonder then that many of us, especially in the working classes, are encouraged to look at immigrants coming from even less wealthy countries, with even less generous welfare systems, and react: "What on earth are you doing coming here? We don't have enough to feed ourselves as it is."

The sale of council houses and failure to build more, the starving of resources to the health services, the catalogue of crises goes on. Of course we do not feel ready to absorb the arrival of the dislocated thousands from yet another catastrophe in the Middle East. Of course we do not feel ready to provide a launchpad to a better life for those from Eastern Europe whose pay for blue-collar jobs here can, in time, feed families and build mansions back home.

The sense is unshakeable that it has all got out of hand. "Vote Leave. Take Back Control." The easy answer. The seductive answer. The right answer, perhaps, but only to a very different question.

Do we not have control? Maybe not, maybe we never will again. We are an island only literally. Leaving the EU will not end immigration. The world's 5th largest economy will remain a magnet for the ambitious, for the determined and hard-working, for those who want a new start somewhere with more opportunity. The Australian points system has led to higher immigration per head there than seen now in the UK. Nor will our moral obligation to provide shelter and refuge for fellow human beings fleeing war and persecution expire upon Brexit. And we will have less, not more, say over the economies of the poorer European states.

Leaving the EU will not give us more control over our economy. If we want to maintain access to our largest market for trade, the market to which we send half our exports, we would not be in the room with the other 27 countries when decisions are made. Worse still, for those who want "controlled" immigration, the price to be paid for access to the single market would be, as it is now, agreeing to free movement of labour.

What control would we be taking back if we left the EU? Yes, we would have more control over our labour laws. By that, I mean that the Conservative government would have more power to cut "costly" "red tape" and "regulation" that "holds back small businesses" and irritates employers: red tape such as 28 days paid annual leave and statutory maternity pay. In other words, we would be free to cut back the rights of the working people to work in a more civilised workplace. I'm sure that working people will be delighted.

But, really, do we not have control over our interest rates? We are not in the Eurozone. Of course we do have control. Do we not have control over our borders? We are not in Schengen. Of course we do have control. Do we not have control over our laws and our government? Of course we do. The reality is that the proportion of our laws that come from the EU is about 13%, we vote for our MEPs in elections, and the members of the European Commission and Council of Ministers are selected by our democratically-elected governments. Since 1999, the UK has been outvoted in the Council of Ministers on only 2% of votes. Parliament in Westminster remains our supreme decision-making body. To suggest that we do not have control is absurd.

But that is not what the Leave campaign mean when they use the word control. They are appealing to a deeper concept of control - to a feeling within the people, not to a constitutional or political nicety. They appeal to our sense that the politics of multiculturalism, of integration, of globalisation and diminished borders has gotten out of control; to our sense that capitalism is broken; to our sense that this way of doing things is not working.

The cry of despair can be heard in those who find voice through Trump and Farage and in those who shout for Sanders. Its consequences can be seen in the Presidential elections in Austria. It can even been seen in the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Ah, but that Corbyn, I hear you say: "What does that tracksuit-wearing pacifist know about any of this? What does that bearded old man, who needs to be told to do up his tie, know about the struggles of today's working woman, with his falafel and his green tea? He wants to hug every migrant going. He'd give all the family silver away. He's too nice. We need someone a bit tougher, a bit meaner, someone who will look after us - the people of England."

I hear your cry. But you've got it all wrong. You've picked the wrong targets and you're trying to take back something that is not there from people who do not have it. The only way out of this mess is to realise that we are more powerful when we work together, that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, that our neighbours are not always threatening - they may sometimes help us and work with us and provide us with opportunities. Shutting ourselves off from the world will not stop the world turning. Hiding and retreating from Europe will not make it go away. Turning our backs on our neighbours will not make our lives any easier.

One of the worst things about the Leave campaign's prominent £350 million lie is that it does not take into account the millions that the EU pays into our most deprived and needy areas. To think that we can just carry on as before, 5th largest economy in the world and all, with no long-term negative effects, is to expect people to carry on doing business with you, on the same favourable terms, after you have spat in their eye. To expect us to continue to be able to shop in Aldi or Lidl at the same low prices, while still "taking back control", is a fantasy.

While it may not have helped Greece very much, we gain from the EU. It makes us a bigger and stronger voice on the world stage, leading in a community of 500 million, not an island of 70 million. Even the much-maligned migrants are a net benefit to our economy, putting in more than they take out, with EU migrants only claiming about 2% of our unemployment benefit bill and with 81.5% of EU migrants being employed. The principle is now established that we have free movement of labour, not free movement of welfare: EU migrants will have to work and contribute for months before they can take out. And contribute they do: It is migrants from the EU and abroad that provide hundreds of thousands of workers to prop up our National Health Service, that provide us with the skills and with the worker base that we desperately need in these times of demographic challenge. You may object to them receiving child benefit, but one day those children who grew up here will be working, paying tax and helping to pay the pension bill. You may not want thousands of EU citizens imposing local pressures on housing and hospitals, but having the 1-2 million Brits in Spain, many retired and in need of support from national healthcare, forced to return is hardly a better prospect.

On the doorstep, while the vast majority of those I have spoken to have been positive about staying in, it is those who wanted out that stick in the mind. A common theme is that things cannot get any worse, so, to hell with it, let's go for change. But the reality is that a Tory Brexit, followed by Scottish secession, followed by an entrenched Tory majority in England is a much worse prospect. Perpetual rule by Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Chris Grayling. That is clearly not the right answer to the cries of despair.

The answer is to take back control, maybe, but control from David Cameron, from Boris Johnson, from George Osborne, from Michael Gove. The only way for working people to get their country back, or what is left of it, and rebuild Jerusalem is the British way: through kicking out the government in an election.

Let's ignore the lies and nonsense about Turkey and about there being a magic pot of money left over after Brexit; let's reject the scapegoating of those who boost our economy: let's vote decisively to Remain and let's consign the far-right of the Conservative Party and UKIP, the country's lunatic fringe, to the dustbin of history where they belong.