Saturday, 6 February 2021

Can Starmer's Flag Shagging Really Win Over the Red Wall?

I'm from the so-called "red wall" - a northeast working class town where almost everyone is poor, having been shat on by consecutive neoliberal governments of both the red and blue variety. 

I'm as working class as it gets. In fact, a better term would be underclass. I was raised in a council house on a rough estate by a single mother on benefits. We saw all kinds of crazy crap. Drug dealers kicked our door in once, even though we were never involved in any of that stuff. My next-door neighbour drove a car through someone's house, demolishing the living room wall. A little old lady was robbed in front of my eyes when I was playing in the street. 

Fights were an almost daily occurrence and the kids had nothing to do but get in trouble. Our playgrounds were building sites and derelict buildings until we reached the wise old age of 11. From then on, childhood was subways and cider bottles in a haze of cigarette smoke.

So please, if you're from a middle class background, don't lecture me on what is or is not working class. You're not from my world and you have no clue.

The man who was my step-father for a while was your stereotypical working class voter, the kind who Starmer seems to be targeting, but is actually nowhere near as representative as Labour's focus groups suggest. He would take us to football games at the old St James Park, back when a ticket was three or four quid, and my brother and I would be almost crushed to death in the stands at 5 and 7 years old. I honestly don't know how we survived! He would then drag us into jampacked pubs in Newcastle where we'd hear all kinds of racist crap. Ironically, two of this guy's best mates were Black and Asian, but they were okay, apparently, they were "the good kind".

"I love them to death," he'd say, "But all the others, they're <insert racist stereotype here>" He'd then say something like, "I agree with Labour on this or that economic idea, but I also agree with the BNP on this racist idea."

On a positive note, there was always consensus among working men that our country needs socialism. That's why it's so laughable when privileged people tell us working class voters in the red wall don't want left-wing ideas, when even far-right voters up here do!

I know all too well the type of voter Sir Keir Starmer is trying to attract, but Keir clearly doesn't, because he demonstrates such a huge misunderstanding of them and us. I promise you, not one of these people is getting excited by the sight of Keir standing before a Union Jack. Not one of them is nodding along as he praises the Queen and calls her a "beacon of hope". 

Know your fucking audience, Keir!

And another thing, the far-right are not representative of the "red wall". Not remotely. They're the gobshites in the local pub that everyone is scared to challenge. The big tough guys who will take a swing at anyone who disagrees with them. Okay, not all are like that, in fairness. Some do have a decent human side, but a good deal of them are just psychopaths. And I have the scars to prove it. 

Growing up in a town like mine, getting into fights comes with the territory, and that's just one of the reasons I don't bother setting foot in pubs anymore.

Even as a child, I wasn't afraid to challenge these people. When I heard racist crap coming from their mouths, I would call them out (and my mother would quietly agree, but bafflingly still chose to be with her fascist alcoholic boyfriend). 

Sometimes, rather tellingly, I'd get concessions, something like "I know, you're right." Because even these people knew their racist bollocks was wrong. And certainly all of the nicer, politer people within earshot did.

That's a more accurate picture of what life is like around here. A minority of far-right idiots and a quieter majority who reject their world view. But an even more accurate picture would be to say times are changing, that even some of the people who were so entrenched in their racism and homophobia and Islamophobia and all their other bigotries are starting to waiver.

It really isn't uncommon, for example, to hear people who used to express outright disgust at homosexuality, suddenly expressing more inclusive attitudes. I've encountered that quite a lot actually, and as the brother of a gay man, it's been nice to see attitudes change.

The lie we're told is the red wall hates the left-wing. The reality is the red wall has always been left-wing economically, and is socially more left-wing than it used to be. That picture is obviously a simplification, but in my experience, it's fairly accurate.

I've seen, for example, friends I grew up with, people who used to sway me with dumb anti-immigrant arguments, suddenly shifting towards inclusivity. I've seen people who were once vocal homophobes, drinking in gay bars, not because they're gay themselves, but just because they're hanging out with their gay friends. I've seen people who were once open racists, chatting up pretty Black or Asian girls. The last man to give me a taxi ride was rather camp and spent the journey telling me how beautiful he thought Cristiano Ronaldo was!

The point I'm making is that we don't need to make concessions on bigotry because it really isn't that hard to pull a good number of people away from it. Social conservatism is not the norm for the under-50s and only the extremists will cling onto their outdated views.

This is why Starmer's comments on issues like the Black Lives Matter protests and his lack of condemnation on racism and transphobia from his own MPs has been so frustrating to me. I see no tangible benefit to him acting this way, and to the contrary, he is sacrificing votes from minority groups while weakening the fight against bigotry. Labour should be focusing on winning people back to the left, not inching towards far-right territory while taking its voter base for granted.

One line you will always hear around here is "We never vote Tory," or more often some sweary equivalent. Once upon a time, everyone was employed in the mining and ship-building industries, crime was low and communities were strong, and then Thatcherism happened. 

From that point, we knew beyond doubt, the Tories weren't on our side, but then to our exasperation, Labour moved in that same direction. They told us they were just like them.

I find it rather hilarious when middle-class Starmerists tell me who or what the red wall is, when I'm literally part of it. I was raised here, I live here, and in all likelihood, I will die here. So listening to that lot describe northerners or the working class, honestly, they might as well be aliens talking from a different planet. They have no idea, they really don't.

Sir Keir Starmer has gone from draping himself in the EU flag to wanking over the Union Jack, and he honestly doesn't think we can see how superficial this all is. He really thinks we're all knuckle-dragging simpletons desperate to burst into a rendition of God Save the Queen. 

My God, he is so fucking clueless.

Now that's not to say we aren't patriotic around here. Many, if not most, are. It's just we're patriotic in a very different way to what Starmer thinks we are. If you walk through my neighbourhood, you might on rare occasion, see a Union Jack hanging from a window, but these displays are not filling most of us with patriotic pride. They're likely to be met with shrugs of bemusement or mutterings of "What a fucking mess!" It's not that we have anything against the flag. Most of us don't have strong feelings one way or the other, and actually think it looks cringeworthy when we see these very false, OTT displays.

Our sense of patriotism is more like this: We hate imperial wars but love our soldiers. We feel sad to see anyone sleeping rough, and when we see a homeless veteran, we feel a particular sense of betrayal. This is because we want a country where we look out for one another. We want solidarity, and we're not getting it from the Tories or from Labour.

We want more council houses so everyone can get a roof over their heads. We want better pay so we stand a chance of getting on the housing ladder. We want more jobs so no-one is left unemployed. We want affordable utilities and proper investment in our schools and hospitals. 

This is the kind of patriotism we believe in, and if Sir Keir Starmer said those exact words, I promise you, he'd win a lot of people over. Maybe he should hire me to be his speech writer, instead of parroting whatever lines are fed to him by Rupert Murdoch.

Here's the problem: When politicians like Starmer fail to address the above concerns, that's when far-right arguments start reaching people. That's when the disenfranchised start being swayed. It's when Tories start putting the blame onto refugees or other poor people or whatever marginalised group the far-right have targeted. It's not the job of the opposition to join in this game. It's their job to address people's material needs so they're not duped into turning against one another.

It's very easy for the far-right to sway people with emotive arguments. They just have to say the name Lee Rigby, for example. But it's important to remember Lee himself utterly rejected these politics, according to his family.

Around here, almost everyone is anti-establishment because the establishment offers nothing for us. Wages are crap and everyone is on Universal Credit, even when we're working. The kids are on free school meals, our streets are falling apart, our public services are shite, and we desperately want change. This is why so many northerners voted for Brexit. They wanted to shake up the establishment, and I may disagree with Brexit, but I very much understand the sentiment.

And now we have Mr Remain thinking the way to win back voters he lost with his People's Vote is to double-down on his pro-establishment credentials and say how much he agrees with the Tories. This is not what we want. It really isn't.

How about telling us what you stand for, Keir? How about telling us your plan to make tangible improvements to our lives? Because empty gestures and hatred of Corbyn will only get you so far.

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