A public meeting about Brexit in Keir Starmer’s constituency highlights the country’s polarisation
This article was published on Backbench
St Pancras Church, consecrated in 1822, is renowned for its Greek Revival architecture, inspired by the Erechtheum and the Tower of the Winds, both on the Acropolis in Athens. The Tower of the Winds is said to be the first weather station in the world.
On Tuesday night it hosted people hoping for a different kind of European revival, which was an opportunity to gauge the political weather in this part of central London. Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras and Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, was holding a public meeting on Brexit. He was joined by Tulip Siddiq, MP for neighbouring constituency Hampstead and Kilburn, and Sarah Hayward, leader of Camden Council. Camden voted to stay by 75%: a Remain heartland.
The grand church filled up. An organiser estimated there were 350 people present. This was the second such meeting; the first, a few months ago, was at a smaller venue and people had to be turned away on the door due to high demand.
The three speakers gave their interpretation of the political developments that have taken place since that first meeting (including Starmer’s new position in the Shadow Cabinet) and then took questions from the audience. The session was fast-paced in order to allow many attendees to speak.
All three speakers favoured access to the single market. Siddiq said immigration policy should be geared around what is best for the economy. Starmer said it was “quite extraordinary” that immigration seemed to be the first priority in negotiations, rather than the economy. He said it was essential the government’s plans were debated and voted on. Donald Tusk’s claim that there could be no soft Brexit was dismissed as part of the “phony skirmishes” before negotiation.
Disorientated, impotent, fragile. This is how Leave voters were characterised in the analysis of why Britain voted for Brexit: those alienated by globalisation’s relentless transfer of people and money. There is more than a touch of irony that these sensations are now felt by Remainers (presumably making them what the Daily Mail termed “Bremoaners“). Those present on Tuesday were adjusting to a core part of their identity and sense of citizenship being threatened.
“Everyday something irritates me about Brexit,” one woman lamented, while an Italian lady complained she was “feeling extremely vulnerable” given the unclear status of EU residents. One questioner was keen on Camden council flying the EU flag.
Many were still contesting the result. When Starmer declared that it is impossible to “have a referendum rerunning 23rd June”, someone shouted out “advisory”, pointing out the vote was not legally binding. One man jabbed his finger: “How did your constituents vote?”
One attendee who asked about the possibility of having another referendum on the terms of Brexit received loud applause. A man wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “my identity is European” questioned the legal basis of the referendum, while a student complained that rain on the day of the vote deterred people from turning out.
Starmer said that while to pretend Brexit was not going to happen would give him a “very loud cheer”, it was necessary to fight to get the best deal. Siddiq said “you can make lots of excuses” but argued that you “have to respect the result”.
London’s detachment and Labour’s dilemma
If this meeting was anything to go by, inner London feels very detached from the rest of the United Kingdom after the result. Siddiq said there is more of a divide, and wants to focus on “how much autonomy” London has.
Hayward went further: “London is different, Camden is different”. She said central London is the “engine” of the country’s economy. When discussing the complicated logistics of a London visa system, she joked that a border around the M25 “might seem attractive to some of us in the room”.
Starmer seemed to prefer discussing legal protocol than his own views on matters. He was equivocal about the court case, saying it pitted “strong arguments” for parliamentary scrutiny against the “pretty strong convention” that courts do not tell parliament what to do.
He avoided stating whether he would ultimately try to keep Britain in the EU should the circumstances make that possible (through blocking it in parliament or through holding another referendum) notably when someone pointed out that given his shadow minister role he would presumably be in charge of implementing Brexit if Labour came into power. He preferred to focus on holding the government to account in its renegotiation.
This reflects Labour’s dilemma. The attendees, it seemed, would love to turn the clock back to before the vote. Yet analysis of the breakdown of the results suggests about 65% of Labour constituencies, and the same proportion of all constituencies, voted Leave.
A study by the University of Manchester found voters identify more with their referendum decision than with a political party. There were claps for a “cross-party coalition” of Remain supporters at this meeting. The converse is that Leave voters may choose UKIP or the Conservatives over a pro-EU Labour party.
Something similar happened in Scotland after their referendum: as politics north of the border have become dominated by the independence question, ‘Yes’ voters have moved from Labour to the SNP. How can Labour in England hold on to Leave voters if it supports remaining in the EU?
Brexit may well be the most important event in Britain in decades. What are more subtle, but perhaps just as significant, are the regional divisions exposed and exacerbated by the referendum, divisions which will play out over the years to come.