By Tom Bewick
At 6am on the morning of Friday 24 June 2016, Brighton awoke to find itself on the wrong side of history.
The country had voted for Brexit, while seven in ten of the city’s electorate had voted to Remain.
Brighton has for decades built an enviable reputation for its alternative way of life and anti-establishment feeling.
Now, in one fell swoop, what many would regard as a naturally left-leaning cradle of dissent was discovered to be on the conservative side of the argument.
Residents had been swept along by a tide of emotion that sticking with the EU status quo was somehow synonymous with the values that the city represents: openness, diversity, democracy, gay rights and social justice.
Brighton usually loves a revolution. Some would say it is in the city’s DNA, characterised by one website calling for the establishment of the “Independent People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove”.
So it begs the question: why on this occasion was there such an overwhelming and convincing victory for Remain?
Why did 68 per cent of voters lend support to the neo-liberal and anti-democratic forces of the EU?
The clue perhaps lies in what the left-wing author and Brexit activist, Sebastian Handley, explains in his book written about the local campaign, How the nobodies beat the somebodies: “Throughout my life, from watching The Young Ones, to student marches, to discussions in the salon, there have often been tongue-in-cheek references to ‘the Revolution’, mostly making the assumption that it was some type of historical end-of-the rainbow that would never actually happen. But when it happened it was nothing like any of our predictions – there were no burning of barricades, no petrol bombs, no big marches, no occupations and no guillotines – it was a very British revolution.”
I fought for the Leave campaign in what is my adopted home city.
I’m hugely proud to represent my community on the city council. And I can tell you, that if residents had perhaps stayed true to the city’s many democratic traditions and progressive working class values, then the result would have been very different.
Indeed, like the rest of Sussex, Brighton could have even narrowly voted Leave.
Instead, Remain supporters fought a campaign that appealed to all the sneering stereotypes and deepest prejudices of “alternative” middle-class metropolitan England.
The city’s high-profile and only Green MP, Caroline Lucas, conducted a type of campaign that can best be described as an inverted form of Farage.
It felt more like textbook demagoguery, aimed at whipping up personal feelings in support of a cause that might usually be associated with the tactics of political extremes.
Debates and sloganeering was reactionary. The “enemy” was cast as the people who wanted “to take Brighton out of Europe!” as if the Leave side was proposing a return to the Hundred Years War.
While the UKIP leader was standing by his controversial “breaking point” posters of migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border, Lucas was wasting no time implying to residents that anyone even contemplating a vote to leave the EU was tantamount to siding with racists.
It had all the echoes of George Osborne’s punishment budget: just the mere act of voting to Leave would result in the sky falling in.
It was no wonder the atmosphere by the south coast had turned quite toxic by the time of Thursday 23 June. The city, after all, would never come out in support of people branded as bigots.
In the end, the apocalyptic message paid off: in the heart of Lucas’s well-heeled leafy green constituency, turnout in the referendum was as high as 85 per cent.
Meanwhile, in poorer east Brighton – now a Labour constituency won back from the Conservatives in 2017 – the turnout was just 46 per cent.
Indeed, the difference in turnout between these two constituencies in the EU referendum speaks volumes about the kind of voters these MPs, supposedly of the Left, are actually speaking up for.
It was certainly not for the city’s peripheral and predominantly white working-class council housing estates. If this group bothered to vote at all, it was out.
Mounting a progressive, social democratic case for leaving the EU was an uphill challenge, even though I tried.
The problem with Caroline Lucas’s brand of left-wing politics is that it has a canny way of simply closing down any real debate.
Bring up freedom of movement and immigration and people were told: “Oh, you’re a racist.”
Call into question whether the EU was really an engine of prosperity and the fear tactics were unleashed: “Leaving the single market will see tourist and student numbers to the city plummet and unemployment sky rocket.”
Even the boss of the recently opened British Airways i360 waded in, at one point suggesting that up to a third of tourists to the city would drop off following a Brexit vote.
Of course, in the 16 months that have passed since the referendum, not one of these dire “Project Fear” predictions has come to pass.
For sure, Brighton and Hove is suffering from years of Tory austerity. Rough sleeping on our streets is chronic. Too many families rely on food banks.
But on the whole residents live in a dynamic, diverse and resilient city.
Long-term youth unemployment is close to being eradicated. Self-employment and new business start-ups are considerably above the national average. Apprenticeships are up 19 per cent since the referendum.
And the fall in sterling has delivered record numbers of visitors to the city. The i360 is doing so well that it might even be able to pay back early a highly controversial multimillion-pound taxpayer loan, made by the former Green-led council.
Because when you subject rational arguments to a more objective set of tests, the real values of Brighton speak as much for Leave voters as they do for Remain.
Take the issue of “openness”. No one on my side of Labour Leave politics is seriously arguing for the pulling up of the drawbridge.
In fact, as internationalists, the opposite is the case. Britain sitting behind the protectionist wall of the customs union is doing absolutely nothing for the oppressed coffee bean growers of the developing world.
How ironic then that the cappuccino-swilling hordes of Hove voted in large numbers to keep some of the world’s poorest people and traders locked out of our markets.
Who in future makes our laws and how we make our laws was ultimately an issue settled by the referendum result.
Brexit is a great opportunity to not only repatriate powers from the EU, but to devolve some of these powers to local government.
The Brexiteers who won the referendum argument are truly on the side of local democracy.
In future, if my council wants to build a new leisure centre we shouldn’t have to go through a byzantine OJEU procurement process taking many years.
Councils should be able to back local businesses with their own tendering protocols and local employment-generating schemes.
It could include the kind of investment in our fishing ports or the creation of energy companies currently banned under EU state-aid rules.
I am proud to tell my children of the positive case that I made during the referendum campaign, fighting for a country more economically just and socially democratic: with greater control of our own laws, money, borders and trade policy.
Perhaps now more than ever is the time for the voters of Brighton and Hove to acknowledge and embrace the new reality.
Trying to ban “Brexit-blue” cheese in our local shops, marching up the promenade with EU flags singing Ode to Joy and continually moaning about the referendum result won’t actually help anyone.
Councillor Tom Bewick was the chairman of the Leave campaign in Brighton and Hove. He represents Westbourne Ward on Brighton and Hove City Council.
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