Today I stood outside Kentish Town Co-op – a place I have stood many times over the years – handing out leaflets for the Remain campaign. I feel very strongly that we should stay in the EU and want to encourage others to do so. To me it makes absolute sense – EU membership boosts trade and also protects our rights at work. It feels like an absolute no brainer – to me anyway.
Kentish Town is a fairly liberal, cosmopolitan place, so many of the people I handed the leaflets to smiled at me happily. I felt bathed in the warm bath of their approval and also the approval of my peers on social media – instant likes for my pictures of our stall. I was doing the right thing. How pleased I felt with myself.
Then I met a man I shall refer to as the Brexit dustman – in that he was violently anti EU and later told me he worked as a dustman. He was white, working class and middle aged. He was also very angry. He hated the EU and everything it represents – an elite in charge that he felt didn’t really give a shit about him. He hated the Labour Party as well and pointed at a picture of Jeremy Corbyn on one of our leaflets, asking “why doesn’t he ever talk about immigration?”
I could see this guy wasn’t going to be fobbed off with the usual patter that drips smoothly from my lips. He wanted the truth. So I told him. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it’s because he doesn’t really know what to say. I think most politicians are very frightened to talk about immigration because they are scared of being racist.”
My new acquaintance nodded so I continued. I said: “It’s very easy for me. I’m probably part of the problem, being a typical middle class liberal.”
This seemed to send him absolutely beserk and he kicked off with a rant about how the middle classes had destroyed the area and made it too expensive to live in – totally true. He talked about how everything he loved – pubs, churches, shops – had gone and how angry it made him feel. He talked about how the government only cares about the rich and how people like myself will do anything for people from other countries but nothing for people like him and his friends. He was rude and offensive and hard to listen to but he was basically right. His words pierced the armour of self satisfaction I had wrapped round myself and made me think. He did me a massive favour.
I went back to the stall shaken. I talked about him to my Labour Party comrades who felt sorry for me and were worried I’d been harrangued by a nutter. I knew there was nothing mad about the views expressed to me. They were totally logical. I carried on handing out the leaflets and cheered up a bit as a few people smiled at me and told me what a good person I was being. It’s always nice to be appreciated.
Then about half an hour later my adversary returned. He had a vote Leave leaflet. He was a bit calmer. We chatted a bit more. I listened to him and he told me about himself. He worked as a dustman. I told him about myself – that I worked as an English teacher. I told him that I could see that he saw me as part of the problem and he laughed and told me not to be silly. I asked him about his rights at work and asked him how he would feel about being put on a zero hours contract. I told him that EU legislation helps us if we get injured and need to take time off – he told me how he frequently has injured himself working as a dustman and had recently broken a rib. We talked some more and I told him that I understood why he was angry but that I wasn’t sure leaving the EU would make his life better. I told him he was a useful member of society and deserved more. I genuinely believe this to be the case. We parted on good terms and the Brexit dustman took my hand and gave it a kiss.
Did I change his mind? Probably not? But did I make him think? I think I did a little bit and talking to him made me understand in no uncertain terms why people hate the Labour Party and the liberal middle classes, and see their salvation in the likes of Farage or Donald Trump. We are incredibly patronising. We don’t listen and we need to start. We are like Victorian missionaries going into the slums preaching temperance to people whose lives are hard and painful. We are just as snobbish as the Tories and we need to learn to respect the values of the people we want to vote for us.