The longest 24 hours in politics

Five years ago today I was doing what any normal 18-year-old with a thriving social life would do; running the polling day operation for my local branch of the Britain Stronger In Europe campaign.

Reminiscing on it brings up mixed emotions. I couldn’t tell you why or how I managed to take on such an uncomfortably large responsibility at that age. I can only recover with a little smile the traces of the plucky, overconfident version of myself that made me do it — like an archaeologist piecing together fragments of a once proud and vigorous society. It is a bizarre kind of nostalgia, and indeed it sits at the start of a long and drawn-out timeline of my formative political years aligning with the tumult of the process of Brexit.

On this anniversary I don’t find it helpful to take that long view, however. Besides, I have written about that elsewhere. What does feel fitting, and in some way seems like paying homage to that younger version of myself, is to remember the events of June 23rd, 2016, itself. In reflecting on a small handful of them, they form their own little string of important, even foreboding, scenes.

I remember, for instance, that my pre-7am plan to swing by all of the leafletting teams I had set up at local tube and train stations to check they were set up and in good spirits was quickly derailed when I received a frantic call. A somewhat elderly leafleteer (one of my most reliable and well-mannered) had been asked to move on by station staff from a point outside the station that we had been using frequently for several months. When he pointed this out to them and told them he felt he was being treated unfairly, they called the police on him. I arrived in a hurry (before any police were at the scene) and stepped in to diffuse the bizarre situation, getting them to agree to call of the police but having to go through the unusual motions of asking a relatively quiet older man to apologise for showing just a hint of frustration and temper. As he did, I was back on my phone plotting a new journey to the campaign-day office that I hadn’t even had a chance to open yet, but as I did I caught him say words that have lingered in my mind for years since;

“I wouldn’t normally ever say or do something like that, I’m sorry, I’ve just been getting so worked up and worried about this country in the past few weeks and today it’s spilling over”

A wrongly-taken train that took me halfway to London later, I finally arrived at the campaign-day office to find a rabble of working-hours activists ready to take on day shifts. I prepped them and sent them on their way, but not before several told me enthusiastically that we were going to win (at which point I thought, promptly, that we must be about to lose). Then came another telling moment. I had to make an excursion around lunchtime when someone in the office pointed out that a nearby polling station was going viral on Twitter for having England flags hanging from the ceiling above voters. As the agent and thus the person responsible for communicating with polling staff as and when appropriate, I rushed down there to see the situation for myself, but several times along the way paused to consider if the stakes of such a high-profile vote had made something trivial seem outrageous — indeed, did most voters care about the politicisation of the English flag, or would they take them just as the Americans do, a national symbol stapled to every corner of every room involved in the democratic process (and beyond)?

When I arrived the polling staff were not pleased about the outcry but had already taken the flags down as a precaution. As they begrudgingly showed me the side room where they stored the now prone national flags, one turned to me and said

“this building is a sports club, you know? They’re up ‘cos the Euros are on”.

I felt bad for them. To this day, I still don’t know who was in the right.

There are other moments that come to mind (and so many that are lost in there somewhere), but I do recall more generally that as the day ran on it felt like an orchestrated unravelling of fortunes. I ran out of both data and minutes on a phone bill that clearly was not prepared for an eighteen-year-old manager of a forty-person team on polling day, and so I racked up about £100 worth of extra spending which would, in subsequent weeks, be the reason I started the job I still work at. I lost my wallet running to catch a bus to get somewhere (I can’t recall where) in a hurry. I arrived at home far too late to get even half-an-hour worth of sleep before heading to the count, where I would also lead a big team despite having only ever attended one such count before. I distinctly remember having a whole speech planned. Something short and rousing. I vaguely remember the perfectly naïve and cringey-mock-Lincolnian formulation of — “Forty-one years ago this country chose to stay in Europe, and if we have done our jobs today, we will have secured that victory for future generations’. I never gave that speech; I was too tired and everyone was too nervous. I wish I had told them all I was proud of them. I did, in weeks to come (see more below). But in the moment, things were slipping away from grip.

As we watched the ballots pile high, I felt relief. We had won Enfield convincingly, although as predicted by a far less impressive margin than neighbouring boroughs. Looking back on it now, I see the work we did in a new light — the trends that are at play in suburbia had been pushing areas like mine more towards Leave than anybody had noticed at the time. Here, at the periphery of London where Hertfordshire blends into the fabric of the community, it was a larger than realised achievement to have mobilised a large operation and solidified on the ground a Remain campaign that in many parts of the country was little more than a botched media strategy. Indeed, in my home seat of Enfield North, the margin of victory was just 1% — well within the margin of campaign influence.

But by the time victory was confirmed to me in a small room by the side of the count proper, the mood had changed. The direction of travel was obvious, even if we didn’t want to admit it until it was too late. In the small hours of the morning, sat in the depressing beam of white glaring light generated by a small office in a modern building (a local athletics centre), I watched a local councillor and Leave campaigner respond to news of his local defeat by chanting “Vote Leave, Take Back Control” at me over and over again in a kind of Zen mantra to remind himself that he was about to win the war.

Then the famous Dimbleby declaration, and all of history with it. In its immediate aftermath, both camps stood in awkward silence in front of the huge TV. My opposite number, the agent for the Leave campaign, made pleasantries by asking me what I would do next. We got on well, so I jokingly told him I would get on with my degree and try to find a job that summer “if those still existed” (reader, I did). For all our disagreements, he seemed a kind man and we never once disagreed disrespectfully — he took me at face value, which is an act of real generosity considering I was an eighteen-year old in over my head. He tweeted the next day that the grass seemed greener. I oddly felt pleased for him. He died a few years later. All allegiances fall aside, and I feel real sadness when I remember from time to time that he never got to see Britain leave the European Union.

I remember being driven home in the emerging blue day and wondering if the fact that it was the first time in two days it hadn’t stopped raining had made a difference to the result. That was when I knew I had been awake for too many hours. But I didn’t sleep when I got home. I just sat in a kind of reflective stupor for hours, watching the political class eat itself and David Cameron resign.

In years to come I found, whilst searching my WhatsApp archive, an instantly-forgotten message exchange with a friend from those hours in which the world was in flux. He, a Leaver, told me he didn’t think the country should depart the Union for a few more years whilst it took time to figure out the future, as it could “go horribly wrong if we rush it”. I, exhausted, said we should get right away to “fighting to get the best deal we possibly can” and be done with it quickly. We would spend the next four years arguing for one another’s positions.

If nothing else, that strange forgotten memory serves to underline the importance of moments to the sphere of public debate. It is how politics becomes history. It is the infusion of highly personal experiences with moments, sometimes even instances, in which the world is spinning on its axis and reality suddenly and shockingly alters, that creates a proper sense of perspective. In that fluid moment, we both pre-empted and superseded the conflicts that would go on to define the next five years of British politics. Perhaps part of the reason that what came next was so tumultuous is that we consciously let go of memories from these fluid moments — we let avenues of possibility and conciliation close off.

24 hours is a long time in politics (it certainly was for me on June 23rd 2016). But 24 hours is a long time in politics largely because we choose to make it so. In politics, as in life, we could do better to not let go of our memories of important days. They hold truths that we didn’t understand yet.

Appendix

I wrote an email to my core campaign team on Friday, June 24th. It was a goodbye of sorts, but also a plea to keep focused on the issues at stake. Remember — this is before the terms “Soft” or “Hard” Brexit were even coined. As a final memory — this is an extract from that email in which I reflect on what’s to come. Some of it is eery, and not only for Brexit. Indeed, there is one bit in particular that might catch your eye in the midst of the failure to realise “Freedom Day” from Lockdown on Monday this week (June 21st), and whilst a debate rages on about the new One Britain One Nation day on Friday (June 25th).

As for the result, I hope you’re all holding up well. If you find yourself despairing at any point, try and remember this…

The campaign may have been lost, but the political context it has created is boldly contested land. Whatever your political persuasion, our opinions now exist in different circumstances in which nothing is certain. People are already seriously talking about a General Election in May 2017, maybe even earlier. The debates that are to be had in the near future span across a completely new set of political issues that Brexit has thrown up, not least Common Market membership, Human Rights law, worker’s rights and, more powerfully, the competition between very different visions for the future.

I honestly believe that our job now as believers in co-operation and progress is to play as big a role as possible during these debates. It’d be easy to let Boris and co. dominate the agenda from now on, and there is no inevitability of a resurgent movement of sensible, caring politics. We have to build that movement by providing fully developed and inspiring visions for the future. We probably lost this referendum the minute Farage and Boris started talking about “June 23rd — Independence Day”. That was nonsense, but powerful, and far more emotive than what our national message was saying. If we can rally people behind our own values with a genuine vision for the future, which we know has been possible in the past, I think our kind of politics can win these debates and give Britain the best possible future in its new setting. Britain might have changed direction, but it doesn’t have to be the kind of direction that Boris wants to take it in. It doesn’t have to be the wrong direction.

So whatever political positions (or just personal conversations) you find yourselves in soon, no matter if it’s for a political party or just in a personal capacity with friends, just try and have faith that the kind of politics that brought the five of us together (and which 48% of the country voted for) still means something to people, still makes the world a better place, and still stands a chance of winning again.

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Gaetano Russo

Gaetano Russo

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Desperate graduate writing about the bigger picture behind everyday culture.