It’s not communist buildings that are bleak – it’s capitalist budget hotel chains

19 January 2019

9:00 AM

19 January 2019

9:00 AM

A few of us on the Labour left decide to see if it is possible to conjure, from nowhere, a #FinalSay campaign for a second referendum. The Labour front bench does not sound ecstatic about a second referendum, and Chuka Umunna’s lot are bound to screw it up if they’re in charge. So we schedule a meeting in the Commons, commission a meme and spread the word. Not long after this goes public, numerous Twitter users with random numbers in their handles begin accusing me of being a ‘pro-Nato White Helmet shill’, a ‘coup-monger’ and a ‘neoliberal’. The reaction at my Labour branch is more positive. We pass a motion calling for an emergency party conference to decide the line in any second referendum. Our MP, pro-Brexiteer Kate Hoey, does not attend. Ms Hoey’s positions on Northern Ireland, Brexit, urban cyclists and fox-hunting are at odds with those of the average young professional in Lambeth. In fact, the only local resident I know who supports her position on the foxes is my dog.

I fly to Berlin on Germanwings. This is like Ryanair without the extravagant luxuries. My hosts allocate me a hotel room with a mattress the thickness and consistency of a McDonald’s bun. Just out of the window, across the Alexanderplatz, the old Park Inn glowers, notorious for hosting communist apparatchiks in the heyday of the DDR. Today it’s the capitalist business hotel chains that specialise in soul-draining bleakness. I’m here to give a talk commemorating the life and work of Rosa Luxemburg, the Marxist economist and party leader murdered by a right-wing militia in January 1919 after taking part in an abortive uprising. We gather in the scruffy but endearing Roter Salon, a bar in the Volksbühne theatre, which still has the low-rent atmosphere of the Weimar Republic. The German Left Party, which hosts the meeting, is as divided as the British left over whether to try to save globalisation or bury it.  Afterwards we head across Mitte looking for a place to drink. But it’s all coffee bars and glass-fronted fashion stores now, and they’re shut. The only place that’s still open serves Absinthe and nothing else. It was set up by a Brit three years ago. He explains there is no danger whatsoever of us experiencing hallucinations, as the 19th century effects of wormwood relied on being mixed with laudanum. After this, everything becomes blurry until I appear on the Andrew Marr programme.

The Sunday paper review is dominated by Tim Shipman’s scoop: MPs are to take control of the Commons agenda and screw up Theresa May’s plan to run down the clock, once she loses the meaningful vote. Marr wafts Corbyn, Vince Cable and Brexit Minister Steve Baker lightly under what now passes for a grill at the BBC: none gets particularly badly roasted. The post-show breakfast, however, lives up to the BBC traditions: sausages that would survive a tactical nuclear strike and cold beans. In the days before politics became viscerally nasty, MPs used to hang around at the end of programmes like Newsnight and the Marr show to pick up gossip and spread bonhomie. Now it’s just the journalists and the cold beans.

The #FinalSay meeting in Parliament goes spectacularly well. Nobody can agree on anything and a bloke denounces us for campaigning alongside millionaires. As we finish, and start to leave Portcullis House, we pass something like a scene from Bodyguard. Heavily armed police and plainclothes people, spads wearing New & Lingwood tweeds, sharp-suited Tory women with clipboards, all clustered around a single door. The sign at the door says: ‘Julian Lewis. Meeting with MPs.’ This is power — and to our crowd, filtering past in our T-shirts and duffle coats, the difference between having it and not having it is palpable. But how long can the Tories cling to it?

I speak from the platform of the People’s Vote rally in Parliament Square, putting the line that we need an election if possible, and to let Parliament work its way through the softer Brexit options if necessary and… But a rolling chant begins from the back of the crowd in favour of a People’s Vote, just as it probably will from the PLP as the week draws on. I nip to the Arcola Theatre in Dalston to see a play by D.H. Lawrence. At the interval the lights are not yet up before delighted theatregoers begin mouthing to each other ‘230’, which is the margin of May’s defeat. ‘What does it mean?’, people ask me. The truth is, I am struggling to know. Back at Parliament, the atmosphere, with partisans on both sides in fancy dress, Europhiles skipping gleefully alongside xenophobes, is unlike any previous mass event except perhaps General Monck’s entry into London as described by Samuel Pepys in February 1660. Then, as now, the government had effectively lost the support of Parliament, and as Pepys puts it beautifully: ‘The City look mighty blank, and cannot tell what in the world to do.’

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