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If the left wants to stop losing, we'll have to do a lot more listening

Labour is in danger, and the problem didn't start with Jeremy Corbyn.

An awful lot of tripe is written about Labour's disconnection with voters in our traditional heartlands. According to a lazy and insulting caricature, these are industrial cities and towns where Labour votes were once weighed, instead of counted, or where a donkey with a red rosette would always win.

The reality is more complex.  Take the two places that formed my politics more than anywhere else: Bradford, where I grew up, and the former coal mining seat of Ashfield which I am so proud to represent in Parliament. Both of them would fit a stereotype of the “Labour heartlands”. But when I was studying for my A-Levels in Bradford, the council was run by the Tories’ Eric Pickles and when I first got elected in Ashfield in 2010 my majority was just 192 votes.

I’m glad to say that the people of my constituency gave me a better margin of victory in the last election but we had disappointing results elsewhere in 2015, not least in other seats nearby - former mining seats, former Labour seats like Broxtowe, Sherwood and Amber Valley - where tiny Tory majorities in 2010 became big ones in 2015.

Labour’s difficulties in our heartlands did not begin with Jeremy Corbyn because the truth is that our support in places like these have been eroding for a long time. It’s a key reason we haven't won a general election for over a decade. And nor is this just a British problem. Across the developed world, the left and centre-left is in retreat with social democrats in the European Union losing 26 out of 33 national elections since the financial crisis in 2008.

So I have never taken Labour voters or Labour heartlands for granted. And that is why I want to begin a formal project to listen to voters in my constituency. I will give them the chance to tell me what they want from politics and, crucially for me and for the party I love so much, what they want from Labour. I want them to tell me what they worry about and what kind of future they hope can be built for their children. I want them to explain to me why so many voted to leave the European Union. And I want people who took part in that referendum but not the general election to make me understand why.

It’s what I’m going to do non-stop for the next 10 weeks. I know not everyone is as interested in this as I am and if I called a public meeting in Ashfield, I wouldn’t hear from anyone who had anything better to do. That’s why I am going out to meet as many of my constituents face-to-face where they live and work. I am starting on Friday with male construction workers followed by women admin workers at a successful Ashfield engineering company. Between now and mid-March I will listen to teachers, ex-miners, hairdressers, 6th form students, pensioners, small business owners, mums with toddlers, golf club members, non voters, ex-voters and people who would never vote for me.

But I also know this: the Labour Party is not like some dodgy business trying to sell people stuff they don’t want. People share our values: they need an NHS that serves their children as well as it as served us; they don’t want to see neighbours living on handouts from foodbanks; and they believe a fair day’s work should result in a fair day’s pay.

If we are honest with ourselves, we are still working on the concrete policies to make these things a reality. If we don't have a practical vision of a better country which people believe and buy into we will fail again and again. The ideas we need to rebuild that vision won’t just come from think-tanks in Westminster and Whitehall – or they won’t work if they do. Any project to create a better future for the people had better begin with the people themselves.

But winning their trust and their votes also requires us to address the doubts so many people have about us. It's dead simple: we will lose again if we don’t do this.

And Labour losing means kids losing chances in life or even going without food. The work that the last Labour government did to lift children out of poverty is all set to be undone by this government. As someone who grew up in pretty tough circumstances in the 1980s, that progress came too late for me. I believe that I – and all of us in the Labour Party - have a responsibility to stop the same happening to any more children. I’m calling my tour “Gloria Listens in Ashfield”. It is what I can do right now to make sure I don’t shirk my responsibility.

I look forward to sharing the results.

Gloria De Piero is Labour MP for Ashfield. 

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”