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21 September 2016updated 12 Oct 2023 10:44am

What I learnt in the workplaces of Brexit Britain

Only two things really matter in politics.

By Alison McGovern

Ahead of Labour conference, it isn’t just internal Labour division we must address. It’s our divided country. Read Stephen Bush’s account of his visit to Harlow, and shudder. Did the Brexit vote open the door to racism in our country? I fear it did. Not just Stephen’s painful account of his own treatment – British, but abused for the colour of his skin. Nor is it just the statistical evidence of a huge increase in hate crime. Sadly, it’s also the abuse received by my own constituent. Her only fault was to have retained a trace of the accent gained in her birth country. This caused her to be publicly shamed despite her British residency of half a century. My city, Liverpool, which is hosting Labour conference next week, voted to remain, but even in our midst, xenophobia has been allowed out of its box.

Who gave permission for such a reversal of British attitudes? Whether we like it or not, public debate is led by our media, and politicians like my colleagues and I. Listen to what Conservative peer Baroness Warsi has said about “hateful, xenophobic” tactics. I would love to just blame the Tories for this, but we all played our part in getting here, if only just by omission. Now we must all play our part in getting Britain out of this mess. But how?

In advance of September’s debates, I went back to workplaces over the summer. Part of the reason was to understand how people feel about politics. What was it that we missed because MPs are on a short leash to Westminster? Why did we not see this coming? How did we get it so wrong?

The constant drumbeat of parliamentary life with regular votes, and the opportunity to question the Government, places a natural limit around the time that can be spent elsewhere. But this means that “visits” outside tend to be organised militarily. Look at this. Shake hand with this person. Point at that. Say hello to that journalist. Not a bad thing to do, but not remotely the correct method for understanding what is really changing for ordinary British people. Not nearly enough time to listen.

Conversely, this summer I had six days across a few weeks (again, not enough, but a start) in which British businesses had offered to let me shadow their staff. Two major retailers, two large industrial manufacturers, a care home and an airline. A decent spread of different British workplaces. Because I wanted people to be honest and open with me, I promised not to quote them, and so I won’t. But as you might guess, Brexit was a major topic.

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Yet that is not to say the conversation was depressing. Far from it. I met people dedicated to the business they are a part of. The world of work is pretty complex these day, and competition for market share is fierce. But people are spending time trying to get it right and considerable effort adapting to change, be it technological or societal.

Take shopping patterns for instance. Retail employees now deal not just with the high street but also with online customers. Whilst some of us know exactly what we want, having looked it up using our smartphone at home, expecting the same immediacy of high street logistics, the baby-boomer-and-older generations still expect a polite human being who can talk them through the options and offer traditional customer service. Our country needs both better tech training, and traditional interpersonal skills that businesses have always required.

Or consider manufacturing, now the most productive part of the British economy, having – through recent decades – fought for survival against the strength of sterling. That has meant continuously find marginal gains in speed, quality and reliability. Work, at its best, that is incredibly rewarding. But the problem is, everyone is stretched. Once you have been to work and taken care of your family, where is the space for anything else?

In fact, across all the sectors, I met people working incredibly hard to make their business work. But the pressure is intense, and I believe there is a need for better back-up. I’ve written before about universal childcare, and why it offers much greater prospects for our country’s wealth and well-being than other social security reforms. I came back to Westminster last week even more confirmed of that view.

Most workplaces are operational 24 hours per day. Much as being family-friendly is a good thing for employers, you cannot expect businesses to offer work that is completely flexible around all caring responsibilities. And we are certainly not going back to the 1950s, where women stayed at home, and men left work at 5pm to get home for their tea. What is lacking is the public infrastructure to support the British economy.

You have to make political change easy to understand, obvious to see. Childcare, unlike complex transfer payments, would mean the Government playing a real human-to-human role in people’s lives. Improving it would make a touchable difference to working families, who are currently stretched paper-thin.

Because, when I asked about political views, I re-learnt that most important lesson. Politicians and journalists are like trainspotters. Though Westminster may be all consuming for those of us with political addiction, for most people, it is not. Most people think about our obsession for, at most, a few minutes per week, and when they do, they are mostly thinking about how it might directly affect them. And what’s wrong with that anyway? Why should everyone be as interested in Westminster as those who work there? Isn’t it time we remembered that public service means serving the public?

Ultimately, there are only two things that really matter in politics – do you know what people want, and can you get it for them? It would be easy to say that the first is a listening test, the second a test of persuasion, but both skills involve listening. Not just understanding people’s priorities, their hopes, and their worries. But further, listening to why they don’t trust you to deliver on your promises, why they think you might not be up to it. This is why a race to the most radical pledge won’t work when people are already suspicious about your ability to transform words into actions. To be successful, centre left politicians have to be ruthless prioritisers, picking a few big ticket items, winning the case for change or investment, gaining trust, winning permission to go a little further. Most of all, we have to show people that the change we represent will a tangible impact on their lives.

This brings me back to Brexit, our divided country, and the racism that I began with. I believe that the answer is twofold. Firstly, we have to re-learn the lessons of the past. Politicians must model the society they want to see in Britain, and re-establish our credentials as an open, welcoming country that respects and likes difference, rather than fears or demonises it.

When Enoch Powell spoke, he licensed racism. Zac Goldsmith did likewise, and we should be disparaging of a campaign that sought to re-use old tactics. Luckily, the public sent Zac packing. But that cannot be the end of the story. Racism and xenophobia take hold if we let them. It takes work such as that being done by Hope Not Hate in Jo Cox’s name to stop it.

But the more we allow people’s legitimate problems to go ignored the worse it will be. Problems need a scapegoat, and it is always in the interest of the already rich and powerful to make that scapegoat be other ordinary working people, rather than the incapacity of Conservatives in power to change Britain in favour of the many not the few. So our job in Labour is to listen to the struggles people are having, every day. And then do our level best to make life better.

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