The EU referendum should have changed us all. I spent months travelling across the country with the Remain campaign, listening to people who shook with anger on doorsteps and in workplaces when they told me why they were voting to Leave.
Their lives, contrary to the media representation, are not terrible. These are not people who have nothing left to lose. Most live in decent neighborhoods, with a house and a mortgage, a job and a family. But that job is probably insecure, and paying the mortgage and bills is increasingly a struggle. They have lost a lot in recent decades, unable to see many prospects for their children’s future, and were determined to make Westminster sit up and listen on 23 June last year. They understood the risks of their decision, but were prepared to take it.
These folks are not, as many have suggested, racist or too stupid to understand the question. From Sunderland to Southampton, Leave voters often agreed with me that we should never allow concern about the impact of immigration to become an anti-immigrant agenda. Like many Remain voters, they too are opposed calls to expel migrants and were horrified by the rise in hate crime since the referendum. They want a tolerant but fair immigration plan and, like me, they feel instinctively that the response of Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall is profoundly un-British.
But equally they cannot understand why we would defend a system of free movement that has brought economic benefits to the country as whole but has been used to allow the needs, aspirations and abilities of young people in towns like Wigan to be ignored for decades. They do not want to hear how lucky we are to be able to attract migrants to work in our NHS when the hope of their own children working in our hospitals has been shattered by the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance, Aim Higher, nursing bursaries, university grants and affordable higher education.
They can see all too clearly that the system we have defended has allowed the skilled and mobile to gain an advantage at the expense of them and their families, and they have now put up with this state of affairs for decades. They learnt, as Bevan said, that “silent pain evokes no response”. In this they are no different to many of the young people I have met across the rest of Europe in recent years. In towns across Germany, France and Holland they too want to know: who is speaking for them?
In many of the communities that voted Leave, the Tories’ history – as well as their recent record – means they are rightly neither liked nor trusted. And with Ukip and the Liberal Democrats choosing to speak only for one side, and with their respective leaders deliberately fanning the flames of division, the job falls to Labour to speak for both sides of this debate. I believe it can be done.
During the referendum, across the Leave-Remain divide, I heard a burning desire for global co-operation but much more local control, shared concerns about immigration, and the need to invest much more in public services. Referendums are binary and by necessity force us to pick sides. But the concerns of Leave voters never really felt poles apart from most of those who voted to Remain. In this there is the basis for a shared vision for our future. The fact that Labour MPs simultaneously represent some of the most pro-Leave and pro-Remain constituencies in the country has been a source of division, but it should also be a source of optimism for our movement.
Healing is possible, but not if, having devolved this decision to the public, we begin by refusing to accept the result. For many people the referendum was the last line of defence for the things that matter in their lives and they were determined we would listen. They weren’t wrong. The outcome has shaken Westminster and Whitehall to its core. The mantra of the referendum was “you aren’t listening”. To reject Article 50 now send the clearest possible signal that we still aren’t.
That doesn’t mean we should let this government off the hook. They called a referendum because it was in their party’s interest, not the country’s. They fought a narrow, miserable campaign and walked off the scene shortly afterwards, only to reveal that there was no plan and no clue about what comes next. But it’s wrong to pretend that this is a zero sum game: to reject the verdict or to accept Theresa May’s vision for Britain.
By forcing May to publish a white paper, and to set out her approach to protect jobs, businesses, workers’ rights, and environmental protections, Labour has already begun the important work of Parliamentary scrutiny. Calling up ministers, including the Prime Minister, to account to MPs is a democratic imperative but we must also involve the British people in what comes next.
We should press for a commitment for the Office for Budget Responsibility to do a proper distributional analysis of ministers’ Brexit decisions, so that people have the tools they need to see who will benefit and who will lose out from the decisions being made on their behalf. Most importantly, we should work across the gulf that opened up during the referendum to set out a pathway for Britain that addresses those big concerns on education, immigration, health and social care that are shared by both Remain and Leave voters.
To simply pick a side would be too easy. The far harder but essential task now is to bring people back together. As Hemingway put it: “One man alone ain’t got no bloody chance”. As we seek to forge a new vision of Britain, across the Leave-Remain divide, our best hope is each other. True radicalism lies in rising to the challenges that are thrown at you, and right now the only thing worth doing in British politics is to heal these divisions. Campaigning is difficult but finding consensus is harder, and in the end it is the changes that enjoy broad support that will last. These unprecedented times call for those who can find the common ground of the sensible, decent majority and build Britain’s future upon it.