After two and a half years of trying to implement “the will of the people,” this week Theresa May finally offered something that many Leave voters have been seeking for decades. In a letter to Jeremy Corbyn, she said: “we are examining opportunities to provide further financial support to communities that feel left behind.”
Those words are a major concession. They acknowledge that the 2016 referendum result was about much more than our relationship with the EU – it was about inequality, out-of-touch politicians and years of brutal austerity.
The Prime Minister is taking advantage of that fact in a desperate attempt to get her deal through Parliament. She figures a bit of extra funding might buy the votes of a few rebellious Labour MPs – but it will take more than that to address the true drivers of Brexit.
Last week I launched a project called Dear Leavers to find solutions to the very real problems dividing our society. I’ve been talking to leave voters around the country about what we have in common, and how we can build a better future together – whether we leave, or whether we stay and fight.
When you speak to people from Brexit-supporting areas, the same issues come up over and over. Some people voted for drastic change because of longstanding concerns about the way the EU operates – but most saw the referendum as a rare opportunity to give the British establishment a well-deserved kicking.
In Cannock Chase, people told me about a shiny new out of town shopping centre due to open next year – but this designer outlet village isn’t built for the locals. Its streets of corporate brands will cater to people driving in from around the region – and residents fear it will only make life harder for local businesses already struggling in a dying town centre.
In Dagenham, many people have moved to the area relatively recently. As house prices soared where they grew up, they were forced to the outskirts of London – their communities displaced by gentrification.
One of the effects of this is that the people I met were nostalgic for what they remember as a brighter past – where they were proud of the UK and its influence on the world stage. When you rob people of a secure and hopeful future, it should come as no surprise that they long for better days gone by. An exciting community led project in the area is starting to bring people together and restore some of that lost hope – and if we are to heal our divided society we need more examples of local people really being given control over their lives.
There is no question investment is needed to help make up for years of brutal cuts. But if Theresa May was interested in listening to leave voters – not just securing their MPs’ support – she’d be “examining opportunities” to completely overhaul our democracy.
Everywhere I’ve been so far – completely unprompted – people talk about our rigged electoral system. They say they don’t have control over what happens in their area – and they’re right.
At the last general election, 68 per cent of votes didn’t get translated into seats. Our winner-takes-all politics too often makes voting for what you believe in a waste of time. Most people know instinctively that this isn’t right – even if they haven’t heard of the proportional voting systems that might offer a more democratic alternative.
We are one of the most centralised countries in Europe, with power concentrated at Westminster and sparse in our regions and local authorities. Even in Dagenham, people feel distant from decision-makers. For many people, bold ideas like moving Parliament out of London don’t feel particularly radical at all.
And as fake news and manipulative campaigning tactics emerge, many people have given up on trusting anything. The internet should be a powerful tool for transparency and engagement – but in failing to ensure our laws keep pace with technology, politicians have only further undermined public confidence.
More than anything, what people want is a voice – so I’m using Dear Leavers as an opportunity to listen. When I released the first video on Friday, I asked people what they would change first about life in the UK. The responses were thoughtful, creative and intriguing – and many were about revitalising our democracy.
If this snapshot of public opinion is anything to go by, Theresa May won’t heal our divisions just by throwing money at those struggling the most. To achieve the consensus we need to rebuild our society and fix our broken democracy, people must have ownership over the future and know that their politicians are listening.