What Brexit and Donald Trump can teach the centre left about politics

A Remain campaigner reflects on two eerily similar defeats. 

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There was a familiar sense of rhythm to last night’s unfolding drama. Initial indications that the polls were rights, signs of an early concession, but then a tightening in key battlegrounds, markets tumbling, despair on the faces of one set of supporters and finally the emergence of a victorious but stunned blonde bombshell to take in the gravity of what he had done.
 
As the executive director of Britain Stronger in Europe, I lived through all this on that night in June. I have consequently spent the last four months seeking to understand why we lost – all the time looking across the Atlantic as similar mistakes were made by the Clinton campaign - a poll-driven strategy based on the risks of the opponent, a failure to address her biggest weaknesses, and even an over-reliance on celebrity endorsements.
 
On the dawn of the Donald Trump era, those of us on the centre and left will look around the debris in despair. The temptation to lash out will be strong. It is easy to patronise or vilify those who did not agree with us. But this would be both wrong and counter-productive. 
 
We must cherish democracy, especially when it goes against us for it teaches us what we do not know. It tells us what we could not see or hear about our own country. Trump may, as many believe, prove to be the worst president in the history of the United States. But the people of America have every right to take that risk.  
 
Those of us who disagree have a duty to understand, not to undermine.
 
Much has already been written about the changing nature of political debate across the developed world, the rise of populism on both left and right, the breakdown of traditional differences over the means of production, and a widening divide between those who want to close ourselves off from international competition and immigration and those who want us to remain open. 
 
In the UK, Brexit was the manifestation of trends that have been building for years. Trump represented the same forces last night in the US. 
 
Ironically given last night’s result, it was Bill Clinton who best summed up what was happening when he explained that white America was “dying of a broken heart”. He noted many African-American or Hispanic families were achieving the American dream for the first time after years of struggle – seeing their kids become the first in their family to go to college, becoming home owners for the first time. By contrast, many white Americans – particularly in the "rust belt" of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio that swung to Trump last night – had seen their hopes shattered, their dignity undermined, their frustrations ignored.

In the UK, poorer communities have faced a triple whammy. Since the 1980s and 1990s they have faced the greatest declines in industry. In the 2000s, they experienced the most rapid relative changes in terms of immigration. In the 2010s they suffered the greatest austerity as public services were slashed. 
 
These three factors have increased alienation from the principle of economic openness, at a time when successive crises and scandals undermined faith in the so-called establishment.
 
The backlash is now immense. In the space of a few short months, Britain has overturned 40 years of foreign and economic policy and now the United States will become increasingly isolationist on trade, humanitarianism and, indeed, climate change. France could be next. It is odds on that former Prime Minister, Alain Juppe will beat the Front National’s Marine Le Pen in a presidential run off. But politics has not been following the path laid out by pollsters and betting markets recently.
 
So where do we go from here? What do those of us reeling from what is happening do to respond?
 
First, we must not despair. Politics can feel very binary at moments like these, but progressive forces are sustained by large levels of support. Let us not forget that 48 per cent voted to Remain. It looks like roughly the same proportion have voted for Hillary Clinton as well. Demographics in both countries are in our favour.
 
But we have a responsibility too to understand how it has come to this. Why do so many, traditional Labour or Democratic voters feel they have lost their sense of belonging? 
 
A new politics is necessary, one with the seeds of dignity. We must find our way to a prosperity which gives people a greater sense of belonging; where communities have more autonomy to judge their own affairs, and where international cooperation is used to tackle the worst excesses of globalisation, including tax avoidance, human trafficking and illegal immigration. 
 
So, too, do we need a new language of politics – one that refuses to pander to prejudice but recognises that what the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the “moral octaves” which those on the left cannot hear.  For example, imagine that there are concentric circles of loyalty – family, community, country - which are not just a comfort blanket in times of crises, but are hardwired into us as human beings.

From this perspective, overt displays of patriotism which may make liberals uncomfortable can in fact be harnessed, and used to reinforce positive values. Larry Summers, an academic and former adviser to Barack Obama, has called it “responsible nationalism” which “starts from the idea that the basic responsibility of government is to maximise the welfare of citizens, not to pursue some abstract concept of the global good”.
 
In this way, we can find common ground with our opponents on issues like immigration. Despite legitimate concerns about the pace of change, most people agree that those who come to our country to work hard, pay their taxes and contribute to our society should be welcomed.
 
Finally, we will need to think again about our campaigning techniques. It seemed obvious that data should trump anecdote – but in the EU referendum it turned out the latter was more accurate. In that regard, at least, the experts were indeed wrong. Instead, of campaigns being driven by the headline numbers, it is time that we really listened. 
 
Our countries feel split down the middle and to a significant degree they are. But as Jo Cox famously said we “have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” If only we would look for it, we would know it was true.

Will Straw was Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union.