If this year’s general election taught me anything, it was the extent to which voters in my constituency are feeling insecure about the future. Top of the list is anxiety about international security and terrorism, but featuring significantly in conversations on the doorstep were concerns about Brexit. Whether constituents voted Leave or Remain, the common theme was nervousness about the negotiating process and the eventual shape of the Brexit deal.
Of course, in a constituency which boasts four Ukip councillors, there were voters who just wanted Brexit. They told me they didn’t care what it looked like or how many jobs it cost. But such attitudes were significantly outnumbered by those who made it clear they didn’t want Brexit to damage the country or their own living standards. One could feel, in fact, a sense of dismay in relation to the government’s handling of the Article 50 process so far.
This shouldn’t surprise anybody. If business needs certainty about what Brexit is going to look like and how we are going to get there, then so do voters. In particular, those who voted Leave believed they were opting for a brighter, better future. They believed too that the leaders of the anti-EU campaign would be sure-footed and more than capable of disentangling the UK from its complex web of relationships with EU member states.
What analysis, then, can be drawn from this? I would suggest three things.
First of all, it is important in the Brexit debate always to bear in mind that public opinion on this topic is complex and ever-shifting. At that crucial moment in June 2016, it was shaped by a very poor referendum campaign which did little to enlighten voters as to the realities of EU membership and the critical nature of the decision to be made. We have to recognise that as the Brexit story develops, so will voter attitudes. We have to understand that very few voters made their initial decision on a purely ideological basis. Most voters did their best with the information available to them and voted for what they thought was best for the country.
Following on from that, it is clear that strong leadership can make a difference. A myth has grown to explain the Leave vote in post-industrial areas. In this telling, immigration, high levels of unemployment and low wages led to disenchantment with the establishment and a determination to upset the status quo, whatever the consequences. And yet Scotland, with a legacy of lost manufacturing to match anything we have seen in England, voted Remain.
One can only wonder – is that because all the major parties in Scotland unreservedly supported the Remain cause? Yes, of course there are political differences between the two countries. But even so, it is clear that voter anxiety about issues such as immigration and our place in Europe were countered successfully in Scotland. Its leaders never wavered in their belief that the UK should remain a member state. If that could be done in Scotland in 2016, then effective leadership from now onwards can deliver a pro-single market majority across the whole of the UK.
Finally, and most important, it is clear that leadership in the Brexit debate can be demonstrated at constituency level. With a hard, damaging Brexit still on the table, every Labour member of parliament can play a role in fighting for a Brexit deal that avoids catastrophic damage to the economy. It is time to put the country first. Of course it is true that many Labour MPs represent constituencies where the majority voted Leave, but they were not mandated as to the manner of our leaving. In other words, we are leaving, but we must, for the sake of our economy, argue successfully to stay in the single market.
Let’s not pretend that any of this is easy. MPs willing to fight for the single market are frequently accused of betraying the referendum result. Or they are told they should accept their voters opted for Leave because of concerns about immigration and a belief that freedom of movement should end. Labour parliamentarians can rise above this rather clichéd debate, however, by remembering not just their responsibility to defend the national interest, but also the fact that a robust defence of our economy is far more likely to deliver the resources necessary to shift the UK out of its austerity straitjacket.
No more Remain constituencies or Leave constituencies, then, in the argument about Brexit. It’s time for Labour MPs to play their part. We must unify the country behind a patriotic argument which keeps the UK in the single market, and a social democratic argument which puts a robust economy at the heart of its political narrative.
Angela Smith is the Labour MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge.