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Leave voters can’t be dismissed as “old, racist and stupid”

Those who backed Brexit were driven by a passion for democracy and a sense of community. 

Can the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the European Union simply be dismissed as old and racist? And now, according to my former colleague the Labour MP Barry Sheerman, stupid? I’m sure I was not the only one who considered his claim that "better educated people voted Remain" offensive.

Putting aside the fact that many young people voted Leave, isn’t it possible that the “old” had a valuable historic perspective which allowed them to draw a distinction between trade and co-operation on the one hand  and political integration on the other? They remembered a time when nation states on the European continent either belonged to EFTA, which was based on trade, or the Common Market, which always had as its aim political as well as economic integration. That is why among the key imperatives of leaving the EU are putting an end to the supremacy of the European Court of Justice, and leaving the single market, which has free movement of people as a key pillar.

Could it not also be that the "old" recalled that peace and collective defence were guaranteed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which guarantees collective defence in the case of one member being attacked. That collective defence was invoked when NATO was led by a former British Defence Secretary, George Robertson, after the attack on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001.

Every nation state reserves the right to decide who can and cannot come into the country. It should be legitimate to talk about what these rules are as well as their consequences. That’s not racist. If half your annual net immigration comes from mainland Europe and the other half from the rest of world than this tells you something. And if you only have control over the rules relating to that part of immigration from non-EU countries, then that tells you something too. And if you then find that public services are struggling to prepare for the changes in population numbers and that in some areas wage levels are suppressed by cheaper labour coming in from outside the UK, then that should be cause to reflect. But calling it racist diminishes the debate itself  and our political leaders.

And what about this claim that Leave voters were the "uneducated"? In my experience of fighting elections in a constituency (Birmingham Edgbaston) which embraced a Russell Group university, a leading NHS hospital, working class communities who wanted to own their own home, and hoped that they would always have a job and be able to pay their bills, as well as some deprived housing estates, it is true to say that some voters may be far more articulate than others, but those without a university education are not stupid.

So maybe those who voted Leave had a greater sense of place and commitment to their communities. They would not able to pack their bags and move to a well-paid job somewhere else if things got tough. But they understood that functioning democratic institutions, having a say over who makes their laws and being able to kick their politicians out if they disagreed with them, was important. Indeed, I’d go further and say that properly functioning democracies deliver economic prosperity not the other way around.

Leave voters had rumbled the problem at the core of the European Union. At the outset, the then Common Market was supposed to remove all talk of ideology and make economic performance the centre of the project. The promise of a better tomorrow would overcome the old divisions between the key founding members, Germany and France. Now, that works for the head, but it never appealed to the heart, and politics and life needs not just rational explanation, but some ideas and ideals to hold onto.

The other thing to consider is that the UK has had a supranational identify since the 18th century – and that identity is at the core of being British. World War Two did not leave the Brits disillusioned with the nation state - in stark contrast to the mainland. And whereas most European countries held onto the EU as the key institution that offered an identity bigger than the nation state, the UK had a plethora of global institutions of which it was either a founding member or a leading participant. From the IMF and the World Bank, to the UN, the Council of Europe, NATO, the OEED, and GATT.

Some of these institutions have succeeded in adapting to the changes we have seen since then and some have not. The UK is comfortable with change, and no one institution is central to its identity. So there was no crisis when the World Trade Organisation succeeded GATT, or when the Organisation of European Economic Co-operation was subsumed by a worldwide organisation, the OECD.

The UK always has been and will continue to be outward looking, international and welcoming. But since the Maastricht Treaty of 1994 - when we opted out of a single European currency and common travel area (Schengen) - there was an inevitable distance from the rest of the EU. The road to our eventual departure was set in motion then. And it was sped up when the Euro was introduced because it became increasingly difficult to have a political and economic union which did not institutionally acknowledge the different needs of member states. The EU’s response - which was to plough ahead with "the project" without acknowledging that the world around us was changing - was also key in edging us further to the exit door.

In this way, the vote to leave was for the UK a logical consequence of a decision made over 20 years ago - one which David Cameron’s negotiation failed to address, perhaps due to resistance on the continent, or perhaps because he failed to see the writing on the wall. 

But whether you agree with this exact analysis or not, I hope we can all agree that it is time to stop the patronising and offensive name calling. The vote to leave was not an illness which requires treatment, or a stupidity that requires education, it was a democratic decision which now must be implemented: a process which I hope all politicians will put their energy towards.

Gisela Stuart is chair of Change Britain and was Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston from 1997-2017

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.