My Thoughts on Brexit and Our Future
Yesterday I wrote to members of my Constituency Labour Party on the challenges ahead after last week’s referendum. This is what I said:
Describing the events of the past week or so as momentous doesn’t really come close to it, does it?
Britain votes to leave the European Union of which we have been part of for over forty years. And by doing so our country enters completely unchartered waters. The Pound plummets and there is huge uncertainty about what lies ahead, prompting urgent action by the Governor of the Bank of England to steady the situation, at least in the short term.
Sharp divisions in our country are laid bare – with over 16 million people voting one way and over 17 million voting the other. Scotland and London vote one way, most of the other regions vote the other way. In our own city of Birmingham, the vote is 50.4% one way and 49.6% the other. Young people predominantly vote to remain in the EU while older people predominantly vote to leave. A Prime Minister resigns and a Leader of the Opposition faces resignations from senior members of his own Shadow Cabinet. And just a week before the vote, a Labour MP known for her human rights work was assassinated outside her surgery.
None of us have lived through anything like this before and nobody can know what lies ahead. Throughout the past days many of us have felt successive waves of determination, anger, fear and foreboding. Sometimes we have felt all four at the same time. But none of those emotions alter the fact that the beliefs that inspired us to join or support the Labour Party leave us with a huge collective responsibility going forward. Simultaneously our principles of solidarity and social justice both at home and internationally face their biggest challenges for decades. And it is these principles that are needed now more than ever.
The Brexit vote will no doubt continue to be analysed and re-analysed in the months and years to come. But there is no question that part of the scale of the Leave vote came from a feeling that politics and political institutions have been out of touch with people’s daily experiences, their hopes and their fears. It has come to a head over the EU, but it was – and continues to be – about so much more, particularly in areas like ours – on the outskirts of big cities and beyond.
Communities like ours, which have undergone enormous changes over the past two decades, all too often feel by-passed. They feel on the edge of decision-making as much as they are geographically on the edge of our cities. It’s something I raised in my maiden speech in the Commons over two decades ago. It’s something that formed a cornerstone of how we approached our response to the collapse of MG Rover a decade ago. It’s been there in the debates I’ve held in Parliament about educational underachievement in white working class areas. It has been there in the work we have all done to put issues of low pay, poor housing and skills in areas like this more firmly on the agenda in Birmingham. It’s there in the efforts currently going on to create a more sustainable sense of “place” through arguing for new local community hubs in Northfield and elsewhere to better empower local people at a time of austerity.
Whether through these kinds of initiatives in Northfield and those of our colleagues in other towns of cities, neither Labour nor anyone else has achieved anything like the scale or pace of change that has been needed. And so the alienation from politics has grown, the resentment has deepened and legitimate concerns about how migration and population movement should work in the modern world have become ever more fertile ground for racism, xenophobia and more. It has all come out in an explosion over Brexit. Whatever your grievance, leaving the EU – kicking back against the foreigners, the establishment, the system – could all be encapsulated in a vote that claimed to be about “getting our country back”.
As we are now rapidly seeing, the reality of a Brexit vote could achieve no such thing, whatever the arguments for or against continued UK membership of the EU. But when the dust clears, the grievances people feel will still be there. And our principles require us to still be around too. Because the injustices that have given rise to those grievances are real. We will have to draw some lines in the sands along the way – never compromising on the hate and ugly xenophobia that has become all too common. Right now, these principles can cost us. They even cost Jo Cox her life. But all these are even more reason for us to carry on.
Whatever happens with the leadership of this political party or that one in the coming weeks, we need to be charting a new strategy about how our country can go forward in a post-Brexit world. It means a focus on what new approaches are needed to tackle poor housing, low skills and support for productive industry in ways that better reach areas like ours and to demonstrate to people that things can change for the better. It means our region having a say in how the Brexit negotiations take place so that the needs of our area are addressed. And it means a new approach to politics too. That’s why, in our area, pioneering work on that is going on in central Northfield on the creation of community hubs are not only important to help deliver local services. They are about doing politics in a different way too – in practice not only in theory.
These are some of the thoughts that I have about how – even at local level – we can start to face the monumental challenges we have ahead of us. All of them need loads more work. So in thanking you for the work you have done during the recent elections, in the referendum campaign and in many other ways, I also want to hear from you about your ideas – whether on events going on now or those for the longer term. With the speed with which my inbox has been filling in the past week, I can’t promise to respond to you all straight way. But I do want to hear from you.
Richard Burden MP