There’s a lot that the Labour chair Ian Lavery says about the UK with which I agree from the bottom of my heart. That’s hardly surprising – we’re both Labour MPs from north-east England, both grew up in the communities we represent, and both serve as MPs for places which have suffered not just from the decline of mining and heavy industry, but also from long years of Tory austerity. Both of us represent areas that voted heavily to leave the EU. But on a people’s vote, and the impact it would have on Labour voters and on trust in politics, I could hardly disagree more.
Trust in government and politicians matters deeply. One of the most corrosive things about the Vote Leave campaign in the last referendum was the way they bent and twisted the truth for short-term advantage. For people who don’t believe that democratic governments can be a force for good in the world, or a force for good in each of our lives, then the less trust people have in politicians the better. That helps them to achieve their ideal of a deregulated, insecure world where profits are easy and where people live in poverty and insecurity, in fear of crime, unemployment, old age and ill health.
I don’t want that world. I came into politics to fight it. I want to see a Labour government unafraid of using its power to give people decent jobs, stable employment and the security of knowing they’ll be looked after if they fall ill and as they grow old.
To me, few things would be more disastrous for trust in our political class than going ahead with a Brexit that will deliver a reality so far from what people were promised. Those who voted to leave in 2016 aren’t stupid: the trouble with the 2016 referendum was that dozens of different visions were on offer of what leaving might mean, and many of them were a good deal more appealing than remaining. None of us who voted remain knew every detail about Britain’s relationship with the EU, or fully appreciated the complexity that leaving would entail. I find it unspeakably patronising when people tell me that leave voters didn’t know what they were voting for, in a tone that suggests remain voters did.
Today, with an exit deal on the table that ties down exactly what might happen, and with parliament having already rejected that, there is only one way out. We must ask the people of Britain whether they want to leave on the terms the government has negotiated and parliament has rejected, or whether they would, on reflection, rather keep the deal they have. My electors are reasonable, intelligent people. When the facts change, we should give them the chance to change their minds. There is no shame in that.
I also know, from years of talking to voters on the doorstep in my constituency, that although there are plenty of people who care deeply about leaving the EU, most of them probably aren’t Labour voters. Most Labour voters in my patch worry about the economy, about jobs and about wages, about our schools and hospitals. Whichever way they voted in the referendum, for them Europe has always been a secondary concern. The people who care most about Europe often aren’t actually Labour voters at all – many of them don’t vote in general elections, and of those that do, they have long voted for the Tories or Ukip. We also do well to remember that huge numbers of people voted to leave across the prosperous towns of southern England and the home counties. The narrative that the leave vote was primarily northern and working-class needs challenging. Sevenoaks and Canterbury voted to leave, as well as my home city of Sunderland. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming that just because there are both lots of Labour voters and lots of leave voters in the north-east, they are always the same people.
So I do not share the fear that trust in politics will collapse, or that leave voters will desert Labour, when we ask the people for their view. I worry far more about colleagues in remain-voting areas having difficulties holding on to their voters if we go into a general election promising to deliver a Brexit they know will hurt their constituents and hit the least well-off the hardest. Any Brexit deal will simply mark the beginning of many years of torturous and lopsided negotiations with Europe over our future relationship. The idea that such an outcome would settle the argument or end the divisions is not credible.
Of course there are many Labour voters who voted leave, and many of them did so because of deep dissatisfaction and anger with the deal they get from Britain’s society and economy. I share that dissatisfaction and I share that anger. But as socialists, not populists, we have to level with the people we represent. It is decisions in our own country that have made our system unequal and unfair, not our membership of the EU. And as socialists we don’t shirk responsibility, say to our voters “it’s what you wanted”, and then walk by on the other side. For more than a century, working people in Britain have had no closer friend than the Labour movement. We cannot and must not walk away from that role. Because ultimately trust comes from respect, and we will lose trust not by telling the truth, but by running from it.
This was published in the Guardian on 28 January. You can read it here.