On Saturday I spoke with young social leaders and activists at Common Vision UK's Millennifest in Cardiff about the importance of their work, and set them the challenge of using their skills and energy to unite Brexit Britain.
You can read my speech below:
Thank you for that introduction, it’s a pleasure to be here with you all today. Let me start by saying that it’s a pleasure to meet so many enthusiastic young people who are motivated by making a social impact – and who want to engage in discussions about how to make their communities and wider society stronger and more united.
People who doubt the political and social passion of your generation couldn’t be more wrong. Every day, as an MP, I see this passion pretty much everywhere I go, whether it’s the newly qualified teachers bringing verve and passion into the schools in Aberavon, or the local charities and social enterprises run by talented young leaders like yourselves… or indeed during last year’s general election campaign when we saw thousands of young adults across the country door-knocking for Labour.
It really is inspiring. And it’s particularly inspiring to be here with you at Millennifest today. Why? Because you, as Millennials, really do have the opportunity – and indeed the responsibility – to shape the future, particularly at a time when our society is deeply divided.
Now you may feel that – as Millennials – the odds are stacked against you. Particularly with university fees and the housing market. And in many ways you’d be right. It is, of course, the responsibility of government to atone for its repeated failures and finally fix those two broken systems… where university fees go into the hands of rich vice-chancellors, not on facilities or research, and where an undersupply of housing means sky high rents line the pockets of wealthy landlords.
But at the same time there are so many reasons why you can be optimistic – and so many ways in which you can make a difference. Because Millennials have so much to offer. You are the generation who have grown up experiencing fast-paced change – who can see the benefits of diversity and multiculturalism, of global connectivity and technology. And you are also the generation who are most competent and confident with that new technology.
It’s easy to take all this for granted, but this environment will help you to succeed and make an incredible difference to the world. But not everyone enjoys these benefits. If you are older, it is more difficult. For older generations, the world today moves a lot quicker than it did when they were young. It’s tough going. Constantly trying to learn new skills once you’ve left education is hard work.
If you haven’t had those extra three years at uni – or you are in a job where new training is available – it is a lot harder to get on in life. And if you live outside major cities then the benefits of technology are not always on your doorstep – just look at how long it takes fast broadband and new apps like Deliveroo to reach rural Wales, compared to Cardiff. And of course these less technologically advanced places are less likely to have the jobs of the future.
So if you’re young… or university educated… or in a city, you are at an advantage. You will more likely too see the modern world in terms of opportunity. But for those who are older… or a non-graduate… or live in small towns… their experience of change is more likely feel like a loss.
People can often feel like the political system has ignored them. That there is no equivalent to university for technical education, or adult training. That politics is all about London and other major cities. They can also feel that big global business and online shopping have destroyed their high streets. And that multiculturalism and immigration have fractured society as much as they have enriched it – that the old social norms are breaking down and communities are becoming less close knit.
And – of course – it was these trends that drove Brexit. Polling suggests that over 70 per cent of voters under 25 voted ‘remain’, compared to 36 per cent of the over 65s. Those in big cities tended to vote ‘remain’, while towns and rural areas more commonly voted ‘leave’, which university graduates were far less likely to vote leave than non-graduates.
Social values played a key role as well. The Remain vote came from what I call the Cosmopolitans – people who are confident about the future and are passionate about individual rights. And the Leave vote came mainly from the Communitarians – those who are less confident about the modern era, and more concerned about strong communities and collective endeavour.
So what to do about all this… Well there are two parts to the answer – and neither, by the way, involve getting angry about the Brexit vote. In fact, imagine the consequences of a narrow victory for Remain. The only thing that would prove is that we are still a nation split in two! The first part is about the Brexit itself – and the second is about the role you can play in uniting our divided society.
A UNIFYING BREXIT
So I’ll try and be quick on Brexit as I imagine you’re all sick to the teeth of it! I voted Remain, but I fully understand why people voted to Leave. That’s why I feel the priorities of politicians like myself should be as follows:
- To respect the democratic vote
- To ensure the future prosperity of my constituents (and indeed everyone else)
- And – last but by no means least – to ensure we have a Brexit which unites our deeply divided nation.
This is why I’ve been campaigning for an EFTA and EEA-based Brexit. This would allow us:
- Access to the single market
- To have an influence over the rules…
- And to have the chance to use the EEA’s emergency break on Freedom of Movement.
And crucially this would provide the kind of unifying Brexit that we need – one that can bring Remainers and Leavers back together.
THE CHALLENGE FOR MILLENNIALS – TO FIND COMMON GROUND
And this is where you come in. I’ve already talked about how the Millennial generation are so motivated to shape society – and how you have the skills, knowledge and confidence to make an impact on the modern world… well now’s the time to show it.
I think the challenge I’d set every one of you here today is simple: to bring people, and communities, together… A responsibility to find the common ground with those who don’t necessarily see the world as you do. Or who are less positive about role of politics, social action, and the potential for change more widely.
As social leaders you are all part of this – and it is what Millennifest and Common Vision are doing here today – and in their other events across the country. This is key to helping us to understand where we come from – having these discussions, and finding common ground.
It is rather ironic that we are better connected than we have ever been, but more divided than ever before. So finding common ground can be challenging. Part of this is down to social media where we tend to connect and follow people who are like-minded, and filter out opposing views that may challenge our beliefs.
The echo chamber this creates reinforces biases and leads to a clamour for the purest argument, jettisoning the chance of finding common ground. If you can’t hear what the other side of the argument is saying, how do you start to find common ground?
PROTEST vs PERSUASION
I have always believed that one of the most important choices that we have to make in politics, and indeed in life, is between protest and persuasion. The life of a protestor is certainly the more straightforward of the two. You just stand on the sidelines, waving your flag or your placard and shouting at everyone you disagree with.
The persuader, on the other hand, has a far more onerous task. He or she has to listen, to engage and to find common ground. The persuader must identify long-term solutions to deep and seemingly intractable challenges, and then build consensus for change.
The protestor is populist, the persuader is a radical, in the true sense of the term – the Latin for radical meaning, of course, to go to the route of the problem. The protestor feeds on grievance, the persuader harnesses hope. The protestor seeks the sugar rush of the easy soundbite, whilst the persuader understands that the world is a complex place. The protestor divides, the persuader unites.
I hope everyone here is a persuader and I hope everyone here understands that in order to re-unite our deeply divided country, we must all learn to engage, and to build trust through dialogue that is based on respect.
So how do we reunite our deeply divided country? The answer is simple: people who voted remain need to reach out to leave voters, and leave voters need to reach out to remain voters. How we achieve that is much trickier. Conferences and discussions like this one today need to be taking place not only in cosmopolitan Cardiff, but in the valleys, in our towns and villages, and across generations and social backgrounds.
I’ve been doing just that in my Aberavon constituency with a series of discussion with voters from both sides of the argument called Divided Views, Common Future. The key to Divided Views, Common Future is that it doesn’t matter which side of the debate you are on, you can come and share your views, and together we can find some common ground. Because ultimately we all want what is best for our local community and the whole country.
Another conversation that I am heavily involved in is a chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Better Brexit for Young People. The group was established because of young people’s frustration that their voices were not being heard.
They want a voice in the Brexit process, and not one that is politely listened to and then dismissed. We must give a voice to young people who will be living with the consequences of the referendum for longer than anyone else and who have a burning desire to participate in building a better future.
They are now embarking on a Common Futures Forum, a series of Brexit cafes, encouraging as many young people as possible across the UK to engage in the debate surrounding Brexit, building conversations across generations and communities, to heal the divisions caused by the EU referendum.
ENGAGING TEENAGERS IN POLITICS
And, of course, we can do more to engage the next generation of leaders. Engaging young people in politics has been the million-dollar question for years. Rightly or wrongly politicians have concentrated on older voters because they have been the ones to turn out and vote. To address that, I believe that every child in the UK who is aged between 8 and 16 should receive one hour of active citizenship learning per week.
The learning should be based on a curriculum that would foster useful knowledge so that every child leaves school with a knowledge of how our democracy works; a knowledge of the levels of government; of our electoral system… and of the central issues of current public concern.
Active citizenship learning should also include projects based on young people going out into their communities and making a practical and positive contribution. If young people are to become active and engaged citizens they must have experiences that are both rewarding to them, and which are valued by the community.
For the past 18 months I have been working with Manchester-based charity Reclaim, to deliver their LEAD programme in my Aberavon constituency. LEAD stands for Leadership, Enterprise, Activism and Development. It’s about making sure young people are being seen, being heard and leading change.
Reclaim took a cohort of thirty 12-13 year old girls from working class backgrounds, supported them and helped to amplify their voices. Showing that a postcode should never dictate your potential.
The girls of PTPerfect wrote their own manifesto on issues that are important to them. They have campaigned on those issues, and held events to engage with community figures about tackling those issues.
The programme has encourage them to become more engaged with issues in their community, giving them the confidence that they can lead change and make a difference to their community.
So, ladies and gentlemen, now is the time to make a change. Love it or hate it, we are having to see our politics through the prism of Brexit. So as much as it is down to politicians to bridge the divide, it is also down to all of you. And understanding the reasons why people voted for Brexit will be crucial.
The driving mission of anyone interested in politics is to bridge the divide, because if divides are allowed to settle and fester, they become dangerous and damaging. My dear friend Jo Cox, with whom I shared an office, said it better than anyone can in her maiden speech, ‘we have more in common than that which divides us.’
The Great Get Together, created in her memory and inspired by her words, is an initiative bringing communities together to celebrate that we have more in common. So take Jo’s words to heart and come out of Millennifest with a call to arms: to find common ground and heal our country’s divides, in doing so you will be shaping the future of this country.