I gave the opening keynote speech at the Common Futures Forum, at Plexal City in the Olympic Park, to 500 young people from across Europe. You can read my speech below:
REACHING OUT TO UNITE
Thank you all very much, and thank you Mete(Coban) for that very kind introduction.
A huge thank you to My Life My Say and the Common Futures team – you’ve put on what I’m sure will be a fantastic event.
And could I also say what an honour it is for me to serve as the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Better Brexit for Young People. Thanks to the passion, commitment and hard work of the team and all our members I am proud to say that we have really given young people a voice in what is without doubt the most important issue to face our country since the Second World War.
Friends, this event today really is a vital opportunity for us all – whatever our backgrounds and whatever our politics – to come together and recognise that, while we are all very different people, we also have a lot in common.
And it is also our chance to show that by working together we can shape our collective future and be a powerful force for good.
In the words of my late, great friend and colleague Jo Cox MP,
“we all have so much more in Common than that which divides us.”
Now – I should also say – what a wonderful, and fitting location, here in Stratford, Common Futures have secured in order to hold this event.
Stratford has been the home of some of the most glorious sporting moments that we have ever seen in this country – and no I certainly don’t mean West Ham United’s attempts to play football (sorry West Ham fans)…
… I mean of course the wonderful, unifying 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Who can forget that amazing opening ceremony, which was truly an example of people coming together to support our wonderful British athletes, whilst showcasing the very best of our culture and society.
But somewhere along the way, something broke.
At a time when austerity was biting and Britain had slightly lost its way the Olympics was an opportunity to drive a new sense of optimism. Unfortunately that opportunity wasn’t really taken and just like many other sporting moments it was rather fleeting.
Instead, our country is becoming ever more polarised, and there are forces out there which thrive on widening and deepening our divides even further.
That’s why we’re all here today – to stop that trend, and to reverse it.
To bring people of different views back together, and to shape a common future.
CAUSES OF BREXIT
The United Kingdom is a great country, but we are more divided than we have been at any time since the Second World War.
Young versus old, city versus town, and graduate versus non-graduate.
These are the fault lines upon which our nation precariously stands.
And these fault lines are not only shaping our politics, our identities, our friendships and our dinner table conversations, they are also shaping our values.
They have created what I call a Values Chasm.
On one side of the chasm we have the Cosmopolitan tribe – typically university educated, urban, highly mobile and confident in the modern, globalised world.
And on the other we have the Communitarian tribe – often non-graduates who value familiarity, security and community, and have experienced the profound economic, social and cultural changes of the last 40 years as loss.
Whilst the EU referendum did not create these two tribes it certainly sharpened and deepened the divides between them, and ultimately it turned the differences of opinion and worldview that have always existed between Cosmpolitans and Communitarians into something far darker and more corrosive.
The Leave vote came almost entirely from the Communitarians.
– these are typically families who have bitter experience of the damage that the whirlwind of globalisation has inflicted on their communities and high streets;
– who feel they have lost an element of control over their own destiny;
– and who are less likely to have the skills or connections to cope with the relentless churn of the twenty-first century labour market.
There is nothing new in any of this, of course – the plight of Communitarian communities has been plain to see for decades. I’m the MP for Aberavon in South Wales, home to the Port Talbot steel works. The people of Aberavon therefore know better than most about the importance of frictionless trade in industrial goods with the EU.
But my constituents still voted 60 / 40 for Brexit.
And I’ll tell you why:
Because for decades Communitarians have watched the heart being ripped out of our manufacturing industries, and with it the fabric and identities of the towns and communities that have grown up around those industries;
Because whenever the people of those towns and communities spoke out they were largely ignored by mainstream politicians, who seemed to be intent only on promoting their own Cosmopolitan values and interests;
Because whenever they asked why so little was being done to protect all those high-skill, high-wage jobs that were being exported to low-wage labour markets they were told that “nothing could be done” because globalisation is an unstoppable force of nature;
And because whenever they raised concerns about the impact of immigration on their communities they were told that they were bigots, or racists.
And let’s be clear: these are proud, resilient people. They’re not looking for special treatment, or for anyone’s charity. What they are looking for is a level playing field – an opportunity to compete without having one hand tied behind their backs.
But for decades they watched helplessly as investment, wealth, resources and talent were sucked out of the industrial heartlands of Wales, the Midlands and the North and into London and the South-East.
Into fantastic facilities such as the one in which we are all meeting today, in fact.
And they rightly wondered why successive governments stood by and allowed this to happen.
New Labour achieved some great things, but Tony Blair’s defeatism in the face of what globalisation was doing to local communities really took the Labour Party away from one of our core objectives: to help those most insecure to succeed in the modern world.
And the Labour Party today I’m afraid, still needs to do more to show it is up to the challenge. Just look at the June 2017 election result, where we won in Cosmopolitan hot-spots such as Kensington and Canterbury, but lost seats like Mansfield and Middlesbrough, in our Communitarian heartlands.
And meanwhile the Conservative Party clearly has no answers. On their watch social mobility has gone backwards, poverty has increased, austerity continues to cripple our public services, and the wealth and productivity gap between London and the rest of the country has turned Britain into the most regionally imbalanced country in the entire OECD.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: the failures of the last thirty years have had nothing to do with the European Union – the UK’s economic model wasn’t broken by Brussels, it was broken by Westminster.
And you would be absolutely right.
But having been largely ignored by mainstream politicians for so long, and in the absence of a compelling alternative vision, millions of British voters saw the 2016 referendum as an unmissable opportunity to vent their anger and frustration against the establishment.
For millions of people the question on 23 June 2016 was: “why on earth should I vote for the status quo when the status quo has made me and my family poorer, and has caused my community to lose its sense of pride, identity and purpose?”
But the Communitarian backlash against decades of being ignored and taken for granted by Westminster does not explain the entire 52%. A significant proportion also voted Leave because of deep-seated reservations about the European project.
For these Leave voters the notion of an ever-closer union between the UK and the EU appeared to epitomise a world without borders – a world for which they had never voted.
Nevertheless, Britain was reasonably comfortable with the pre-Maastricht version of the European project. There was a pragmatic acceptance of the benefits of the Common Market, and a sense that the balance between economic co-operation and political sovereignty was just about right.
But the early 1990s saw a step-change. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 brought an integrationist surge by creating the Euro and the concept of European citizenship.
And then in 2004 Tony Blair decided that the UK should be the only major EU member state to accept the free movement of people from the eight new Eastern European countries without a transition period.
Blair’s decision on free movement probably did more than any other single policy decision by a British government to stoke anti-EU sentiment, but the Eurozone and refugee crises also added a considerable amount of fuel to the flames.
In fact, when you think about it it’s actually pretty amazing that Remain got 48% of the vote in 2016!!
Regardless of whether you voted Remain or Leave, I’m sure we can all agree that the 2016 referendum has had a deeply damaging and divisive impact on our country.
And regardless of whether or not you agree with my analysis of the drivers of the Leave vote, I’m sure we can all agree that we have to find a way of tackling the toxic tribalism that has come to dominate our national conversation over the last few years.
So, the question is, “how?”
How can we heal the wounds and re-build the bridges?
How can we get people out of the Remain-voting cities into the Leave-voting towns, and vice versa?
How can we get students and university graduates to reach out to those who left school at 16, and vice versa?
How can we catalyse dialogue across generations?
How can we convince the Cosmopolitans and the Communitarians to stop shouting at each other and start listening instead?
How, can we get the tribes out of their bubbles and echo chambers, and into a place where they can actually engage in meaningful conversations?
How, when all is said and done, can we build a Whole Nation politics to re-unite our deeply divided country?
I certainly do not have all the answers to those questions. There is no silver bullet, but there is no doubt in my mind that the Common Futures Forum will be at the forefront of helping post-Brexit Britain to navigate through these difficult times.
But one thing I do know for sure is that we will never heal the wounds or bridge the divides if the Cosmopolitans put their hands over their ears and try to pretend that the 2016 referendum was not a re-set moment for our country.
I am passionately pro-European. My wife is Danish, both of our daughters were born in Brussels.
I was therefore profoundly saddened by the referendum result.
And yes, I was frustrated by the appalling lies that were told by the Leave campaign.
And the fact that they cheated is an outrage.
But we cannot, and we must not, allow our anger and frustration about the Brexit vote to cloud our judgement about its underlying causes.
The 2016 referendum was a re-set moment for our country, and it was a wake-up call.
Now, we can either choose to engage with that wake-up call, or we can choose to ignore it.
We can either choose to accept that the post-Maastricht European project has at times been guilty of over-reach and hubris and that reform is essential, or we can just choose to believe that Europe should just plough on regardless, and that the UK must simply get back onto the bus.
We can either choose to believe that those who voted Leave in 2016 didn’t actually know what they were voting for, or we can choose to understand that in fact millions of them knew precisely what they were doing, and why.
My Life My Say’s new report – out today – does a great job of giving young people a voice. But it also shows the size of the challenge in terms of building bridges between young and old, between Cosmopolitans and Communitarians. The report rightly states that we need a new type of politics and that we need to reassert our support for diversity. But what we also need is a focus on how Cosmopolitans can reach out to Communitarians. This is the key. Do Cosmopolitans respect Communitarians? Do they understand why so many voted for Brexit? This is the challenge for Common Futures, for My Life My Say and for the APPG on a Better Brexit for Young People.
The first step towards healing the wounds and bridging the divides is to secure the right sort of Brexit. For over two years now I have been arguing that we must seek a Brexit that meets two crucial tests: first, it must help to re-unite our deeply divided country, and second it must do the least possible harm to our economy.
Theresa May’s deal meets neither of those two tests. It is too unclear about our long-term future relationship with the EU, and it will fail to command a majority in the House of Commons.
I will therefore be voting against the government’s deal.
The only way of leaving the EU which meets my two tests is a European Economic Area-based Brexit. This is the only viable option, for the following reasons:
First, by becoming a non-EU member of the EEA, alongside Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, the UK would be leaving the political framework of the EU whilst continuing our close economic links. This would therefore reflects the 52:48 vote – and protects our economy.
Second, an EEA-based Brexit would also enable us to address the concerns about free movement of labour that drove so many to vote Leave, through articles 112 and 113 of the EEA Agreement which allow EEA countries to suspend ad reform the free movement of labour. Immigration has provided huge benefits to our country, but in order to truly cherish something, you must sometimes be prepared to change it.
Third, it would address Leave-voter concerns about sovereignty. We would leave the European Court of Justice, while the EFTA court which we would join respects national sovereignty.
Fourth, the EEA actually exists. It was created in 1993, and it is a model that governments and businesses throughout the EU have come to understand and appreciate.
Fifth, there is a UK parliamentary majority for the EEA and the EU have said it is a viable model for the future relationship.
It is not too late to renegotiate. And I therefore hope that the leadership of my party commit to this option when it comes to the vote in a few weeks.
WHOLE NATION POLITICS
Once we have secured the right sort of Brexit, then we will finally be able to focus on the principles, values and policies that are so desperately needed if we are to forge a new Whole Nation politics for post-Brexit Britain.
In my new book – Spirit of Britain, Purpose of Labour – I propose a number of Sesimic Shifts that point out what we need to do to re-unite our deeply divided country.
The first plays right into the work Common Futures do. It says that:
We must recognise and make clear that celebrating our common bonds is just as important as celebrating our diversity. Of course we need to do as much as possible for marginalised and underrepresented groups; but we must recognise that emphasising the similarities, rather than differences, is a more effective way of bringing people together and fostering understanding. This is the route to a vibrant, stable, unifying and indeed prosperous society.
And it is of course in this spirit that I have been working with Mete and the team at My Life My Say to set up the All Party Parliamentary Group for a Better Brexit for Young People. The work of the group is crucial as it brings people together in parliament to discuss their future, and how we can get MPs to listen to the voices of young people when considering how to vote on Brexit. The message is clear: this is our future: we need a say.
Now, I may well be wrong about this, but I’d hazard a guess that many of you in this room this morning see another referendum as the only way in which we can get ourselves out of the political and constitutional mess in which we find ourselves. Support for this option is growing, for perfectly understandable reasons, and I am in full agreement with our front bench’s position that all options must remain on the table.
But let’s take a step back for a moment and think about the possible consequences of returning to the people on this issue.
The question that would be constantly posed throughout the campaign to those of us campaigning for Remain would be: ‘so, if you lose this one again, will that be it, or are you planning to just keep going until you get the answer you want…?’.
It would be a gift to the populists and the nationalists. Nigel Farage would once again ride into town on his red, white and blue horse, with Rees-Mogg not far behind in his Bentley, accusing the ‘Westminster elite’ of attempting to subvert the will of the people. The anger and aggression that they would unleash would make the 2016 referendum look like a walk in the park, and their narrative would attract huge support, as it chimes with the anti-parliamentary spirit of the age.
But perhaps the most serious flaw in the argument for another referendum is this: how would it fit with the theme of today’s conference? How would it possibly contribute to making us more united? How would it help us to forge our common future?
I am a Whole Nation politician, to my fingertips. I believe that everything we say and do as elected representatives should be driven by our duty to unite, rather than to divide.
We must always seek to bring our communities and our country together, and we must do all we can to avoid driving them apart.
And that is why holding another referendum is not my preferred option. Instead, it is time for Parliament to take back control. We must reject the government’s blindfolded Brexit, and instruct the Prime Minister to go back to the negotiating table, to secure an EEA-based deal.
It’s the only option we have, if we are to set about healing the wounds, breaking the impasse, and re-uniting our deeply divided country.
PROTEST VS PERSUADE
Let me end with this.
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 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 mutual respect.
Because the need for us to reach out has never been greater.
Everywhere we look, right and left-wing populism and extremism are on the march;
An ever-more aggressive and belligerent Russia looms large;
A booming but increasingly authoritarian China is building its global reach;
And a deeply unstable and unreliable President sits in the White House.
In his book ‘On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century’, Timothy Snyder writes:
‘Until recently we had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same. We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy. In doing so we lowered our defences, constrained our imagination, and opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we’d told ourselves could never return.’
Well, it’s time for us all to get our defences back up, and to unleash the potential of our collective imagination, once again.
It is time for us to get our country back onto the path of progress and cohesion.
And I feel sure that this Common Futures forum today will be the first step on this vitally important journey.