Labour must stop telling its Leave-backing voters they got it wrong and instead focus on securing the best Brexit deal

Labour must stop telling its Leave-backing voters they got it wrong and instead focus on securing the best Brexit deal

Two recent studies that caught my eye based on polling by the campaign groups Best For Britain and Labour Future argue that Labour voters have softened their views on Brexit and that Remain-backing Labour MPs shouldn’t fear a backlash from Leave voters in their constituencies. My take is slightly different although I must stress I’ve not spent thousands on polling – I’ve just had lots of conversations with voters in the Stoke South constituency which I used to represent in Parliament.

I think it’s also important to highlight that I am not disputing the findings of the surveys these two organisations have undertaken, but instead want to look at why so-called traditional Labour heartlands voted Leave and the lessons that can be drawn from that result.

If I cast my mind back to the referendum, the events and discussions were very informative. I have never before seen so many young people heading into the polling stations, and they weren’t there to vote Remain. Similarly, the views expressed on the doorstep were not, by-and-large, parroting the propaganda such as more money for the NHS which has subsequently been blown away. No, the sense I got time and again was that people felt they had been left behind by globalisation, that the EU was of benefit to somebody else, and that their jobs and standard of living had been sold out.

It almost doesn’t matter whether these concerns are well founded or not, it doesn’t matter if those same people could have used the EU to their advantage, and it doesn’t matter that the EU actually did bring benefits to people in the UK. The fact is that for many voters the EU embodies what is wrong in their lives.

Now this matters for all political parties, but given the impact on places like Stoke-on-Trent it’s a crucial lesson I believe Labour needs to heed. And the Party also needs to understand that the working class is not a homogenous group that is the same in London as in Manchester and as in small towns in the Midlands.

At this point the reader might say the demographics of Stoke South were changing anyway and Flello is trying to blame the EU referendum for losing his seat. In a way I do partly blame the referendum – but not in the way you might think. And actually the reasons why I lost my seat are mainly other factors, which are for another article. But why might the EU have led to the loss of Stoke South?

Having had a year to look back and analyse what happened and to take stock of the twelve years I was the MP, the trees have definitely thinned to reveal a fascinating wood! Cities like mine were once areas of full employment and while the jobs were not always particularly well-paid there was full employment, sufficient housing, and a lower cost of living.

That changed. Traditional employers shed jobs by the thousand with many workplaces closing completely. The new industries were not seen as “good jobs” and as living costs rose, wages stagnated or fell. New people – particularly from Eastern Europe – came into the city and happily took those lower paid jobs and a city that once welcomed people began to feel a sense of injustice.

Under Labour, new schools, hospitals, and children’s centres were built. Housing renewal projects were started and new jobs were created in health and education. But many of those improvements left a sour taste – land cleared for housing was left undeveloped and excessive PFI costs were regularly in the media along with stories of reduced hospital beds. And once austerity struck, the city saw cottage hospitals closed and services cut.

At the same time people from the EU moved in and seemed to have a good standard of living. They appeared to be escaping the austerity that was being inflicted on everyone else. Now whether that’s true doesn’t matter; perception is truth, after all.

So turning back the clock once more, with all the new buildings and the investment up until 2008,where was the investment in people? Where was the help and support to get people trained up? I recall a local engineering business asking me to help lobby Advantage West Midlands, the then development agency, because the business needed some help to expand. However, because the business was only going to create a small number of jobs – albeit highly-skilled and well paid – it didn’t fit the agency’s profile for help and so it didn’t get it! This was one of many frustrating examples of lots of money being thrown around but local businesses being unable to access it.

Another example was a meeting I had back in 2006 with Government Office for the West Midlands to explain how the city’s three MPs believed the local council needed help with putting in bids for government grants and then being able to spend them. What we saw happening was our city missing out on millions because it didn’t have the skills to write bids and then to successfully use the money. This resulted in tens of millions going to other parts of the region when Stoke-on-Trent needed it more. That help for the council was never forthcoming and the outcome was as predicted.

Now, again, the reader might say what has that to do with the EU? Well it’s important to understand the context in which the electorate viewed the referendum. People were told by the Remain campaign that the EU was a good thing and helped people in their daily lives. It was sold to them as full of opportunities and at the same time they were told their lives would be far worse if they voted Leave. And we told them immigration was not something to fear. But people didn’t see any benefit from the EU. They could see other areas, notably London and the South East, getting richer but not any benefit for our city. And they thought their lives couldn’t get any worse and that actually they might just improve if faceless bureaucrats and politicians in another country stopped setting the rules. And taking back our borders was something I heard endlessly.

So what are the lessons for Labour? Well, don’t assume that the electorate have changed from Leave to Remain; in Stoke South I’ve seen precious little evidence of that. Secondly, don’t assume that people universally benefited from the investment by previous Labour governments. And don’t think that people are now realising they will be worse off outside the EU – very many people I have spoken to in the months after the referendum thought that was it and we were already out! There is a deeper concern here to which Labour needs to find a sustainable answer.

And that leads me onto the widely reported comments by former Europe Minister, Caroline Flint. In my experience, voters in places like Stoke-on-Trent have not had a change of heart and they feel the referendum result has to be respected. They want strong border controls and are prepared to pay the price for restricting migration.

A disaffected electorate doesn’t want to be told they ‘got it wrong’ and need another vote, they want Labour to fight for the best deal and to listen to its heartlands. I believe our electorate have had enough of being told someone else knows better and they have had enough of seeing someone else doing alright while they are struggling – and while I’m at it, they don’t think the answer is Marxist economics either.