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William Wallace writes: Stopping Brexit isn’t enough – we have to help the left behind

January 18, 2018 1:25 PM
By Lord William Wallace in Liberal Democrat Voice

Larry Elliott in the Guardian the other day declared that the Remainers don't have any answers to the problems of the Left Behind in Britain. He didn't bother to claim that the Leavers had any answer either. Their commitment to deregulation (with abolition of the Working Time Directive one of their first targets) will hit marginal workers in insecure jobs; their hopes of cutting public spending will increase the gap between rich and poor and starve education and health of resources.

But what do those of us who support Remain offer the Left Behind? Remember that the highest votes for the Leave campaign came in England's declining industrial towns, and in the county and seaside towns that have also lost out from economic and social transformation. Middlesborough, Skegness, Canvey Island and Wisbech all returned over 80% of votes to leave. It was easy for the Leave campaign to encourage them to blame the globalised 'liberal elite' for their woes; they have lost out from globalization, and feel patronised and neglected. Some of their grievances are justified; others are not. The selling off of social housing and the incursion of private landlords into what were once Council housing estates is not a consequence of European rules or of immigration. But the loss of the stable employment that their parents and grandparents had IS a consequence of open frontiers and technological change, and successive governments of all parties have failed to invest enough - in education and training, in housing, in infrastructure, in supporting the growth of new local entrepreneurs - to spread the prosperity of the South-East and the metropolitan cities across the rest of the country.

Liberal Democrat peers tackled these issues in a working party over the past year, the report of which is attached here. We have submitted a resolution for the Spring conference to take the debate within the party further. Our analysis, and our proposals, cut across several policy areas. Greater investment in education and training, from pre-school to further education, is central. Long-term finance for local start-ups, of the sort that the British Business Bank was intended to provide but which also needs nurturing at regional and local level, is essential. A revival of social housing is urgent. Most difficult of all, we have to find a way of rebuilding political trust: a revival of local democracy within communities that feel abandoned by all parties and agencies of government, and that see politics as a game conducted by well-off and well-educated people in London.

If the process of leaving the EU breaks down through the incompetence and confusion of the current government, these communities will be among the most embittered - unless central and local government shift priorities to help them. Their alienation from Britain's metropolitan culture, their nostalgia for an imagined past, makes it easy for the populist right to refocus their anger on 'the liberal elite'. Liberals with a social conscience can partly counter that by responding to their justified discontents.

Britain suffers from several deep divides today. There are the economic divides, between rich and poor, between the older and younger generations, and between London and the south-east and the rest of the country. And there is the cultural divide between the educated 'metropolitans' and the children of the old working class. Our conventional politics is in danger of being caught on the wrong side of the divide. The Conservative Party is increasingly southern English, in its leadership, its funders and its elderly members. Labour has attracted many enthusiastic young graduates, but doesn't penetrate too far into the white working class. Our party's members, old and new, are more often professional than unskilled. But Liberals who want to push back the tide of illiberalism that has swept across the USA and continental Europe as well as Britain have to engage with the currently unrepresented, to persuade them that nationalism or left-wing Marxism are not the only ways forward.

Stopping Brexit is not enough. Nor is the (justified) claim that Brexit would leave this section of our national community worse off, that the Leavers' plans for shrinking the state and slashing regulations offer - as in Trump's America - a paradise for millionaires. We have to persuade a cynical electorate that an active state, at local and national levels, is essential to rebuild a liberal society. Even Philip Hammond has declared that 'the British public do not want to change their economic model' from a European social market to a deregulated free market - no doubt to the fury of the Brexiteers. Liberal Democrats have to find a way to link redistribution and rebuilding of local communities at home with the maintenance of a social liberal model shared with our neighbours.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.