Gisela Stuart: Brexit is the wake up call our political class badly needs
As the dust settles on the referendum result, Gisela Stuart believes politicians now need to reflect on how they became so out of touch with significant sections of society
It is now one week since the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. In the days that have followed that vote a period of uncertainty has already started to clear. Markets are settling and businesses starting to look at the opportunities as well as the implications of change. The UK is still part of Europe – still attached to the edge of the European continental shelf. For much of the country life goes on as normal even though it has in many ways fundamentally changed.
It is Westminster where the consequence of the vote is for now most profound and both political parties have turned inward. That is perhaps the inevitable consequence of momentous change momentarily breaking the ties that keep the parties intact.
At the same time it is now that leadership is most necessary. Emotions are inevitably raw and need to be steadied. We need clear heads and a clear vision. We also need to unite in opposing any outbreak of intolerance or racism; the wholly unacceptable attacks against the UK’s Polish community are one example. This is a time for coming together.
The statement made by the prime minister on Monday was both thoughtful and statesmanlike. He and others who campaigned for the UK to remain part of the EU have been quick to accept the outcome of last week’s vote. The new unit set up in the Cabinet office to look at options for the UK’s future relationship with the EU is to be welcomed. There are questions to be asked about why this work could not have begun before the referendum and why Lord Hill, the UK’s EU Commissioner, thought this was the right time to resign, but these questions should wait and for now the focus must be on the future.
The Conservative leadership contest and the subsequent delay in invocation of Article 50 gives us time to resolve what it is that we want from our new relationship with the EU. Even while both parties are involved with questions of leadership, we need to begin to explore a way to a cross-party consensus on what the terms of the new relationship will be.
At its core, I believe these new terms must recognise what it is that people voted for last week and the strength of feeling on both sides of the debate. I think we must accept that this was a vote for a fairer points based immigration system and a call for better health, education and housing.
It was also a verdict on a political establishment that has become disconnected from the majority. Calls for a second referendum or to somehow work around last Thursday’s vote are a further sign of how out of touch many in the establishment have become.
As the mood settles this week we need to focus more on why it is that the establishment got things so terribly wrong. Throughout the campaign people expressed a deeply held feeling that general elections change very little. The political parties largely stand for the same things or simply don’t deliver improvements in the lives of anyone beyond a privileged few.
It is striking how far the parties are detached from a significant part of society that feels unrepresented, sees opportunity declining, and in many instances living standards too, while the better off have their life chances and pay enhanced.
The referendum was seen as an opportunity to have their voice heard. It was a way for this disconnected community to break through the party system to have a direct impact on our political life.
If you doubt how out of touch the parties have become, look only at the final Prime Minister’s Questions before the referendum when every question except two supported a vote to remain in the EU.
Parliament as a whole appears very out of touch and the political parties must address their responsibility for this. In holding a referendum, we as MPs asked the people to do our job.
In doing so, they let us know how remote we have become with their lives. It is now incumbent on us to accept that outcome and frame our response with a degree of humility, responsibility and with open minds.
The Labour Party has difficult issues of leadership unconnected with the EU and the referendum. These are critical concerns but must not be allowed to distract the party from determining what it wants to get from the negotiation. Labour’s traditional supporters played a large part in the vote to Leave and the party must find a way to give these people a voice in the decisions that lie ahead.
While the majority of people have rejected the bad union that the EU had become, they have not rejected the good union of the nations of the United Kingdom. The strength of that union is based on a much deeper sense of shared destiny and it will continue as long as the political structures of the United Kingdom represent and express the views of the people effectively and fairly.
The challenge falls to Parliament. This is a fractured nation but one that can come together. We have the chance now to rethink not just our relationship with the EU, but our relationship with each other and to move to a society based on social justice and opportunity that creates a greater unity of purpose and a stronger unity among its people.
Gisela Stuart is Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and was chair of the Vote Leave campaign