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Centre left 'has a duty to offer better prospects & life chances to working class communities'

5 min read

Former Minister & Labour NEC member Pat McFadden MP believes that Britain's working class communities need a 21st Century Marshall Plan to offer new hope, following the referendum where many of these areas voted heavily to leave the EU.

British politics has been thrown into flux in the wake of the referendum vote to leave the European Union. We have a new Prime Minister, leadership elections in both the Labour Party and UKIP, uncertainty over the integrity of the UK and Tory Cabinet ministers squabbling with one another in Whitehall turf wars over who will control our Brexit destiny. Meanwhile millions of people on both sides of the argument wait to see what the Prime Minister’s phrase “Brexit means Brexit” really means. What does it mean for trade and jobs? For immigration policy? For relations with both the EU and the rest of the world?  
Many of Britain’s working class communities, particularly in smaller cities, voted heavily to leave the EU. The sense of loss and anger in these communities is deep rooted and began long before the EU referendum. Deindustrialisation has taken away not only jobs but a sense of purpose and pride. New competition has arrived for the work that remained or replaced the heavy industry which closed down over the years. Many people feel that they and their children have less of a chance in life than was the case in the past. And many feel left out of a globalisation that offer huge rewards at the top, not enough at the bottom and seems beyond our control.
The leadership task in the wake of the referendum is not, therefore, simply a technical exercise in negotiation with Eurocrats or EU member states. It is much bigger. The question for politics today is how to make globalisation work for all when so many feel it currently doesn’t work for them. It’s a question for Britain certainly, but also for many other countries and central to the presidential election being fought out in the United States too.
Some voices may be tempted to go down the road of a closed Britain, opting out of the powerful global trading patterns which power the world economy. But that road leads nowhere. Globalisation cannot be uninvented. The technologies which make cross border trade and exchange of information are not going away.  Powerful new forces like China and the countries which are already emerging behind it, are not going to disappear. The greater movement of people, whether to flee conflict and persecution or simply to seek a better life, is likely to continue.
So how do we make the most of this world for the whole population and not just a few, whether we are inside or outside the EU? The issue is not how to hide from it, but how to shape the economy so it works more fairly for people and how to forge a future where every part of the population and very part of the country feels it has a stake. That is certainly not the case now and the Brexit vote was the most graphic example of how disenfranchised and ignored many parts of the country feel.
Early signs from the Tories look like they will fail this test. Their big flagship idea seems to be a debate about the expansion of grammar schools but that is not the answer for the education challenge in today’s world. The education system must drive up standards and maximise opportunity for all pupils in whatever type of school they attend, not just pick a few for the top.  
If Brexit and grammar schools are the answers offered by the right, the centre left must develop better ones which address the real grievances of millions of people in our country. Labour’s past moments of victory have been few and far between. But what unites 1945, 1964 and 1997 is that each time what was offered was an uplifting hopeful and believable vision of our country’s future, which neither harked back to the past nor settled for the present. Britain’s working class communities today need that sense of hope for the future. They need a major resetting of opportunity and reward to get a better deal out of how the economy works - a long term effort with the scale and ambition of a 21st century Marshall Plan, but this time one geared to opportunity for the future rather than recovery from war.
Such a plan should cover everything from infrastructure to housing, education to childcare. At its heart must be an inclusive economics which offers real jobs with real prospects, decent conditions and protections at work. It should speak not only to those in regular full time work but the growing numbers of self-employed and workers in the gig economy. It should stop at nothing to fight against accepting second best in education standards – in schools of all types and beyond school. It should have an active industrial policy to champion Britain’s strengths and capabilities. And crucially it cannot be delivered or paid for by Government alone – it has to be a partnership between public and private sectors committed to addressing the disenfranchisement felt by millions and to radically increasing opportunity for communities who have felt left out of our national story for too long.  
The Brexit vote leaves Britain at a crossroads. We cannot stand by and leave it to different versions of the right to offer their prescriptions for Britain’s post-referendum future. The centre left has both a duty and an opportunity to addresses the real issues which hold back opportunity in many working class communities and shape a vision of the future which offers better prospects, more prosperity and better life chances. It is what Labour was founded to do.
Pat McFadden is the Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East

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