Caroline Lucas’s speech to The Convention: Think Anew, Act Anew, Another Vote is Possible, London, 11 January 2019
It’s a pleasure to be here today, and to welcome you all to this Convention. I want to start by saying a huge thank you to everyone who has made it happen at such short notice.
And – perhaps more unexpectedly – I also want to say a genuine thank you to the 17.4 million people who gave the Establishment such a well-deserved kicking in 2016.
Thanks to you, the crisis at the heart of our democracy – and the intolerable levels of inequality and insecurity experienced by so many – can no longer be ignored.
The place that we’ve been brought to by the outcome of the referendum is difficult, dangerous and divisive. But we mustn’t let that obscure the truth, or distort our analysis. Many people took the question they were being asked to mean “Should the country go on being run in the way that it is?’ And they voted “NO!” with a collective howl of rage.
That response was justified then – and it’s justified now. For some, it might have been mixed up with fear, even bigotry, and an impossible longing for the past. But there was – and is – a core message at the heart of the Brexit vote. That the status quo in this country is intolerable for huge numbers of people. That the social contract is broken and the power game is rigged.
It is right and reasonable to be furious.
The questions we must ask going forward have to start with that acknowledgement. And with a powerful commitment not even to try to go back to the way things were.
There has to be something better. Better than both the inequality and the powerlessness we’ve been grappling with for decades and that still haven’t been resolved – a democratic failure as well as an economic one.
So throughout today, I want us to address three key questions.
First, how do we address the very real grievances that led so many to vote for Brexit in the first place? Those living in communities with proud histories, but which have been hollowed out by de-industrialisation and decades of neglect, compounded in recent years by an ideologically driven assault on public services in the name of austerity?
Second, how do we make staying and fighting for the Europe we want a pathway to change – to a society that isn’t just less grim than what we have now, but is genuinely fair, green and fulfilling? How do we inspire people with a vision of the way membership of the EU can make a positive and practical improvement to their lives? How do we ensure that Project Hope overcomes Project Fear?
And third, how do we renew our democracy? How do we genuinely take control? Shift the framework entirely and hand power to people not just for one vote, but forever, so that our country can unite around a new settlement that gains popular consent across the Brexit divide?
Today is about changing the conversation about Brexit. It’s about moving forward – humbly, positively and with hope.
And it’s about putting young people, those who will be most affected by Brexit, at the heart of all we’re doing.
Change is coming, one way or another. Let’s think anew and act anew. Let’s shape it together.
The causes of Brexit
And let’s start with some honesty about the real causes of Brexit. Because telling the truth is what sets us apart from the populists – the political insiders who dress up as rebels, and use Europe to distract from their own failures.
People were, and are, angry and frustrated for many reasons. And they can, at least partly, be summed up in the words of the inimitable Russell Brand:
“People saw a bright red button that said Fuck Off Establishment, and they pressed it.”
For many, there was a genuine sense that any change was better than the status quo. That they had nothing left to lose. The tragedy, of course, is that they do and likely will.
Particularly those least equipped to cope.
Concerns about access to housing, jobs, and the NHS are real and have to be addressed.
And so too do concerns about migration. Changing the Brexit conversation means proudly celebrating free movement – and the opportunities it’s given to individuals and to our country.
It was not just a political failure, but a moral failure, that saw the Remain campaign hide away from talking about migration in 2016 – preferring instead to bandy about economic threats, rather than engage in a serious debate on this pressing issue.
It also means making those opportunities of free movement genuinely available to all – when for vast swathes of people today they’re not even imaginable.
But we must also be very honest with people about free movement. I’ve heard some Remainers say we should re-negotiate it, ask the EU for an exemption if we’re to remain.
That’s simply not going to happen, and it would be an utterly perverse thing to demand from Brussels. Because we know that migration has been a good thing for Britain – but not everyone has felt those benefits. And big changes to our communities can be frightening, especially when they happen fast. We can’t shy away from these concerns.
And we must also act anew by hearing very carefully when they are caught up with something else. Fuelled by anger at being ignored and neglected. At the failure of successive governments to deliver jobs and other opportunities. A future for communities – any kind of future, let alone a better one.
The tragedy, of course, is that Brexit would actually make it harder to address all of these problems. Not least because – under every single Brexit scenario – there would be less money available to repair and rebuild the social fabric that has been so viciously torn apart.
Britain has become a place of grotesque inequalities. Not just between classes, but geographically between regions, especially between North and South; and between thriving cities and failing towns within the same region.
Last year, the Commission on Social Mobility identified the 30 worst ‘coldspots’ for social mobility – and every single one of them voted to Leave. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Shamefully, levels of interregional inequality in the UK are 50% higher than in similar-sized economies such as France and Germany, a third higher than Italy, and almost twice as high as Spain. Income levels in London have risen by a third since the financial crash – but fallen – yes, fallen – by 14% in Yorkshire and Humberside.
Nor is growing inequality on its own the full story of the economic injustice people experience. It’s accompanied by acute insecurity. A huge rise in debt, a loss of long-term prospects, affects everyone.
As inequality spins out of control, people in all classes feel helpless. That’s why the slogan “Take back control” had such resonance. It promised agency in a system in which the rich and powerful, who clearly do have agency, were telling us that the market rules, and there’s nothing anyone can do. In short, this is a country where what dictates your success isn’t how hard you work, or how much you care. It’s not your passion or your commitment.
No. This is a country where your success is dictated by your postcode, the income of your parents, the year in which you were born. It’s a country of dead end streets for those with the least, and open highways for those with the most. The lie at the heart of the Leave campaign was that this downward spiral could be reversed by leaving the EU.
We don’t need to leave the EU. We need to think anew.
We urgently need a new social contract: better jobs, high-quality public services, investment in the green economy, people of all backgrounds and communities treated with respect, and given the opportunity and the power to thrive.
It’s not enough to assert that EU migrants bring a net economic benefit to the country as a whole. That benefit needs to be felt in those areas that experience the greatest changes, with those communities coming together to decide themselves how to invest that funding. And to reverse the cycles of decline that blight so many parts of Britain, let’s make sure we transform the future with funding that delivers real opportunities and lasting hope.
Thinking and acting anew to tackle inequality and insecurity can help heal our divided country. So too can an honest conversation about what we have in common. About a fairer, greener economy that works for us all but also a conversation about who we are as a country – and what we aspire to be.
Stay and fight
Those living in once proud communities that have been gutted often feel they have very little to lose. We need to give them something to gain from remaining in the EU.
Likewise, the well-off in non-metropolitan areas who also drove this genuine nationalist vote. We all need a reason to think anew. To choose to stay and fight.
The 2016 result should tell us that “project fear” won’t win people over. They want hope. If Britain voted again tomorrow, the demographics of this country would probably already have shifted in favour of staying in the EU. But that’s not enough.
This isn’t just about winning at the ballot box. It’s about winning a different kind of shared future. To do that, we must urgently learn the lessons of the past. The mistakes of the Remain campaign mustn’t be repeated. Mistakes that meant the campaign was seen primarily as defending the status quo, with the political elite pulling the strings. A campaign that utterly failed to inspire any kind of connection with, or love for, the EU. Something worth defending – and yes, staying and changing too.
To stand any chance of winning a People’s Vote, we have to abandon all association with a vapid centrism that has failed to deliver for so many people, and would fail again.
We have to think and act anew. To start using the ideas and language now that will set the tone for a very different kind of referendum campaign.
One that’s hopeful, inclusive, energetic and radical. One we can all feel part of and one that appeals to our hearts as well as our heads. That builds on the work of groups like Another Europe is Possible, Our Future Our Say, For Our Future’s Sake, and the nearly 200 local groups supporting a People’s Vote.
That shows people – and young people in particular – that there is genuinely a diversity of voices championing our continued membership of the EU. I welcome the central role given to young people at today’s Convention. Let’s make sure we listen to those voices and that they are part of owning the way forward.
And we need a referendum campaign that compellingly sets out what kind of EU we want. An EU of the people, an EU of solidarity. A vision that galvanises people to stay and fight, not walk away. One that’s positive about who we are as a country: our ambition and our courage.
It was these values that helped create the European Union. That helped us emerge from the rubble and destruction of the Second World War into peace with our neighbours ever since – a miracle few would have dreamed possible when the bombs were raining down.
The EU is the greatest international venture for peace, prosperity and freedom in history. Where in the world has there ever been a better example of collaboration in pursuit of such values? That astonishing achievement ought to be front and centre of the Brexit conversation – and it’s up to us to put it there.
So too the social and environmental protections, and the remarkable gift of free movement – that precious right to travel and to work and to live and to love in 27 other countries.
And so too, the good angel sitting on our shoulder when it comes to upholding human rights, the friendships across borders, the cultural opportunities, the life without fear and the solidarity.
To have reduced all that to an argument about the cost of a trolley load of shopping was such a tragedy. Changing the conversation about Brexit has to mean moving on from the facts and the figures, and connecting instead with the feelings, hopes and dreams that will unite us. It’s got to be about who we are as a country, and how we want to be seen.
Now you don’t need to tell me that the EU is imperfect – I was an MEP for 10 years! It is, at times, a highly political, top-down, opaque and technocratic set of institutions. One that, actually, could be made instantly more transparent and accountable by live streaming all meetings and publishing minutes, and key papers like trade negotiation documents.
But here I want to challenge the media too. Not just those with an almost pathological hatred of the EU – but the Guardian, the BBC – the so-called mainstream, the so-called liberals. Decisions which are made in the EU affect us every single day, the laws that are passed make a real difference; our members of the European Parliament represent us. So let’s stop the fake news about straight bananas, let’s stop treating MEPs as though they didn’t exist, let’s talk about politics in the European Union whenever news is made, not just when Nigel Farage stands up and makes another speech attacking the European Commission.
In the medium term, a Constitutional Assembly should be set up to examine the steps needed to democratise the EU – strengthening the role of the European parliament at the same time as respecting national self-determination.
And longer term, the EU must dismantle the habitual domination of corporate power over the will of citizens, and re-politicise the rules that govern our single market and – for those countries that joined it – the single currency.
Such reforms are long overdue and we shouldn’t be afraid to advocate changing the EU at the same time as fighting to stay part of it.
Transforming the EU into a beacon for democracy brings me to my third question – and the serious democratic deficit in our own country. Brexit laid bare the extent to which our governance structures are derelict.
When citizens were deprived of a credible, representative power that clearly belongs to, or is accountable to them, it led to anger with the most remote authority of all. The EU was blamed for the UK’s structural elitism, and held responsible as the source of all powerlessness.
Yet Brexit shows no sign of giving us back ‘control’ or changing the way we’re ruled. A People’s Vote should be the starting gun on the race to genuinely democratise the UK. Looking anew at the way Britain is governed, not just by the EU but by Westminster as well.
We are one of the most centralised countries in Europe, with disproportionate power held at Westminster, and far too little in our regions and local authorities. Powers need to go back to the regions of the UK, where people have a better chance of influencing it. And, if the English want it, to England.
The DUP’s sectarian interests in Ireland are a world away from the interests of Northern Ireland or modern Britain. The evolving views from Wales have been treated by this Government with contempt. And it is inconceivable that Remain-voting Scotland should be forced out of the EU against its wishes.
Years of failure to engage with the need for overall constitutional reform has left us with an incoherent patchwork of piecemeal changes. If we’re to think and act anew, we must open up to new forms of power and politics – better distributed, more diverse, more strongly integrated, and more modern. Parliamentary sovereignty needs to be better rooted in the people.
One of the best ways to “take back control” is to rid ourselves of a winner takes all politics, and an outdated electoral system that systematically shuts people out. 68% of votes cast in last June’s General Election were effectively wasted – they made no contribution at all to the distribution of seats. No democratic renewal is complete without proportional representation.
And let’s seriously explore ideas like Parliament moving out of London to a city such as Leeds or Manchester – with the chance to rebalance our economy as well as our politics. The Palace of Westminster, Gothic, rat-infested, and crumbling into the Thames, has become a powerful symbol of political decay.
If we mean what we say about changing this country for good, then why not make moving Parliament out of London the first in a series of changes which turn the UK into a 21st century democracy? Let’s learn from the inspiring way in which Citizens Assemblies have been used in Ireland, for example, to facilitate informed debate on contentious topics and build deep consensus and understanding.
And let’s ensure that democracy can no longer be undermined by fake news and post-truth advertising by introducing new ground-breaking digital democracy laws.
Though the Prime Minister would have us believe otherwise, we have a wealth of choices facing us right now. Amidst all the noise about the meaningful vote and parliamentary amendments, and whether to extend or revoke Article 50, it’s easy to lose sight of the much bigger choices we can make. The public want to take control – and we must start to deliver that with a People’s Vote.
If we are to break the Brexit deadlock in parliament, we the people must lead the way. When Theresa May rules something out, it’s often a strong indication that it’s right around the corner. On that basis, a People’s Vote on her Brexit deal might be getting closer by the minute —
So let’s not squander this moment. Let’s look ahead and build on the radical rejection of the status quo represented by the referendum outcome. A People’s Vote must look, feel like and reflect our wonderful country – diverse, raw, plural, noisy and, above all, run by and for the people.
We’re told Brexit is the will of the people – but it’s relevant to ask ourselves the will of which people? Over 70% of voters aged 18-24 voted for Britain to remain, as did 62% of 25-34 year olds. No wonder it’s been called an “unforgivable act of generational theft”. So I say again, young people must play a leading role in the way forward – because they will live the longest with the consequences.
And let’s make sure the voices of those who once supported Leave but reject Theresa May’s deal are heard too.
Redistributing power fairly and equally must be both one of our objectives and integral to the way we operate ourselves. It means politicians like me must spend time far more time listening than talking too. That’s why I have pledged to actively seek out leave voters, listen to their views and identify what unites us rather than what divides us.
Today I’d like to call on you to think anew and act anew by doing the same.
Changing the course of history
So in conclusion, I simply want to say that never in my lifetime has our future felt more uncertain. But when people come together and reach for a bigger future, we’ve shown we can change the course of history. We do that when we act with honesty, humility and courage. When we look for, and believe in, the good in others. In our shared hopes and dreams.
I’d like to close by sharing some of Seamus Heaney’s words, from the wall of the General Post Office in Dublin, scene of the bloody 1916 Easter Rising. He has written:
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme
I believe this is one such moment, that another vote is possible and that, together, we can make change happen.
Teaser photo credit: By ClemRutter – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0