An anti-EU Leave campaign sticker affixed to a car in Castle Point, Essex. The seaside town had one of the highest leave votes in the country. Image: Teresa Dapp/DPA/PA ImagesWe should have seen the referendum result coming. For millions the status quo isn’t working. Life is unstable, unfulfilling and unfair. And given the option to send a message to Westminster – or, as Russell Brand would have it, to press a bright red button that said “F off establishment” – it’s not surprising that so many people took it.
Too many people spend too many hours working in insecure jobs to pay rocketing rents. The cost of living continues to rise, while average earnings remain almost £800 a year lower than they were ten years ago. As a nation, we are £19 billion in debt on our everyday bills.
Successive governments have neglected remote parts of Britain and former industrial areas, where it’s harder to get a good education, to get a good job – or even to get around, thanks to inadequate transport links.
In the six years before the EU referendum, growth in life expectancy – which had been rising for a century – saw a “notable slowdown”, worse for women than for men.This is the human cost of government policies driven by individualism, corporate profit and contempt for the public sector – implemented by politicians elected under a system where most votes don’t count.
But not everyone has suffered in the same way. The truth is that the UK today is host to grotesque levels of inequality. As the Social Mobility Commission’s 2017 report observes: “There is a fracture line running deep through our labour and housing markets and our education system. Those on the wrong side of this divide are losing out and falling behind.”
It’s no accident, then, that the 30 regions identified by the Commission as the worst “coldspots”’ for social mobility – from Weymouth to Carlisle – all voted Leave. Nor indeed that seven of the poorest ten regions in northern Europe are in the UK – and that all had substantial majorities voting for Brexit in the referendum.
A poisonous cocktail of de-industrialisation, the financial crisis and an ideological assault on public services came together in the Brexit vote, and the genius of the Eurosceptic right was to blame the EU and immigration. When the Brexit campaign offered people an opportunity to “take back control”, it’s no wonder so many jumped at the chance.
Yet those driving the government’s agenda are using Brexit to accelerate the very ideology that got us into this mess. They support policies that would make us more like the United States where, without the safety net of social security benefits, falling ill or being made redundant can quickly lead to homelessness.
The American Dream promises a better life, if only you work even harder. It tells you poverty is a personal failure – or encourages you to point the finger of blame. When there’s no voice or a hope for the future the emergence of Donald Trump is inevitable.
British voters were right to demand radical change – those in power owe them action to rebalance our unequal society.
There are some core policies that would begin to make a difference. Workplaces, where some staff are valued more than others, are a good place to start. Chief executives received pay rises of 11% last year, while everyone else was granted just 2%.
The biggest employers will soon be forced to publish pay ratios, but ministers must go further – imposing policies to ensure the highest paid receive no more than ten times the salary of those at the bottom of the pay scale. If corporations want to spend millions on board members, they’ll have to pay cleaners six figure sums.
As well as making it harder for firms to justify poverty wages, fairer pay ratios could create more equitable workplace cultures, where bosses value and listen to their employees.
As a bare minimum, everyone should earn enough to cover the basics. The Living Wage Foundation puts the cost of a decent standard of living at £8.75 an hour – or £10.20 in London. Over time, a basic income scheme would guarantee a core of economic security for everyone, a land value tax would help prevent the accumulation and speculation of capital in properties in the south, and a wealth tax would start to redistribute resources more fairly.
But we don’t only need a new social contract – we need a new constitutional settlement that will reinvigorate our democratic institutions and genuinely give power back to people. The UK is one of the most centralised countries in Europe, with swathes of England – with no parliament of its own – remote in distance and attention from London, chronically poor, isolated and disempowered. This needs to be reversed, with a serious devolution of power to city regions and counties.
A constitutional convention would see our archaic House of Lords replaced by an elected second chamber – perhaps based in the north as a symbol of the dispersal of power – and would replace our rotten first past the post electoral system, in which the majority of votes cast simply don’t count, with a proportional system.
People understood that in the EU referendum every vote mattered, and turnout was huge as a result. That needs to be the case every time we go to the polls.
This is one essay of over twenty in a new publication by Compass on The Causes and Cures for Brexit, that brings together progressive politicians, thinkers and activists to address issues of identity, democracy and economy that helped lead to Brexit.