Tour diary: Peterborough and beyond
In order to understand why so much of our country voted for Brexit, I have been spending much of my time going on tour – visiting areas that voted to leave the EU. By June, I will have been to each of the 100 ‘most Brexit’ places and while visiting each of these places I am trying to meet as broad a cross-section of people as possible. This tour is about listening,
more than anything else, as I believe that part of the motive for many Brexit voters was the – understandable – desire to give our distant and often tone-deaf politicians a bit of a kicking. It’s easy for people like me to get stuck in a bubble. This tour is all about getting out into the real world.
This week I went to Peterborough, which voted by almost 61% to leave the EU. I am an unrepentant and enthusiastic train-spotter and so was excited to travel on one of the new direct Thameslink services – linking Peterborough to Horsham via the centre of London. This service only exists because of investment from the last Labour Government but the trains that run on them are – while cheap to travel on – still far too slow and far too empty. As one regular commuter explained to me – whilst the time difference between these and the Virgin services might not seem that dramatic they make a very big difference indeed for parents of young families desperate to spend time with their children. We cannot ever stand still on infrastructure or take a pause to pat ourselves on the back. We must be updating, improving and investing constantly because it makes a profound, everyday difference to the quality of people’s lives and because old, out-dated and slow infrastructure leaves people feeling disconnected and left-out.
I wanted to visit Peterborough early on in my tour because I was intrigued by why it had voted Brexit at all. Although the city undoubtedly has poverty and deprivation it also has pockets of relative prosperity and is close to London by train. Like so much of England it is a brilliant mix of the old (the Abbey is hundreds of years old) and the new (much of the city was built from scratch as one of the original new towns). The deans of the local cathedral, with whom I met to discuss the pastoral issues they face in serving Peterborough and the neighbouring Fenlands, were clear that immigration has been a huge issue locally. Although integration is happening – one of their sons was happily in a relationship with a neighbour of Latvian origin – it has been far too slow. The crunch on local housing and services has been real and it has not been adequately addressed by either local or central government. In the otherwise decent town centre, homelessness was obvious and striking.
The local Labour Group of councillors, candidates and campaigners built on this theme. They were proud of the campaign that they had fought during the referendum – many minds had been changed – but in the end they had not been able to break the feeling that Peterborough had been dramatically changed without local consent and without anything much being done to help the local population adapt. We who want to remain in the EU – via democratic means, of course – need a compelling argument on immigration. And no, it can’t be just telling people that they are wrong. Some are, of course. But a great many more leave voters who I meet are simply, justifiably, worried about their communities. People want things to be fair.
I don’t mind telling you that when I first decided to hold town-hall style meetings in some of the places on my tour I wasn’t sure there would be much interest! If Peterborough is anything to go by, I don’t think that will be an issue. One hundred or so of us crammed into a pub function room with the wonderful local MP, Fiona Onasanya, and the young campaigner Will Dry for a very lively debate about why Peterborough voted leave. It would be nice to think that I was the main draw but – in reality – I think people are still very energised and very preoccupied with this country’s future and welcome any chance to talk it through honestly and openly. That gives me great hope for the future.
Inevitably many attendees were either remain voters or people who had changed their minds since the election. Still, though, judging by the surveys we asked folk to fill out at the start of the meeting a reasonable number had voted leave in 2016. As the tour progresses I want to talk to more and more leave voters to try to understand their views and concerns and to develop answers for the legitimate anger that many of them feel.
Meanwhile, this week I have also spent the best part of 25 hours debating the EU Withdrawal Bill in the House of Lords. The Government would not even allow us a break to get something to eat – their new strategy is to starve us into submission!
This week I am off to Dublin – for the first of several trips I am making to Ireland in the coming months - and then to Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Oxford. Please do come along to join me by clicking on the places for a link to the event. The week after that I will be in some of the leave areas of east London. If you would like to join me for my next town-hall meeting (in Barking) please click here to sign up!