Oldham, Barking, Gateshead and more: A tour update
It has been a busy few weeks.
On my Brexit listening tour in the last month I have visited East London, Hertfordshire, Oldham and Salford and Gateshead in the North East. We have held public meetings of Remainers and Leavers alike, canvassed on
Leave-leaning estates and held roundtables with local councillors, employers, clergy and social workers to understand the underlying issues afflicting Brexit Britain.
In Salford I spoke to people in local cafes and shopping centres. I found a lot of anger at Westminster politicians and a lot of worry about infrequent bin collections and poor public transport and public housing (both issues that the excellent elected Mayor of Salford, Paul Dennett, is working hard to fix). On Europe, I found voters who were sceptical about the Government’s plan for Brexit and open to being asked for their say on the final deal, when it comes. What was clear to me from all my conversations, though, was that we need to offer voters more than the status quo - they need big answers on housing and public services. And real answers on the bins, too.
The New York Times came with us to Greater Manchester and you can read their account here.
In Gateshead, which was heavily Leave in the referendum, we met with frontline social workers who are battling daily to improve their community. They told me that as austerity has bitten so their caseload has increased. Court referrals have gone up by more than 40% in the last year alone. Food, housing and heating - the very basics of a decent chance in life - can be a daily struggle for the families that they work with. This impressive and driven band of public servants is committed to finding solutions that keep young people in school and out of trouble.
They are supported in this by their local political leaders. The Deputy Leader of Gateshead Council, Catherine Donovan, has made it her personal mission to ensure that the children and young people in her city are fed and are safe. The council distributes food in all sorts of innovative ways - from a pizza van for teenagers to community cooking sessions that bring new immigrants together with born and bred locals. We need to work out how to build on this flexible, pragmatic approach and what we can do to ensure that surplus, otherwise wasted food ends up in the hands of people like Cllr Donovan rather than in landfill.
As well as my trips out into the country, I and colleagues in the House of Lords have been exceptionally busy holding the Government to account on the terms of their Brexit. We defeated the Government by over 100 votes on the question of the Customs Union and are demonstrating that Parliament can force change and common sense if we set out minds to it. I wrote a defense of the Lords and its excellent work on the EU Withdrawal Bill in my New European column this week. Readers will be glad to note that I'm not quitting and I'm not Quisling.
Next week my House will vote on whether there should be a Peoples’ Vote on the final terms of Brexit. I will support that motion - as will dozens of Labour, Lib Dem and even some Tory peers. But in the end, we need our colleagues in the House of Commons to make the decision. That’s why I urge you to write to your MP - and to keep writing - to demand your say on the future of our country. You can find more information on how to get involved in this campaign here: https://www.peoples-vote.uk/ Please, do anything you can to help.
I mentioned that on my tour I had visited East London this month. Myself and the young people from Our Future Our Choice knocked on doors and asked people for their views. You can watch what we got up to here:
We wanted to visit Barking in part because it was one of the 100 most Leave areas in the country but also because, for me, Barking is an example of what hopeful politics can achieve. Back in 2006 the BNP won 12 seats on Barking Council. Many people wrote the area off as backwards and racist. It felt like the momentum was on the side of darkness. But there are no BNP councillors in Barking today, just a decade later. They have been driven out. The local MPs, local Labour Party groups like Hope not Hate and local activists of different politics and none worked restlessly to change minds and to offer something better. It worked then and it is my real hope that - up and down the country - it can work today as we seek to offer something better than Brexit.