In 2016 Britain Stronger in Europe, an umbrella campaign led by the then Conservative prime minister David Cameron, made the argument for Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. At the time of the referendum, Cameron’s unpopularity was rapidly on the increase as the austerity he had imposed on the nation was starting to be felt more widely. His Conservative-led coalition government back-loaded their cuts between 2010 and 2015 so they fell after the 2015 general election – they dropped at the precise time that Cameron ended up calling an EU referendum.
In spite of this, the Remain campaign was not a complete failure. If it had been such a failure, it would not have been such a close result with 52 per cent for and 48 per cent voting against Brexit. Vote Leave could have ended up with a landslide, but it didn’t.
There were many criticisms of that 2016 campaign. It was accused of failing to properly address people’s concerns about immigration. It was too focused on our cities, London in particular. Many advocates of the cause were accused of being part of the “establishment”. The “metropolitan, liberal elite” was the usual invective directed at those on the Remain side of the argument – this is still the case – even by those who think Brexit is a disaster. It never seemed to matter that a Brexit elite composed of public school boys like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg was and is still arrayed on the other side of the argument. Nor did it seem to matter that the whole weight of the trade union movement, representing millions of workers, came in behind the Stronger In campaign too.
But clearly mistakes were made. Stronger In, ideally, would have been built from the bottom up, from the grassroots, and it should have had a clearer and representative collective leadership. The People’s Vote campaign has learned these lessons, as the huge march in London – co-sponsored by The Independent – vividly illustrates in technicolour today. The march takes place following a summer of intense activity in each and every region of the country. We held rallies in Bristol, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Newcastle, Liverpool, Birmingham and had events in countless other areas – events led by local speakers from all walks of life.
The breadth and depth of our campaign means we work across party lines. In the past few weeks, the Conservative MP Anna Soubry and I (we co-chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations) have been campaigning alongside the energetic and dynamic youth organistion For Our Future’s Sake (FFS). We have gone to Manchester, Exeter and Hull in addition to campaigning in our own regions. FFS is one of over 10 groups with hundreds of thousands of activists across the country that all campaign under the #PeoplesVote umbrella. Those on the opposite side of the argument – led by the hard right ERG group of Tory MPs and UKIP – have come nowhere close to matching this grassroots organisation.
And it is about time that the “metropolitan, liberal elite” smear was properly dealt with once and for all. I’m fed up hearing about it. I’ve heard it said about the community I am from and represent, which scored the highest Remain vote in the country. We are proud to have “liberal” values which respect and embrace difference, and uphold the rule of law. We don’t think being a diverse “metropolitan” area composed of people of different races or religions is something to be ashamed of or makes our voice any less valid or, indeed, authentic.
Let me tell you: Lambeth is not some “elite”. One in four people lives in absolute poverty. More than half of our residents do not own their own home. We are the eighth most deprived local authority in England and we have some of the most acute social problems, such as domestic violence and substance abuse, in the country. Like so many areas that voted Leave, many in our area have also not seen the benefits of globalisation and have found themselves at the rough end of a dysfunctional economy. The only difference is that we do not believe that leaving the European Union will improve or address the problems we face – we believe it will exacerbate them.
Sure, there will be some individuals who might fit the stereotype painted of the People’s Vote movement but it is not a fair representation of the overall campaign which is a complete cross-section of the country. As Richard Brooks, one of the co-founders of FFS, said this week: “I personally grew up in a working-class home, raised by a single parent in council housing – as have many other FFS campaigners.
“The grim reality is that for every 10 excellent pieces of campaigning young working-class kids do, they will always get drowned out by celebs – because that’s what the media pick up. The same media who then complain about over saturation of posh people in the Brexit debate.
“I’ve spent the last six months supporting working-class young people from diverse backgrounds, getting their voices heard in the media, and I have to say, nine out of 10, when offered, those voices are rejected [by the media].”
Brooks’ comments will be borne out by what you will see on the streets of London on Saturday with over 150 coaches bringing people from every region to march on Westminster and demand they get a say on how and whether we leave the EU.
In particular, over 2 million young people have not had a chance to vote on Brexit yet – that’s why they will be at the front of the march, leading the charge. Above all it’s a march for their futures.
Chuka Umunna is the Labour MP for Streatham