Remain lost the referendum vote narrowly, but as Farage himself said before the results came in, why should a 52-48 margin be the end of the fight? It should not, and that is because the vote was about much more than Europe. For many voters, the European Union was a scapegoat for an economic situation that’s causing widespread and prolonged despair.
We all know how people felt, we all spoke to voters far and wide during the campaign. Much has been written about the causes of the Leave vote, but as ever, so much comes back to jobs and the economy. We have watched it happen like a slow motion car crash over the last six years of the coalition’s austerity drive. A simple prescriptive formula designed by politicians who claimed to want to rebuild the economy, but simply did not understand people.
It started something like this: the country was running a deficit so money had to be found somewhere. Raising taxes risked a backlash that could cost Tory members of parliament their seats, so cuts were needed instead, and what better than to direct those cuts at people who did not vote Conservative? To the coalition’s eyes at least, the public sector was the obvious target. An area that employed Labour voters, to look after Labour voters. A very monotone view of a technicolour economy.
When a public sector organisation encounters budget cuts, the first thing it does to save money is not, as intended, to reduce services. Instead they simply stop buying things. They stop hiring professional support, they stop investing in IT applications. They let hardware operate a year or so longer than it otherwise would, and cut back on stationary usage, personnel, and anything value added.
The public sector is not a black hole, money that goes in does not stay there long. It comes out again and oils the wheels of private enterprise. It goes to contractors or software suppliers, print companies and caterers, as well as numerous other service industries and businesses.
A lot goes to staff too. And for workers who earn less than £30,000 (that is most people), once again the money comes in and goes straight back out again. We may save a little here and there, but most of it is spent. We pay our mortgages or rent, we buy a new car every few years, we feed and clothe ourselves; we buy consumer goods, child care, holidays. We shop online and support local businesses because they sell us the things we need. That’s all private sector profit.
When incomes are cut, people rein in their spending. Those businesses now start to feel the pinch, and they have to cut staff or fold altogether. Public sector workers were relatively well paid and had dependable incomes. They provided plenty of return business, and now that is vanished. Increasing numbers of private sector staff find themselves out of work too, and they stop buying the things they buy, and more businesses begin to struggle. You get the picture?
Now, all these people are unemployed, and have become lazy scroungers overnight. They are vilified in the press, as workshy layabouts who have brought the economy to its knees. They have to claim through the benefit system just so that they can stay alive, and cost the exchequer money that could be spent elsewhere. Then the government cuts some more because they think that will work. It will not.
We end up stuck in an ever downward spiral. More cuts bring more economic contraction. Always. This is the situation that has afflicted so many towns and cities across our country. Major public sector organisations, after years of industrial decline, have become the main employers in many places. When they tighten their belts, the whole local economy is squeezed till the pips squeak.
And as people struggle, and prospects become bleaker, they begin to lose hope. They blame immigrants, the sick and disabled, the EU, mainstream politicians. They become desperate, and jump at solutions offered by any passing charlatan who promises to take back control, and make their country great again. What have they got to lose?
It is essential that Labour provide a strong, plausible opposition. We have to offer a counter-narrative that people can believe in, instead of just warm words and vague platitudes. Because right now, there is no end in sight. Nobody to ride to the rescue. And the consequences of that could be catastrophic.
Christabel Edwards is a candidate in the general members’ section in the Progress strategy board elections. She tweets at @Christabel321