The current hysteria will pass, Gisela Stuart assures Richard Angell and Adam Harrison
One of only a handful of figures on the left to back a Brexit vote in last month’s referendum, Gisela Stuart can hardly be accused of being the type to mince her words. But, unlike many of her campaign counterparts, she seems reluctant to ride the crest of the Brexit wave.
Stuart is pensive about the implications both for her party and the country as we meet her in Portcullis House to discuss Britain’s shock vote.
She is frank in her admission that she did not expect Leave to win. With both the Labour and Conservative party machines united behind Remain, she claims her side’s lack of data left it in the dark until the very end: ‘We were flying blind’.
Asked how she felt on hearing the result, Stuart is keen to emphasise that her involvement in the campaign was motivated by a sense of obligation rather than enthusiasm: ‘I didn’t want that referendum. I thought it actually an abuse of democratic processes to have that referendum, which didn’t have a precise question. I fought for referendums on the Lisbon treaty where you could have given people proper options. Given that [David Cameron] did call it, given that I actually do feel that we were better off out, I kind of felt I had no choice’.
Had Leave.EU – backed by the United Kingdom Independence party – been awarded the designated campaign status by the Electoral Commission, Stuart says her involvement would have ceased: ‘I would have simply fallen silent. It was Vote Leave, which was cross-party and was not Ukip, that gave me the confidence’.
This confidence cannot be extended to the government’s handling of the Brexit vote’s fallout and Stuart is ‘appalled’ at what she argues to be a lack of preparation on the part of the Cabinet Office. She has already tabled an urgent question in parliament to seek clarity over the right of EU citizens to stay in this country, condemning the government’s stance as ‘deeply, deeply offensive’ – an irony not lost given it is a direct consequence of the campaign she championed. She acknowledges the uncertainty the United Kingdom now faces as a result of the vote, but is ultimately resolute about the part she played: ‘I still think in the long run it’s the best decision.’
A Labour rose between the Tory thorns of Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom, it was always going to be a tough gig with the home crowd. But Stuart claims to have played a vital role in tempering some of the more inflammatory rhetoric on immigration, while offering a voice to the potential Labour voters who felt their concerns have been repeatedly disregarded: ‘I was actually criticised after one of the debates on the Left Foot Forward blog: “Watch Gisela Stuart refuse to say whether Brexit would cut immigration”. I refused to do that because this takes you to the wrong territory.’
Stuart points to a BBC Question Time appearance where she resisted attempts to draw her into the ‘wrong’ side of the argument on immigration, emphasising that it is a challenge she feels the Labour party must confront: ‘If you have an adult conversation about immigration with people, then you can get somewhere and it will have their consent. That’s the key thing. What we’ve got at the moment is we’re telling people you mustn’t talk about it because then you are a racist … I hope that on reflection, if you go back, that every time I talk about [immigration] I’ve been very careful.’
Nevertheless, with reports of hate crimes up 57 per cent since the vote, does she accept responsibility for the campaign’s consequences? She is defensive in response: ‘When the Farage poster came out, we were absolutely clear, and said so in public, that this was utterly unacceptable.’
The challenge the referendum campaign exposed for Labour comes down to policy, Stuart argues: ‘Our traditional Labour heartlands felt that we weren’t speaking for them any more … [The Remain camp] threatened [them] by saying, “If you vote ‘Leave’ then you will be worse off,” and they looked at their own lives and said, “What do you think you can take away from me?” That’s the bit which we didn’t get’.
Addressing this will require a fundamental rethink of Labour’s stance on free movement, she says. Stuart advocates a change in the rules to permit freedom of movement of those in work. While sometimes painted as a lone Labour warrior, Stuart points to concessions towards this view by Remainers Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper and Tom Watson during the late stages of campaign.
She is clear on what she sees as the most fundamental and urgent lesson arising from the vote: ‘I think this referendum is simply the latest manifestation of the fact that our whole democratic processes are broken – completely broken.’ This problem is exhibited most clearly in the stage-managed nature of prime minister’s questions. ‘They must have watched PMQs and said “Who speaks for me?”’
As painful as the present situation may seem, Stuart resolves that a positive must come from political turmoil of recent months: ‘[If people are] feeling slightly queasy at the moment, just take a deep breath, let all this hysteria fall over … I absolutely firmly believe that this is an enormous opportunity for us to reshape our democratic structures’.
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