I have a confession to make. Last year I put a bet on Brexit winning. To be clear – I voted for Remain, but I was almost certain that the referendum was not going to go well.
The main reason for my certainty was that I had spent the previous two years knocking on hundreds of doors a week as a parliamentary candidate in Maidstone. Generally speaking, if you are canvassing on a Sunday morning you need to knock on about 10 doors to find someone who will talk to you. So given that about 10 per cent of the population in Maidstone are Labour voters, you need to ring 100 bells to find someone who actually likes you. I got through a lot of shoes.
Finding someone angry about Europe was much more common than finding one of my supporters. It was the most regular issue raised by voters by distance. And interestingly, it was raised in pretty equal measure by supporters of all mainstream parties. Ukip were, of course, resurgent. Their likeable candidate was overseeing a military operation of lawn signs. People were queueing outside of the Ukip office to pick theirs up.
I used to wander past on my way campaigning, and often talked to the people waiting for their own purple and yellow lollipop. Many of them were recent Labour or Conservative voters who had been lured by Nigel Farage and his team. Some were old Labour supporters who had switched to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, then stopped voting until Ukip re-politicised them.
Clearly these voters were anti-European. But they also raised a matrix of interrelated and sometimes contradictory wider concerns about issues like immigration, gay rights, house building (for and against), job creation, wages, politicians being pigs at the trough, pension devaluation, bankers and the deficit.
Most of all they felt that they had been abandoned. The older voters felt that their lifetime of hard work had led to nothing. The younger voters believed that their future had been taken away from them. Several said to me ‘you lot think we’re racist. I’m not racist’.
And I do not think they are. The reality is that former industrial communities like this have seen a major decline in recent years. Not just economically but in self-esteem. These used to be communities where Labour was a route to political expression. Maidstone has been a safe Conservative seat for over a century, but even here we held the council as late as the mid-1990s. No more.
Now this community finds expression through a sort of assertive political apathy or under the Ukip banner. This is very simply our fault. If the people we as a party exist to help feel so alienated from us, we cannot blame them, or the media, or any other excuse. We have simply failed to understand their lives.
Where we can show leadership to help bring people to a greater comfort with liberal ideas about identity and relationships, we have a responsibility to do so with courtesy and tact. And where people have seen their day-rate as a plasterer reduced by skilled immigration from the European Union, we should listen to their fears, and think hard about how we can help, not make accusations of xenophobia.
Those Brexiteers outside the Ukip offices or peering round their front door at me did not raise the tripartite process or the spitzenkandidaten. This was not first and foremost a constitutional or theoretical argument. Brussels was synecdochical for a wider frustration with a certain set of liberal, internationalist assumptions. It has been widely described as a rejection of a certain form of metropolitan liberalism.
But that is not quite right. It was a rejection of being rejected. They feel very keenly our discomfort with their politics, and even their cultural and aesthetic choices. The double lock is that they also perceive from us a sense that only we are really, truly decent. We both believe ourselves unique in our goodness, and judge others for not possessing it.
Witness the reaction to Theresa May’s speech from Downing Street when she talked about the treatment of black people in the criminal justice system, or the fact that white working class boys are the least likely in society to go to university.
We were astonished that someone other than the Labour party could care about poverty or inequality. So certain are we that our ambition for the world to be better is unique, we have failed to notice that people up and down the country – who worry precisely about these issues – have become convinced that other parties will solve them before us. After all, recent polling showed that the Conservatives area head of us on the National Health Service, not just on immigration.
So we have not been rejected because we refuse to pander to xenophobia. We have been rejected because we forgot that everyone wants a better world, not just us. When we call our rival parties racist or cruel, we call their supporters that too.
We face a long way back to power, but a longer way back to the trust of the communities we used to understand so intimately. We cannot understand where we are today without understanding that the debate is not whether, but how, to make the world a better place.
Allen Simpson is a candidate in the general members’ section in the Progress strategy board elections. He tweets @Allen_M_Simpson
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