Citizens from Everywhere: Meet the people who are fighting to give us a vote on Brexit

Often we get smeared as liberal, metropolitan elites. But the truth is many of my constituents have the same challenges as communities that voted Leave in great numbers

Chuka Umunna
Monday 26 March 2018 20:47 BST
Chuka Umunna: Inside the pro-EU 'GCHQ' where people are fighting to give the public a vote on Brexit

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Is there a secret plot to stop Brexit? It’s a favourite theme of the likes of the Daily Express and the Daily Mail, and I’ve often been identified as being part of it. Secrecy is a rather absurd suggestion given I’ve made no secret of my dislike of Brexit and regularly go on broadcast media saying so. I’m not sure you can “plot” to do something like this given the only way Brexit won’t happen is if that is what a majority of British people want at the end of this process. There is not some coordinated plan that millions have signed up to. If we reach the point where the British people arrive at the view that we are better off fighting to change our country from within the EU rather than accepting a very bad deal for our departure, that will be an organic process.

Our relationship with the EU, as I have written before on these pages, is intensely personal, not just political. I am a quarter Irish, have a Danish brother-in-law, niece and nephew, a French aunt and Spanish nationals in my family. I feel British and European, and am typical of so many in my constituency, a place which scored the highest Remain vote in 2016. So many families in my constituency include EU citizens.

Often we get smeared as liberal, metropolitan, elite and “citizens of nowhere” as Theresa May put it in her 2016 Conservative Party conference speech. But the truth is many of my constituents have the same challenges as communities that voted Leave in great numbers and which are frequently described as “left behind”. People in Streatham and other areas that voted Remain are left behind too. Our borough of Lambeth is one of the most deprived local authority areas in England, most residents can’t afford to own their own home and one in four lives in absolute poverty. The difference is that we did not think Brexit would solve our problems, we think it will make them worse.

However your area voted, we can all agree this process is much more protracted and complicated than anyone envisaged. It impacts on important aspects of UK society like the Good Friday Agreement settlement in Northern Ireland, which brought peace after decades of bloodshed or the transport of medical isotopes used in cancer treatment. 10,000 health professionals from the EU – which we desperately need in the context of a nursing recruitment crisis – have left the NHS and the number is growing. For all these reasons and given the gravity of the decision, there is a growing network of national organisations arguing against the Tory Brexit being pursued and for there to be a people’s vote on the Brexit deal at the end of the negotiations. But who are they?

Full disclosure: I am involved with most in some way and chair the Grassroots Co-ordinating Group (GCG), the umbrella outfit which brings all of them together. It helps coordinate the campaign efforts between these grassroots civil society organisations and MPs, who all want the UK to have the closest possible relationship with the EU.

Open Britain is by far the largest organisation with a base of over half a million supporters. It is the successor organisation to Britain Stronger In Europe, the official Remain campaign. It works closely with a range of politicians in Parliament from across the political spectrum from the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas to the Conservatives Anna Soubry and Chris Patten, who will be speaking at an important Open Britain event tomorrow marking the anniversary this week of the triggering of Article 50. The majority of their funds come from small donations made by tens of thousands of their supporters, and the group is currently raising more than at any time since the 2016 referendum. It is headed by executive director James McGrory and a young team who are mostly under the age of 30.

And youth is a strong feature of the movement overall, which is unsurprising given the huge majority of young people who are opposed to Brexit and will have to live far longer with the consequences. The student-focused For Our Future’s Sake (FFS), which launches at the NUS conference this week, and Our Future, Our Choice (OFOC), are two new youth-centred campaigns that are already attracting huge attention and support.

The European Movement UK is the longest standing organisation with a grassroots network of more than 80 local groups across the whole of the UK from Dorset to Hull, from Kent to Leeds. They work closely with over 50 local Britain for Europe groups, the biggest of which is in Bristol. If you see a stall of activists on your high street or volunteers going door to door, they are most likely to be from one of these two organisations. They do so much of the hard work on the ground making the case to fellow citizens.

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson refuses to rule out new Brexit referendum

One of the big differences between those arguing for the UK to have a close relationship with the EU and those arguing against, is that the All-Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations (which Anna and I chair) works side by side with this plethora of grassroots groups in every region of the UK, whereas Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ERG (European Research Group) does not.

Given the impact of Brexit on the NHS – 75 per cent of hospital leaders think Brexit is bad news for the health service – there is a large body of people who work in and campaign to protect the NHS that forms part of our movement. The number of health workers joining the NHS from the EU is shrinking at a time when we need them – there are currently 100,000 vacancies in the NHS that need filling but there has been a drop of nearly 90 per cent in the number of nurses from the EU registering to work in the UK. Healthier IN the EU and Scientists for EU, headed by Dr Mike Galsworthy and Dr Rob Davidson, are followed by over a quarter of a million people and are working to reverse this.

Best for Britain is one of the best resourced of the groups and helps fund others. It was attacked by the right-wing media for having received donations from the philanthropist George Soros. The pretty unedifying attack on the group by The Daily Telegraph and others was intended to harm it – it had the opposite effect, boosting a crowdfunding campaign Best for Britain launched off the back of it. It will be starting a big ad campaign soon.

InFacts is a journalistic enterprise making the fact-based case against Brexit. If you want facts and figures, they will provide it. The New European is a great weekly house newspaper for the pro-EU movement. Vote Leave famously deleted from its website all the promises it made immediately after the 2016 referendum – Leave Watch (which I founded) performs a valuable function systematically holding Leave campaigners like Boris Johnson to account for those overblown promises, shining a light on the original pledge and highlighting the lack of delivery. Its patrons include the head of shop workers union, Usdaw, John Hannett, and the businessman Richard Reed who established Innocent Smoothies.

The organisation among pro-Europeans took a major step forward when six of these groups mentioned above moved into shared offices together in Millbank Tower this month, in what staff working there have quickly dubbed “Project GCHQ”, in reference to GCG. You can already see the impact this move is having, as the sharing of resources, ideas and expertise is so much easier when everyone is under one roof.

So, far from some secret plot, what you have is a diverse movement made up of civil society. They are not citizens of nowhere but citizens from every corner of the UK, from communities that voted Leave and Remain, people that vote for all political parties and none, and those who work in the public and the private sectors. We are well organised and disproportionately young. Above all, we know that shouting “stop Brexit” is not a political strategy but having an open, honest conversation with our fellow citizens to secure everyone a vote on the Brexit deal Theresa May returns with in the autumn is the only way forward.

Driverless taxis

So, I had a ride in one of the first new electric black cabs to grace London’s streets this month. And what a luxurious experience! Comfy leather, mod cons, gadgets galore and a very impressive large glass roof so you can admire London’s skyline as well as the delights we have to offer at street level too.

It did make me think: how long will it be before we get driverless black cabs? And, come to think of it, would we not miss our taxi drivers? In fact, do we want driverless taxis at all? A self-driving Uber tragically killed a woman in Arizona last week so perhaps this is not something we want to rush into. Food for thought.

Chuka Umunna is the MP for Streatham and the former shadow business secretary

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