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We went on a tour of Brexit Britain and this is what we found

We found a worrying belief that the London-based media and political classes know next to nothing about people outside their bubble – and care even less

James Torrance
Tuesday 27 March 2018 14:38 BST
Renew: the new anti-Brexit political party

“Don’t get me started, we’ll be here all day”. We have been driving around the country asking a single question – “what needs to change in this country?” – this is easily the most common response.

Over the last few weeks, the team at new political party Renew have covered 3,000 miles round the UK, stopping in more than 20 towns and cities and having conversations with thousands of people. Everywhere we stopped, from Exeter to St Andrews, this was the overwhelming message. Worse, not only are people pessimistic about the future, they also have almost no faith that our political leaders will be able to deliver the change they desperately need.

Who can blame them? Political debate in the UK has drifted inexorably away from the reality of people’s lives. Take a moment to consider some of last week’s dramas. Did the BBC photoshop Jeremy Corbyn’s hat? Why is Nigel Farage dumping dead fish in the Thames?

There is a cavernous gap between the circus that captures attention in Westminster and the issues people grapple with every day of their lives. To most people, Westminster politics is nothing but children playing games, egged on by a media more interested in drama than change.

The change people crave is cursed by a simple fact. By and large, it is mundane. Improved service provision is, ultimately, much less exciting than conferring new "rights" to that service or launching a new service altogether. Jeremy Hunt’s seven day NHS is a magnificent example. Done properly, it would undoubtedly be a dramatic step forward. But you cannot expand a service by 40 per cent without incurring extra costs.

Meanwhile, in Mansfield we met with people who had operations cancelled over the winter – often for the second or third time. Surely, when such poor conditions go untreated for years, we should ask whether the NHS meaningfully exists for these people at all, let alone seven days a week.

Everyone understands the pressure public services are under, and so accepts the consequences stoically; but while the carry-on in Westminster continues, we are normalising the appalling decay of many vital services. In Liverpool, NHS workers worried that having only a handful of patients on trolleys in corridors was greeted with relief, even though these conditions would have been scandalous just a couple of years ago.

None of these problems are recent developments. Brexit understandably dominates the debate today, but Brexit didn’t chronically underfund infrastructure in the North East or make the welfare system humiliating for so many that need it.

Theresa May's post-Brexit 'global Britain' pledge is just a 'slogan', MPs warn

Neither have the gross imbalances in our economy sprung up overnight – from London’s economic dominance to the growing wealth inequality. That Brexit will make these problems worse matters not. They, like Brexit itself, are all symptoms of a broader malaise. Underlying people’s pessimism was a worrying conviction – that the London-based media and political classes know next to nothing about the lives of people outside their bubble and, worse, care even less.

We should not make the mistake of blaming this on venal politicians taking their constituents for granted, though there is a healthy dose of that. Rather, it is the result of a system that fetishises the new and the national. North East infrastructure investment butters no parsnips for politicians craving a national profile, particularly if that investment is dull and technical. And so a cycle begins – politicians ignore the change we really need in favour of something dramatic and headline grabbing.

They direct resources towards the latest fashion and make grand promises about what can be achieved. Inevitably, the search for national headlines centres on one place, London. As things get worse across the rest of the country, the promises get bigger and more dramatic, but less realistic. Brexit is, perhaps, the apogee in this process.

Eighteen months after the vote to leave, we are still unclear on what benefits to expect. Will we even know if, one day, they actually materialise? Will we be able to tell the difference? Brexit has provided a stage and every day, politicians fill it with sound and fury. But for people grappling with life’s challenges, it seems likely to signify nothing.

There may be light at the end of this tunnel, however. While Brexit crowds out the rest of the country’s issues, some creditable politicians are quietly getting on with things. In Manchester, Andy Burnham and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is working on radical approaches to issues crying out for change. Tackling homelessness, transport and new ways of providing health and social care, Burnham is trying to solve problems for the people of Manchester while staying out of the national debate. In time, even politicians in Westminster might learn to follow his lead.

James Torrance is the Party Principal and Head of Strategy at Renew

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