Until I was selected as an EU election candidate by Change UK, I had thought my last day in politics was 23 June 2016 – referendum day.
Unlike other candidates on Change UK’s regional list for the East Midlands, I have a background in politics. I have been a Labour parliamentary candidate in a target seat, and worked in regional and national roles for Britain Stronger in Europe (BSiE).
At BSiE I was one of the insiders hired for our knowledge of Labour regions and constituencies: in my case, on the basis of my campaigning experience in the Midlands and South Yorkshire gained during the 2015 election.
It’s because of the jobs and the change that I’ve seen here over twenty years that I always knew I would fight to remain. In fact, I joined BSiE before it had any infrastructure, or even a contact address.
All I could think to do was to ring Labour headquarters in London and to make clear that I wanted to volunteer in line with party policy, which was to remain in the EU. They didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. Eventually, they connected me to a mobile number – for Brendan Chilton, the Labour councillor who established Labour Leave and worked with Ukip during the campaign. Not a good start.
As National Engagement Lead I went on to be one of the people who worked regularly with the Labour leader’s office. We all know what happened next: the support they had agreed to give us never came, despite the fact it would have turned the referendum result around.
It wasn’t just Labour. As engagement lead, I debated more than one fiercely pro-Brexit Tory MP who told me off the record that they were desperate for Remain to win for their constituents, that they realised how disastrous job losses would be for their constituencies – and then they went out and argued for Leave.
One MP told me openly that she backed Remain but “couldn’t be another Maastricht martyr”. Let that sink in for a moment. Brexit-backing MPs knew exactly how bad Brexit would be for their constituents, but chose to put their jobs first.You can see why I wanted out of politics.
So what changed between my political retirement in 2016 and now? Not least, that Brexit, even in the earliest negotiating stages, has been worse than we ever could have imagined. Three years have passed and no progress has been made at all. Whatever people voted for three years ago; it wasn’t this.
As part of the East Midlands list for Change UK I am standing for election with brilliant local people who have no background in politics at all: nurses, teachers and the head of a wonderful Derbyshire charity that supports carers. The people who keep our public services going.
Together, we’re fighting to identify and turn out every People’s Vote supporter in a region which backed Brexit in 2016. When the time comes for a confirmatory ballot, as it will, what will matter is the aggregate Remain vote.
We haven’t made it easy on ourselves. For the past three weeks we have campaigned hardest in the parts of the East Midlands where there isn’t a strong existing People’s Vote network in place.
We’ve done that because we think it will take something new to win leave-voting areas back to Remain. People are fed up with the old parties. We understand that sometimes it takes something new to be able to move on from the past.
And unlike other parties, we get the frustration. We genuinely understand why people here backed Leave. In fact, one of our own candidates, Emma-Jane Manley, did.
Since becoming a campaigner for a people’s vote, Emma-Jane has written about her original decision and her reasons for changing her mind. In the first week after sharing her story, 1.1 million people read it across the country. Tens of thousands of people got in touch to share their own.
We understand the frustration, and the forces that drove the Brexit vote in this region: social division, austerity, a sense that there was no opportunity. We’re not here to defend the ways that things have been, or to justify the policies of previous governments.
What I heard in 2016 was one person after another say that they lived in towns where the MP never changed, and that they hardly bothered to vote anymore because their vote never made a difference.
For too many people, 23 June 2016 felt like the only day in their lives when their vote counted. The anger that many feel now is not a strong desire to rewrite our trading relationships with Europe but the feeling that they have somehow been cheated again.
But there are far more people like Emma-Jane. Natural pragmatists, who understand that they were lied to – but before, not after the vote took place. People who see that the change in politics we wanted can come, and that we don’t have to throw away the good we already have to tackle the problems that we face.
It’s for people like Emma-Jane and for all of us who think the old way of doing things isn’t good enough that Change UK has been founded. I hope you’ll join us on 23 May and beyond.
Kate Godfrey is Change UK MEP candidate for the East Midlands
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