Caroline Lucas’s speech to The Convention: Think Anew, Act Anew, Another Vote is Possible, London, 11 January 2019
It’s a pleasure to be here today, and to
welcome you all to this Convention. I want to start by saying a huge thank you
to everyone who has made it happen at such short notice.
And - perhaps more unexpectedly - I also want to say a genuine thank you to the
17.4 million people who gave the Establishment such a well-deserved kicking in
to you, the crisis at the heart of our democracy – and the intolerable levels
of inequality and insecurity experienced by so many – can no longer be ignored.
The place that we’ve been brought to by
the outcome of the referendum is difficult, dangerous and divisive. But we mustn’t let that obscure the truth,
or distort our analysis. Many people took the question they
were being asked to mean “Should the
country go on being run in the way that it is?’ And they voted “NO!” with a collective
howl of rage.
was justified then - and it’s justified now. For some, it might have been mixed up with
fear, even bigotry, and an impossible longing for the past. But there was -
and is - a core message at the heart of the Brexit vote. That the status quo in this country is intolerable for
huge numbers of people. That the social contract is broken and the power game
It is right and
reasonable to be furious.
The questions we must ask going forward
have to start with that acknowledgement. And with a powerful commitment not even to try to go back to the
way things were.
There has to be something better. Better
than both the inequality and the powerlessness
we’ve been grappling with for decades and that still haven’t been
resolved - a democratic failure as well
as an economic one.
So throughout today, I want us to address
three key questions.
First, how do we address
the very real grievances that led so many to vote for Brexit in the first
place? Those living in communities with proud histories, but which have been hollowed out by
de-industrialisation and decades of neglect, compounded in recent years
by an ideologically driven assault on public services in the name of austerity?
Second, how do we make
staying and fighting for the Europe we want a pathway to change - to a society that isn’t just less grim than
what we have now, but is genuinely fair, green and fulfilling? How do we
inspire people with a vision of the way membership of the EU can make a
positive and practical improvement to their lives? How do we ensure that Project Hope overcomes Project Fear?
And third, how do we renew our democracy? How
do we genuinely take control? Shift the framework entirely and hand power to people not just for one vote,
but forever, so that our country can unite around a new settlement that
gains popular consent across the Brexit divide?
Today is about changing
the conversation about Brexit. It’s about moving
forward - humbly, positively and with hope.
And it’s about putting young people, those
who will be most affected by Brexit, at the heart of all we’re doing.
coming, one way or another. Let’s think anew and act anew. Let’s shape it
The causes of Brexit
And let’s start with some honesty about
the real causes of Brexit. Because telling the truth is what sets us apart from
the populists - the political insiders who dress up as rebels, and use Europe
to distract from their own failures.
People were, and are, angry and frustrated
for many reasons. And they can, at least partly, be summed up in the words of
the inimitable Russell Brand:
“People saw a bright
red button that said Fuck Off
Establishment, and they pressed it.”
For many, there was a genuine sense that any
change was better than the status quo. That
they had nothing left to lose. The tragedy, of course, is that they do
and likely will.
Particularly those least equipped to cope.
Concerns about access to housing, jobs, and
the NHS are real and have to be addressed.
And so too do concerns about migration. Changing the Brexit conversation means
proudly celebrating free movement - and the opportunities it’s given to
individuals and to our country.
was not just a political failure, but a moral failure, that saw the
Remain campaign hide away from talking about migration in 2016 - preferring
instead to bandy about economic threats, rather than engage in a serious debate
on this pressing issue.
It also means making those opportunities
of free movement genuinely available to all
- when for vast swathes of people
today they’re not even imaginable.
But we must also be very honest with
people about free movement. I’ve heard some Remainers say we should
re-negotiate it, ask the EU for an exemption if we’re to remain.
That’s simply not going to happen, and it
would be an utterly perverse thing to demand from Brussels. Because we know
that migration has been a good thing for Britain - but not everyone has felt those benefits. And big changes to our
communities can be frightening, especially when they happen fast. We can’t shy
away from these concerns.
we must also act anew by hearing very carefully when they are caught up with
something else. Fuelled by anger at being ignored and neglected. At the failure
of successive governments to deliver jobs and other opportunities. A
future for communities – any kind of future, let alone a better one.
The tragedy, of course, is that
Brexit would actually make it harder to address all of these problems. Not
least because - under every single Brexit scenario - there would be less money
available to repair and rebuild the social fabric that has been so viciously
become a place of grotesque inequalities. Not
just between classes, but geographically between regions, especially between
North and South; and between thriving cities and failing towns within the same
Last year, the
Commission on Social Mobility identified the 30 worst ‘coldspots’ for social
mobility - and every single one of them voted to Leave. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Shamefully,
levels of interregional inequality in the UK are 50% higher than in
similar-sized economies such as France and Germany, a third higher than Italy,
and almost twice as high as Spain. Income levels in London have risen by a
third since the financial crash - but fallen - yes, fallen - by 14% in
Yorkshire and Humberside.
Nor is growing inequality on its own the
full story of the economic injustice people experience. It’s accompanied by acute
insecurity. A huge rise in debt, a loss of long-term prospects, affects
As inequality spins out of control, people
in all classes feel helpless. That’s why the slogan “Take back control” had
such resonance. It promised agency in a system in which the rich and powerful,
who clearly do have agency, were telling us that the market rules, and
there’s nothing anyone can do. In short, this is a country where what dictates
your success isn’t how hard you work, or how much you care. It’s not your
passion or your commitment.
No. This is a country where your success
is dictated by your postcode, the income of your parents, the year in which you
were born. It’s a country of dead end streets for those with the least, and
open highways for those with the most. The lie at the heart of the Leave
campaign was that this downward spiral could be reversed by leaving the EU.
We don't need to
leave the EU. We need to think anew.
need a new social contract: better jobs, high-quality public services, investment
in the green economy, people of all backgrounds and communities treated with
respect, and given the opportunity and the power to thrive.
It's not enough to
assert that EU migrants bring a net economic benefit to the country as a whole.
That benefit needs to be felt in those areas that experience the greatest
changes, with those communities coming together to decide themselves how to
invest that funding. And to reverse the cycles of decline that blight so many
parts of Britain, let’s make sure we transform the future with funding that
delivers real opportunities and lasting hope.
Thinking and acting anew to tackle
inequality and insecurity can help heal our divided country. So too can an
honest conversation about what we have in common. About a fairer, greener
economy that works for us all but also a conversation about who we are as a
country - and what we aspire to be.
Stay and fight
Those living in once proud communities
that have been gutted often feel have very little to lose. We need to give them
something to gain from remaining in
Likewise, the well-off in non-metropolitan
areas who also drove this genuine nationalist vote. We all need a reason to
think anew. To choose to stay and fight.
The 2016 result should tell us that
“project fear” won’t win people over. They want hope. If Britain voted again
tomorrow, the demographics of this country would probably already have shifted
in favour of staying in the EU. But that’s not enough.
This isn’t just about winning at the
ballot box. It’s about winning a different kind of shared future. To do that,
we must urgently learn the lessons of the past. The mistakes of the Remain
campaign mustn’t be repeated. Mistakes that meant the campaign was seen
primarily as defending the status quo, with the political elite pulling the
strings. A campaign that utterly failed to inspire any kind of connection with,
or love for, the EU. Something worth defending – and yes, staying and changing
To stand any chance of winning a People’s
Vote, we have to abandon all association with a vapid centrism that has failed
to deliver for so many people, and would fail again.
We have to think and act anew. To start
using the ideas and language now that
will set the tone for a very different kind of referendum campaign.
One that’s hopeful, inclusive, energetic
and radical. One we can all feel part of and one that appeals to our hearts as
well as our heads. That builds on the work of groups like Another Europe is
Possible, Our Future Our Say, For Our Future’s Sake, and the nearly 200 local
groups supporting a People’s Vote.
That shows people - and young people in
particular - that there is genuinely
a diversity of voices championing our continued membership of the EU. I welcome
the central role give to young people at today’s Convention. Let’s make sure we
listen to those voices and that they are part of owning the way forward.
And we need a referendum campaign that
compellingly sets out what kind of EU we want. An EU of the people, an EU of
solidarity. A vision that galvanises people to stay and fight, not walk away. One
that’s positive about who we are as a country: our ambition and our courage.
It was these values that helped create the
European Union. That helped us emerge from the rubble and destruction of the
Second World War into peace with our neighbours ever since - a miracle few
would have dreamed possible when the bombs were raining down.
The EU is the greatest international
venture for peace, prosperity and freedom in history. Where in the world has
there ever been a better example of collaboration in pursuit of such values? That
astonishing achievement ought to be front and centre of the Brexit conversation
– and it’s up to us to put it there.
So too the social and environmental
protections, and the remarkable gift of free movement - that precious right to
travel and to work and to live and to love in 27 other countries.
And so too, the good angel sitting on our
shoulder when it comes to upholding human rights, the friendships across
borders, the cultural opportunities, the life without fear and the solidarity.
To have reduced
all that to an argument about the cost of a trolley load of shopping was such a
tragedy. Changing the conversation about Brexit has
to mean moving on from the facts and the figures, and connecting instead with
the feelings, hopes and dreams that will unite us. It’s got to be about who we
are as a country, and how we want to be seen.
Now you don’t need to tell me that the EU
is imperfect - I was an MEP for 10 years! It is, at times, a highly political,
top-down, opaque and technocratic set of institutions. One that, actually,
could be made instantly more transparent and accountable by live streaming all
meetings and publishing minutes, and key papers like trade negotiation
But here I want to challenge the media
too. Not just those with an almost pathological hatred of the EU - but the Guardian,
the BBC - the so-called mainstream, the so-called liberals. Decisions which are
made in the EU affect us every single day, the laws that are passed make a real
difference; our members of the European Parliament represent us. So
let’s stop the fake news about straight bananas, let’s stop treating MEPs as
though they didn’t exist, let’s talk about politics in the European Union whenever
news is made, not just when Nigel Farage stands up and makes another
speech attacking the European Commission.
In the medium term, a Constitutional Assembly
should be set up to examine the steps needed to democratise the EU -
strengthening the role of the European parliament at the same time as
respecting national self-determination.
And longer term, the EU must dismantle the
habitual domination of corporate power over the will of citizens, and
re-politicise the rules that govern our single market and - for those countries
that joined it - the single currency.
Such reforms are long overdue and we shouldn’t
be afraid to advocate changing the EU at the same time as fighting to stay part
Transforming the EU into a beacon for
democracy brings me to my third question - and the serious democratic deficit
in our own country. Brexit laid bare the extent to which our governance
structures are derelict.
When citizens were deprived of a credible,
representative power that clearly belongs to, or is accountable to them, it led
to anger with the most remote authority of all. The EU was blamed for the UK’s
structural elitism, and held responsible as the source of all powerlessness.
Yet Brexit shows no sign of giving us back
‘control’ or changing the way we’re ruled. A People’s Vote should be the
starting gun on the race to genuinely democratise the UK. Looking anew at the
way Britain is governed, not just by the EU but by Westminster as well.
We are one of the most centralised countries
in Europe, with disproportionate power held at Westminster, and far too little
in our regions and local authorities. Powers need to go back to the regions of
the UK, where people have a better chance of influencing it. And, if the
English want it, to England.
The DUP’s sectarian interests in Ireland
are a world away from the interests of Northern Ireland or modern Britain. The
evolving views from Wales have been treated by this Government with contempt. And
it is inconceivable that Remain-voting Scotland should be forced out of the EU
against its wishes.
Years of failure to engage with the need
for overall constitutional reform has left us with an incoherent patchwork of
piecemeal changes. If we’re to think and act anew, we must open up to new forms
of power and politics – better distributed, more diverse, more strongly
integrated, and more modern. Parliamentary sovereignty needs to be better
rooted in the people.
One of the best ways to “take back
control” is to rid ourselves of a winner takes all politics, and an outdated
electoral system that systematically shuts people out. 68% of votes cast in
last June’s General Election were effectively wasted – they made no
contribution at all to the distribution of seats. No democratic renewal is
complete without proportional representation.
And let’s seriously explore ideas like Parliament
moving out of London to a city such as Leeds or Manchester – with the chance to
rebalance our economy as well as our politics. The Palace of Westminster, Gothic,
rat-infested, and crumbling into the Thames, has become a powerful symbol of
If we mean what we say about changing this
country for good, then why not make moving Parliament out of London the first
in a series of changes which turn the UK into a 21st century democracy? Let’s learn
from the inspiring way in which Citizens Assemblies have been used in Ireland,
for example, to facilitate informed debate on contentious topics and build deep
consensus and understanding.
And let’s ensure that democracy can no
longer be undermined by fake news and post-truth advertising by introducing new
ground-breaking digital democracy laws.
Though the Prime Minister would have us
believe otherwise, we have a wealth of choices facing us right now. Amidst all
the noise about the meaningful vote and parliamentary amendments, and whether
to extend or revoke Article 50, it’s easy to lose sight of the much bigger
choices we can make. The public want to take control - and we must start to
deliver that with a People’s Vote.
If we are to break the Brexit deadlock in
parliament, we the people must lead the way. When Theresa May rules
something out, it’s often a strong indication that it’s right around the
corner. On that basis, a People’s Vote on her Brexit deal might be getting
closer by the minute —
So let’s not squander this moment. Let’s
look ahead and build on the radical rejection of the status quo represented by
the referendum outcome. A People’s Vote must look, feel like and reflect our
wonderful country – diverse, raw, plural, noisy and, above all, run by and for
We’re told Brexit is the will of the
people – but it’s relevant to ask ourselves the will of which people? Over 70%
of voters aged 18-24 voted for Britain to remain, as did 62% of 25-34 year
olds. No wonder it’s been called an “unforgivable act of generational theft”. So
I say again, young people must play a leading role in the way forward - because
they will live the longest with the consequences.
And let’s make sure the voices of those
who once supported Leave but reject Theresa May’s deal are heard too.
power fairly and equally must be both one of our objectives and integral to the
way we operate ourselves. It means politicians
like me must spend time far more time listening than talking too. That’s why I
have pledged to actively seek out leave voters, listen to their views and
identify what unites us rather than what divides us.
Today I’d like to call on you to think
anew and act anew by doing the same.
Changing the course of history
So in conclusion, I simply want to say
that never in my lifetime has our future felt more uncertain. But when people
come together and reach for a bigger future, we’ve shown we can change the
course of history. We do that when we act with honesty, humility and courage. When
we look for, and believe in, the good in others. In our shared hopes and dreams.
I’d like to close by sharing some of
Seamus Heaney’s words, from the wall of the General Post Office in Dublin,
scene of the bloody 1916 Easter Rising. He has written:
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme
I believe this is one such moment, that
another vote is possible and that, together, we can make change happen.