Brexit has exposed deep rifts throughout the UK and now we must learn to heal

  • People from different generations, ethnicities and regions expressed very different views about our country’s future.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

Here we are, two months on from the Vote Leave campaign’s victory in the European referendum , the consequences of which have yet to unfold.

The Prime Minister Theresa May says “Brexit means Brexit ” but no one is any the wiser what that means.

The referendum divided the country in new ways, and exposed deep rifts in our nation’s social fabric.

People from different generations, ethnicities and regions expressed very different views about our country’s future.

We must now address those divides because failing to do so risks compromising the social and political fabric of our nation in the years ahead, for our children and grandchildren.

The community I represent in Streatham, South London, is one of the most diverse places in the UK – it’s where I, the child of a Nigerian father and English/Irish mother, grew up.

I’m proud of my heritage and background. Yet I worry that, as we’ve become more diverse as a nation, we’re coming to know each another less – and the referendum result has only reaffirmed my view.

That’s why, as an MP who represents the area that voted most strongly to remain in the EU , I wanted to visit the area which voted in the greatest numbers to leave – Boston in Lincolnshire.

I went with no preconceptions, but an open mind and desire to listen, talk and learn from the community there.

As I said during the EU referendum campaign, immigration does pose challenges to our communities including my own.

But, we’ve seen our national conversation on immigration become hopelessly polarized: a shouting match between one group of voices claiming Britain is full and it’s time to pull up the drawbridge and shut our borders; and another insisting there’s no problem at all, and immigration has purely been a positive force for good.

There’s no doubt the desire to reaffirm our nation’s sovereignty played a role in the referendum, but Bostonians cast their ballots in response to the rapid, high level of immigration which has transformed their town – in some ways for the better and others not.

Between 2004 and 2014 the immigrant population increased by 460%, coming principally from Eastern Europe.

One person said to me it was nice to see so many shops open for business on the high street, with new Eastern European delis and supermarkets where there were formerly just empty shop units.

However, in the same conversation someone said their new neighbour couldn’t speak English and so they had to wait for that neighbour’s children to come home from school to translate.

Another person said the rapid increase in labour has depressed wages and led to undercutting in the job market – median weekly earnings for full-time employees living in Boston local authority were £410 in April 2015, compared to £470 for Lincolnshire as a whole, and £530 for the UK.

The population growth has led to higher demand for properties, rising rents and exploitation in the private rental sector.

Extreme cases of this have seen immigrant workers only able to access their homes for a set number of hours each day, almost living on a shift basis with someone else sleeping in the same bed while they are away.

My overall impression was that Boston, and many other towns across the country, have been expected to deal with too much demographic and cultural change in too short a space of time without proper support.

I do not believe these issues are the fault of the immigrants living here. It is the fault of governments for not providing the right resources and failing to sufficiently think about how we integrate new arrivals.

So we need an integration strategy which will work for both Boston and Streatham, fostering community ties, bonds of trust and relationships in diverse communities.

These are particularly tough questions for us in the Labour Party. It’s striking that many of the people in communities like Boston would once have been Labour voters (we came within a whisker of winning Boston & Skegness in 1997 and 2001).

But the leadership of the Labour Party at the moment is comprehensively failing to engage with this issue – an issue which drove so many Labour voters to opt to leave the EU, taking the opposite view to the party on the one issue it has been fairly united on.

All of us agree zero-hours contracts need to be abolished, the railways need to be brought back into public ownership, and that we reject Tory austerity.

But, we need to work out how to deal with more tricky wider issues which people are concerned about.

We need to invest more in communities like Boston. In housing, in skills and English language programmes.

We must recognise immigration has changed how people feel about their communities.

It is not just an economic issue. Many of the people I spoke to in Boston expressed feelings of loss about the erosion of neighbourhood ties and a sense that they weren’t sure if they belonged in their communities anymore.

Finally, in the wake of Brexit, we need to design an immigration system with integration at its heart which manages migration flows to protect the cohesion of our communities.

It’s not good enough for us, as politicians, to ignore these issues as too hard or toxic.

It is only through open discussion like this that we can hope to detoxify them.

The alternative is an increasingly divided country, where resentment and misunderstanding is exploited by the likes of likes of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, who are willing to use fear and hate for their own agenda.