Trump-Brexit challenge to globalisation

  • By working together, we have a much better chance of improving society and this world than we do acting alone or by "othering” people.

  • YouGov-Cambridge Conference
    Cambridge University, Bene't Street, Cambridge

    Chuka Umunna MP

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Thank you so much for inviting me to speak.

If you think back two years ago, November 2014, we had just avoided catastrophe in Scotland with the possible break up of the United Kingdom averted. I had a good chance of becoming the next Business Secretary under Prime Minister Miliband in the coming year, with Britain poised to assume the Presidency of the EU the year after.

Before we would have assumed in all probability President-elect Hillary Clinton – fresh from her victory over the Republican nominee Jeb Bush – would become the first female President of the United States. The new Tory opposition leader Boris Johnson, if he was lucky, might have got an invite to the inauguration if he behaved himself.

Fast forward two years, the Tories have won an election with the first majority in over 20 years, they held a referendum the year after which led to the UK voting to leave the EU, Prime Minister Theresa May now does PMQs every week against twice elected Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, and Republican nominee Donald Trump has beaten Clinton after running the most racist, misogynistic and islamophobic Presidential campaign in a generation. So no wonder you are all here. God knows we need a bit of group therapy!

Progressives all around the world are still coming to terms with this. In the UK the election of Trump followed the Brexit vote and the Labour Party’s defeat at the General Election last year – it seems like the bad news just keeps flowing. But I don’t think disillusion and despair are the way to respond, or junking our values and beliefs are the answer – indeed, never have they been more important.

It may not be fashionable to say it but I still believe that by the strength of our common endeavour, working together, we have a much better chance of improving society and this world than we do acting alone or by “othering” people. The question is how to make these values and beliefs relevant to those who – like us – believe the system is broken, those who don’t think it delivers enough for those who work hard and play by the rules, and those who want to give the next generation in our families the best start in life.

People tell us discontent with globalisation and its failure to distribute wealth fairly in advanced economies is the driver of Brexit and Trump, as if they are telling us something new, something we did not already know. Ed Miliband and I have just spent the last five years giving speeches about the challenges globalisation throws up and the need for a better and more responsible economic system to address this.

Interestingly, the same people who now blame a “liberal elite” for all the downsides of this globalisation were the very same people who were its biggest champions – they are the same people who attacked Ed for his so called predator/producer 2011 Labour Party Conference speech where he started to identify these problems and argued for radical change, they are the same people who lambasted us for being anti business for daring to suggest a modicum of reform.

In fact, the biggest absurdity over the past few days has been watching these same politicians and commentators (I include the Prime Minister in this) who have been members of the political and media elite since I was at school – penning articles and giving speeches – finger pointing at an “establishment” they have been part of for as long as I can remember. To borrow Mark Carney’s words, what we are witnessing is “a massive blame deflection exercise.”

Equally absurd are the claims by people in my party who say that Labour going into the last General Election was in hock to some neo liberal, economic consensus – looking back, it is even more ridiculous given they now parrot so many of the policies we advanced in the May 2015 manifesto. A national industrial strategy, a national investment bank, regional banks, the promotion of different models of ownership, increasing investment in R&D and innovation – which John McDonnell announced at our conference this year are re-announcements of existing policy which we had unveiled at previous party conferences. By the way, our fiscal rules already allowed for greater borrowing for investment purposes.

My point is that engaging in some blame game is not going to lift mainstream political parties out of the hole we are in. So here follow some thoughts on how, instead, we should proceed.

We must be careful not to over interpret the result of these ballots. The winner takes all nature of the US Presidential Election can distort the reality of the support for the successful candidate. Although Trump clearly won the election with a majority in the Electoral College, he lost the popular vote. Hillary Clinton has now got roughly more than a million votes than Trump, with her margin exceeding that of JFK and Nixon. Likewise Leave did not win by a landslide with 48% voting to Remain in June.

Much has been written about the parallels between those who voted for Trump and those who voted for Brexit, with a suggestion that the common thread is a support base of mostly male, blue collar workers in former industrial communities voting for Trump and Brexit. Yes, the globalisation of markets, technology and the movement of people has helped lift millions out of poverty in and from third world and emerging economies but our first priority is people living in this country and, on that measure, there is absolutely no doubt the system has failed to deliver for nearly enough people, leaving people left out and disillusioned with the political process.

However it would be a mistake for the Labour Party to respond to this by now focusing solely on a political message and set of policies aimed at this group of people, at the expense of other groups. Our task is to craft a political offer and a set of policies that can appeal to our existing base of support AND this group. Afterall, an area like Lambeth which recorded the highest Remain vote, and an area like Boston – where I spent time over the summer – recording the highest Leave vote but share the same challenges, have all been let down, and want the same things. Wages have stagnated, rents and house prices have increased, public services are under immense pressure in Lambeth too. My constituents want to know that if you work hard and play by the rules, your family will see the rewards regardless of your background.

Labour’s problem according to YouGov and their research is that we are not seen as a party that speaks for all working people. In order to build a voting coalition that can deliver a Labour Government, the best way to affect change in Britain, we must address this.

As with the Brexit result, the loss of the U.S. Democrats has been decades in the making. As I have long argued, too often progressive politicians have talked about globalisation as if it is some unstoppable force and been far too complacent about its negative affects. For example, implicit in the arguments of the globalists is that people should simply move to where the new industries are based and abandon their roots and their communities – this is wrong, looks at the world purely through the lens of economics and disregards people’s association with family, community, place and country.

Also, clearly the movement of people across the globe has had an impact on people’s local communities and they are anxious about it – I think it is possible to address the effects of this without pandering to a prejudicial agenda or crude nationalistic sentiment, not least because so many people who have come here over the decades like my father want to integrate and share in what it is to be British. In a changing world if we lose our connection and sense of pride in who we are and where we come from, we cease to have an identity.

It is true, people’s discontent with the status quo has helped drive the desire for change and it is incredibly difficult to represent change if you put up a candidate who is a member of one of two families – the Bushes and the Clintons – who have been running the U.S. for the last four decades. The lesson for the Labour Party is not to incessantly dump on the records of the last Labour governments – which were of their time and transformed our country – but to acknowledge that the next one will need to look and feel very different both to the Labour Governments of the 1970s and to New Labour, if we are to have any hope of being the change people want to see. I was doing my A Levels when we last entered office but there is no way today’s sixth formers will be using the same text books because the world has changed so much. The text of our next manifesto will need to be very different to our previous ones.

Then there has been a lot of talk of the triumph of emotion over fact and the notion of us living in a post truth world. Again, this is nothing new, though the degree to which we see it happening, in a very unashamed way – I think of that man of the people Michael Gove’s attack on the experts – is unprecedented. The American Prefessors George Lakoff in 2004 and Drew Westen in 2008 wrote books “Don’t think of an elephant” and the “Political Brain” respectively in which they told us just how important deploying emotion and being clear on your values is to progressive and centre left politicians. To win again, we must return to the lessons they and others teach us in order to campaign effectively. “Britain is stronger, better off and safer in Europe” and “Stronger together” were simply no match for “Take Back Control” and “Make America great again.”

Lastly, I think we have to be very careful in extrapolating conclusions about the racial dimension of the U.S. result into a UK setting – a country with a very different history of diversity and immigration. Whereas the U.S. continues to struggle with its history of slavery (I note the ecstatic welcome of Trump’s victory by KKK head David Duke), the UK has a different history where we welcomed immigrants from the Commonwealth from the late 1940s and then had a further wave of immigration from the mid-noughties from mainly Eastern European countries. The two histories are very different so we have to be careful about drawing conclusions on race in the UK from all of this.

Finally, if the UK Labour Party is to provide an answer to these questions, it must rediscover its purpose. I am very clear, Labour is primarily the party of working people and it exists to ensure that whatever your background and whatever your start in life, if you work hard and play by the rules you should have the opportunity to do well and get on, with a good level of security. I still believe that by the strength of our common endeavour we have a much better chance of doing this together than we do alone. But it is hard to do this when, at a time of great change, we are seemingly so divided – a “United” Kingdom in name only. So we must be the nation builders and unite everyone around this common goal looking forward to the future.