As Green Party leader, I’ve spent a lot of time touring the country and seeing its real political, social and economic diversity, indeed extreme divides, and that’s something that became very evident in the EU referendum result.
Areas that voted ‘Leave’ overwhelmingly suffered worst from more than three decades of Thatcherite economic and social policies.
Northumberland (54 per cent Leave) was in line with all of the North East with the exception of Newcastle (narrowly Remain). A couple of weeks after the referendum, I was there for a planning meeting of the county council in Morpeth, joining hundreds of protesters calling for an application for a new open cast coal mine on the beautiful Druridge Bay to be rejected.
Despite the public opposition, it went through the council’s process unopposed. The focus from the applicant was jobs. The fact that these were jobs to last for only seven years (on the applicant’s account), and which would cause massive damage to a natural treasure (and existing tourism jobs) didn’t register. There was a sense of desperation, clutching at straws.
The Leave percentage was the same in the Yorkshire borough of Kirklees, which I visited for even sadder reasons, two days after the killing of MP Jo Cox. Talking to locals, there was shock, of course – Birstall is a quiet, usually calm place – but also a sense that this was not just an isolated event, but a sign of a deeper, widespread malaise in a community struggling to cope with economic and social deprivation.
But there was also hope. I was moved by a card accompanying the huge pile of flowers at the impromptu memorial to Jo, from an 11-year-old. It said a thank you to the MP for making the world a better place, ending with a heartrending pledge: “I promise to try to make the world a better place for your children.”
We’ve got a generation of young people emerging across the country with a profound sense that their society is broken, and they are the ones who are going to have to fix it. Their older brothers and sisters, of course, voted overwhelmingly across the country to Remain in the EU, while their grandparents did not.
What we’ve got to find is a way to unite these generations, unite the communities that voted Leave, and those who voted Remain. To do that, the key word I believe has to be hope. Some parts of the country haven’t known it for decades.