Where is our tough on the causes of Brexit package?

I’m somewhat amazed that the slogan ‘Tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit’ hasn’t caught on over recent months. It should have done, and we Lib Dems should have appropriated it.

It was a brilliant slogan when deployed by Tony Blair in the early 1990s. Labour was always known as a party that cared about people whose difficult starts in life led to them committing crime, but it was never going to be elected to government unless it showed that it cared about the damage crime inflicts on victims. With one three-second soundbite, Blair dealt with both sides of the issue.

We have rightly been tough on Brexit, and we’re right to say it’s not the solution to the problems many who voted for it hoped for. But even if our ‘exit from Brexit’ campaign is successful, what kind of country is it going to leave us with? We’ll sigh with relief that the Brexit nightmare is over, and wake up to a country that’s even more angry and divided than it is already.

There’s growing evidence that austerity – in which we had a part as coalition partners 2010-15 – was a leading contributor to people’s anger with the EU. OK, so we know the EU wasn’t to blame for most of the ills, but when the industries you’ve grown up with die out, when automation threatens thousands of jobs, when the livelihoods of fishing villages are trashed seemingly by a ‘Common Fisheries Policy’, and when the gap between rich and poor seems to be widening with those dealing in finance and asset trading seen to be doing very well thank you, it’s little wonder people take it out on Britain’s membership of the EU.

That’s why we as a party need to develop a package of policies that will act as a reward or dividend for abandoning Brexit. We can call it our ‘Tough on the causes of Brexit’ policy if we want, but it has to make clear that we have heard the angst and anguish that led to the Brexit vote, and we’re not simply saying patronisingly that it was all a nightmare based on a misreading of the facts.

What is in that package of policies can be worked out, but it has to include a significant redistribution of wealth. We have form on this with the banking levy that Vince introduced while in coalition, but it has to be bigger and trumpeted more loudly. We need to make it clear that the price of the rich in the south-east getting richer is that money is creamed off their affluence to create several pools of money to reinvigorate the welfare system so the safety net that is supposed to catch those falling through the automation hole is re-established.

We also need to plough lots more money into local government. It’s shameful that George Osborne and Philip Hammond were able to savage the very councils that do so much of the rescue work, simply because ‘local government’ never led to difficult headlines following budget speeches. Councils are the backstop and the bedrock, and the amount of charitable foundations that are being asked to make up the shortfall from former council funding is shocking.

Many of the elements for a ‘Tough on the causes of Brexit’ package are already in our party policy portfolio. But they must be emboldened and rebranded, so we make it clear that our opposition to Brexit comes hand-in-glove with a recognition that people voted for Brexit because of genuine fears that we are addressing. If we don’t do this, someone else with the initials JC certainly will.

* Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate. He writes on cross-party cooperation and in 2021 was the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.

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  • Rebecca Taylor 13th Sep '18 - 8:30pm
  • Sue Sutherland 13th Sep '18 - 8:38pm

    Thank you Chris, my thoughts exactly. The Demand Better pages on the website are good but first of all we need to get people interested in us enough to go to the website.

  • Great slogan. Shame about the small print. That says “You Leavers, who thought Brexit would solve your problems, have got it all wrong. What you need is the abolition of austerity, and more money for our friends in local government. Oh, and according to Jeremy, you also need more socialism, but according to us, what you need is more Lib Dems. That’s what you want, because it’s what we want. Just learn that, will you!”

    Instead, the small print has to say “We’re listening. Whatever we think about immigration, we know most of you hate it, and many of you aren’t racist. You don’t like to see business importing cheap labour, you don’t see why Britain needs a net inflow of people, you don’t think there is much respect for the British working class, you don’t want educated southerners telling you what’s right all the time. So when we can rationally restrict immigration and fill jobs by taking Britons off the dole queue, we’ll do that. We’ll find ways to transfer jobs out to the regions. Yes, we’ll also row back on austerity, but we won’t kid ourselves that that’s the only thing you want.

    You’ve got to forget this Brexit fantasy, it just won’t work. But we will – genuinely – work to tackle the frustrations which led you to vote Leave.”

  • Peter Martin 14th Sep '18 - 8:43am

    @ Chris,

    “It was a brilliant slogan when deployed by Tony Blair in the early 1990s”

    Yes it was. And it’s so well remembered that you haven’t felt the need to actually quote it in your article. So just for those who might have been too young to remember it, 21 years ago. Here it is in its original form:

    ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’

    All you’ve done is to equate Brexit with Crime!

    Now, if you look at any pro-Remain social media page you’ll see Remainers making accusations of lack of intelligence, racism, little englanderism, spitefulness (against those who’ve done better than them) and all the rest of it which I’m sure you’ll have heard.

    So you’re thinking it might be a good idea to add criminality to the list?

  • The causes of Brexit were mass uncontrolled migration which none of the parties including our own did not even acknowledge or accept were lowering living standards for low to middle income citizens. I am afraid you reap what you sow.

  • The cause Brexit was the EU and signing up for it in the first place. It’s a political project that few wanted and wasn’t needed which is why the only way to drum up support in the referendum was to invoke the spectre of a financial Armageddon. Sadly, we’re stuck with trying to extract ourselves from it.

  • Here we go again lets blame immigration. Engage your brain libDemer why is immigration so high, are they coming to claim benefits (the statistics say not), are they are coming because there skills are needed, err yes and why are their skills needed because we don’t train our own people. But, but you cry the unskilled labour is pulling down the wages of the natives, again you have misunderstood the problem the reason cheap labour is required is because we don’t invest in technology and we don’t intend too. You may think Brexit has put a stop to mass immigration but the brave Brexiteer leadership has started to say

    Liam Fox said that while the target was in place “at the moment”, the government needed to “look” at how it shaped its immigration policy in the future.

    The International Trade Secretary has previously also made clear his concerns about the inclusion of students in the net migration target.

    Liam Fox said that while the target was in place “at the moment”, the government needed to “look” at how it shaped its immigration policy in the future.

    The International Trade Secretary has previously also made clear his concerns about the inclusion of students in the net migration target.


    Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg hit out at Theresa May’s annual immigration target

    The Conservative backbencher said the target – which Theresa May has consistently championed since it was introduced in 2010 – was “plucked out of the air”.

    He also hit out at current rules preventing doctors from coming to Britain, despite staff shortages in the NHS.


    They have no intention of limiting immigration because if they did they’d have to invest in training (O that costs to much) and invest in productivity improvements (that costs to much as well). You need to address the issues of why we need the level of immigration we have been subject too before crying stop it. Your solution is cut of a leg to cure an ingrowing toenail.

  • But Glenn you said not much will change. Are you starting to see the cost? Well the cost will get much higher. Alas you cry if only someone had told me, well you have been constantly so crying ” Sadly, we’re stuck with trying to extract ourselves from it.” doesn’t cut it. The cost will rise and rise and NO you ain’t getting your own personal Brexit and to be honest never where. You alas are going to be a disappointed Brexiteer, the positive in that is you will have lots of company.

  • Frankie,
    I don’t think much will change, but extracting Britain from it is still a task that wouldn’t have been necessary without the John Major government’s mistake.
    I don’t have a personal Brexit any more than pro EU people like yourself have a personal EU or elections mean you get a personal government. That is the nature of politics and voting.

  • Terrific though I’d leave out the last two words; it makes sense without them. It shows we understand why people voted for it. We need to put resources into those communities and families that are suffering because of globalisation like former manufacturing towns, coastal resorts and isolated places. It is up to national governments to protect those who feel abandoned by the forces of technology, free trade and automation.

  • always someone else fault isn’t it Glenn, alas for you i fear our failings going forward will be placed at the door of the Brexiteers. Never nice when the boot is on the other foot is it.

  • Peter Martin 14th Sep '18 - 2:35pm

    @ Chris,

    Although I’ve used the ‘resistance to austerity’ argument myself, and it is a factor, I do wonder if it’s overemphasised. Just thinking of people of my own personal acquaintance I’m not sure if any of them voted leave because of economic austerity. Most leavers that I know are doing quite well if truth be told.

    Neither are they particularly right wing or racist. If I ask them they’ll mention the lack of democracy in the EU. They are all particularly attached to the idea that laws should be made in Westminster and not Brussels. Even if they laws are exactly the same! I think this is a common factor.

    We therefore have to also address the question of National identity. The author of this blog makes the point that Brexit is about “Englishness”. I would say he’s on the right track but I’d say Britishness rather than Englishness. One of the people I’m thinking of is Scottish and I would never dare to call him English!


  • David Allen 14th Sep '18 - 4:28pm


    I’m appalled by Brexit, and I think we need to be honest about the causes of Brexit. Resentment of immigration, whether justified or not, was the main cause of Brexit. Showing that we don’t have a complete tin ear on that issue might have been enough to prevent Brexit. It still might.

    As Libdemer indicates, the biggest single mistake was to allow 500,000 Polish migrants to come within the short space of a single year. Most EU countries phased in free movement for Poles, as the EU allowed them to do, but Britain didn’t think it mattered. It did matter.

    You and I no doubt have no problems with 500,000 Poles arriving, bringing interesting new food shops and providing better plumbing for the better off. However, what are we to tell those people who have lost their own plumbing jobs, or who are scared of doing so, and who preferred the old chip shop to the Polski Sklep that replaced it? If we tell them that they are stick-in-the-mud Little Englanders, or closet racists, will they vote for us? Of course not. They’ll vote for Brexit. That’s why we’ve got Brexit. How about being tough on the causes of Brexit?

  • Peter
    The thing about the remain camp is that they tend to get it the wrong way round. Their contention is that the EU is a popular project that a few dissenters voted against for various reasons, when it’s essentially an unwanted project that a lot people reluctantly voted for because we were already tied to it.

  • Frankie,

    I agree with your last post. So the challenge is to find honest, reasonable things to say about immigration which don’t ignore the benefits it brings, don’t ignore the downsides either, don’t sound forced, could genuinely be implemented to our (net) benefit, and which will convince Leave voters that we’re not ignoring what they want.

    As you say, we can certainly attack the hypocrisy of Leave campaigners. Farage has explicitly campaigned for less cheapish Eastern EU labour and more, even cheaper, labour from countries such as Bangladesh. Farage admitted, the day after the poll, that leaving the EU would not reduce immigration. The Leave campaigners lied to their “left behind” voters, because they just think of them as useful idiots who can be fooled into helping the “bad boys” make money out of Brexit!

    However, that line won’t be enough to cut it, on its own. It implies that both sides aren’t willing or able to do much about the high rate of net immigration, and of course, to an extent that is true.

    Perhaps the best we can do is to try to demonstrate that when we can reasonably act to reduce immigration, we will. Let’s not do it via May’s hostile environment. But let’s look for economic levers to reduce demand for cheap agency labour recruiting from overseas. Let’s instead encourage employers to take indigenous labour from the Jobcentre.

    We should not simply support globalisation. The competition for UK jobs, frankly, is between the strongest people from the nations which supply immigrants, versus the weakest people from the indigenous community. Employers gain by recruiting cheaper, better labour from abroad, while unemployment amongst the indigenous community stays high or grows higher, and the State is forced to support the unemployed through an increasing benefits bill.

    The State should not simply pander to what suits employers, if the social consequences are bad. The State should help people off unemployment benefits – not by making life on benefits harsher, but by helping to get them into jobs. That means, amongst other things, taking action to cut the high level of net immigration as and when that can be done.

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