By Adam George
Last week Gair Rhydd spoke with the MP for Cardiff Central, Jo Stevens, in an exclusive interview. The former shadow Welsh secretary discussed Brexit, its implications for Wales and also the dangers of the rise in populist politics we are seeing worldwide.
Brexit has taken over British politics in the past twelve months and it appears that the issue isn’t going to be disappearing anytime soon. In the lead up to last June’s referendum, Ms Stevens campaigned very passionately for Britain to remain within the European Union. When asked if she believed that the public had made a mistake in voting to leave, Stevens admitted that she could “understand why people did vote to leave” but she still stands by her belief that leaving the EU is a “terrible mistake”.
The Cardiff Central MP described the referendum campaign as “the worst campaign that I have ever been involved with.” She conceded that both sides were at fault for the poor level of campaigning, with neither camp offering any clear information which led to public disengagement. Ms Stevens believes that “people didn’t have trustworthy information on which to base their decision.”
When it comes to the Leave campaign, Stevens certainly pulls no punches. She is in no doubt that they “absolutely misled the public”, branding the infamous red bus, which pledged £350 million a week to the NHS if we were to leave the European Union, a “total lie”. In the months following the referendum, leaders of the Vote Leave campaign backtracked on this promise and some even voted against it in the Houses of Parliament. This appalled Ms Stevens who described politicians such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove as being disingenuous.
Ms Stevens believes that it is impossible to pinpoint one aspect that caused the referendum result and claims that it was down to “a combination of factors.” She told us that she believes “decades of bile and falsehoods about what the EU does seeped into public consciousness over the years”, adding that it was “impossible to overturn this in a campaign lasting only a few months.” Stevens is also of the belief that people voted in protest because they feel “disengaged and disconnected” with politics at the moment.
In the wake of the referendum result, a petition calling for a second referendum was signed by 4.1 million people. This was the most signed Government petition since the process was introduced in 2011. The Conservative Government rejected the petition, but this has not stopped some politicians demanding a another vote take place. Stevens commented that she “isn’t a big fan of referendums”, but “would like to see any deal that is negotiated put to the public.”
Wales voted to leave the EU, 52.5 per cent to 47.5 per cent. This rejection occurred despite Wales being a net beneficiary of EU funding, with the country receiving over £4 billion since the turn of the millennium. This obviously shocked a lot of people and Stevens tells us that the result left her “disappointed, surprised and upset”.
“It is hard to reconcile the fact that we are net beneficiaries, and in some of our most deprived areas that have benefited the most from Objective One funding people voted to leave.”
The MP for Cardiff Central describes herself as an “ardent European” but admits that the Welsh vote makes it very hard for Welsh Labour MPs to contest Brexit. She believes that the Welsh decision is a result of “misunderstanding and misinformation about what the EU has done for the country”, blaming “politicians and some of the media” for not providing accurate details about the benefits of EU membership.
In 2015, 67% of Welsh goods exports went to EU member countries and Theresa May has made it very clear that Britain will be leaving the Single Market. Stevens is extremely worried about the impact that this is going to have upon the Welsh economy.
“If you look at what little manufacturing industry we have left, companies like Airbus, they are almost certain to relocate after Brexit. Airbus provides highly-skilled, well-paid jobs, with a massive supply chain that depends on that site. I’m certain that it will go.”
Since the referendum there have been calls for the Government to clarify whether or not it will be replacing the EU funding that Wales is set to lose. Welsh Secretary, Alun Cairns, has refused to promise an increase in Westminster funding but has claimed that “Wales will get its fair share.” Stevens is sceptical: “They won’t do it” she told us, adding “That is why you will never see a Tory Government in the Welsh Assembly. The Tories are simply not good for Wales.”
When it came to Parliament voting to trigger Article 50, Jeremy Corbyn imposed a three-line whip on Labour MPs to back the Bill. This led to Ms Stevens resigning from her post as shadow Welsh secretary so that she could vote against her party whip. She admitted that this was a very difficult decision for her to make and a decision that she certainly didn’t take lightly.
“I knew in my heart that I was always going to vote against Article 50, but I wanted to see what we had managed to get out of the Government at the point of the vote. Unfortunately, we were unable to get anything of real substance.”
Stevens told us that as soon as she had lost the argument in shadow cabinet about there being a free vote, she knew that she had to resign and she was “very sad to leave.”
The city of Cardiff did actually vote quite convincingly to remain and Ms Stevens believes that she would be doing her constituents a disservice if she did back Article 50.
“I voted to remain and my constituency voted to remain. It was important for me to be able to tell my constituents that I have respected their vote and stuck to my principles.”
Brexit was not the only vote against the so called Establishment that we witnessed last year. Across the pond, the right-wing Donald Trump was elected President and many believe that these two events are the result of an increasing disillusionment with mainstream politics. Stevens admits that this is definitely a cause for concern.
“The two events [Brexit and Trump’s election] together has caused lots of people in and around Cardiff to feel apprehensive.
“I have never seen a situation like this. The rise of right-wing populism has normalised the underlying racism that we thought had gone away
“It seems like it is perfectly acceptable for people to treat others in ways that are discriminatory and in some cases criminal. It’s really frightening.”
When asked how best to confront this Stevens suggested that MPs and those in power should focus upon listening to the electorate.
“Politics for me is about persuading and influencing. I think it is important to understand people’s concerns and then win them to a different point of view through reasoned discussion and compromise.
Stevens is aware that this obviously takes time and effort, but ended the interview by stating that “It’s worth it because if we don’t the consequences are too horrible to think about.”