By most demographics, I should have been a traditional Leave supporter.
I grew up on the outskirts of a Somerset town, having always been state educated, with my parents working hard manual jobs, who left school at 16. Just like the country, my home was split. My dad voted Leave, whilst my mum voted Remain.
Taunton is a town with structural inequality: the haves, and the have-nots. Our school system is split almost equally between the amount of state and independent secondary schools, and the POLAR system which universities use to determine which areas are disadvantaged sears a jagged cut through the centre. We even border the line to West Somerset, which – according to last year’s State of The Nation report – is the worst area for social mobility in Britain. Our people graft hard against a system that isn’t built in our favour.
So, it was no surprise that, when given the opportunity to give the government of the day a bloody nose, we took it. The majority of constituencies in the South West voted Leave, including my own. The opportunity – as was sold – to ensure much needed funding for public services, rebalance the economy and restore a sense pride, was a compelling one.
I didn’t buy it. I looked at the Brexit elite – Jacob Rees Mogg, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – and saw snake oil salesman. I didn’t think those wealthy, privileged men understood or particularly cared about the working classes of Taunton, or anywhere really. I was afraid that if we voted Leave, the very things we needed improving wouldn’t just not get better – they’d get worse. My life as a young person looked infinitely more promising inside the EU, than out. I was proud to campaign for Remain.
The problem though, was that I wasn’t allowed a vote. Like 1.4 million other young people, I have turned 18 in the two years since the 2016 referendum. But with Brexit yet to be decided – it could be a disastrous no deal, Theresa May’s bust Chequers or a blindfold Brexit – we haven’t had a say in our future. Just like usual, young people in areas like mine have no tangible connection to Westminster beyond our MP. Young people in Somerset are being thrown barriers to opportunity by austerity, and alongside our lottery education system, lack of affordable transport, and stagnating investment, our entire county’s youth service has just been slashed. With little voice and no one listening, it is clear that the future of Somerset’s young people is uncertain.
The South West of England has some of the most deprived areas in Europe within it. We also have one of the biggest net-beneficiaries for European Union funding in the United Kingdom. Despite this, we voted Leave in significant numbers. We felt left behind. An economy that only worked for a few, not the many – stagnating wages and under-served public services. It is clear that Westminster is complacent with our safe seats and ageing population, and so we are never their priority. Time and time again the South West have been let down by the government, especially on promises for electrified rail and affordable housing. In times of bad weather, parts of the key Dawlish line linking rural parts of Devon and Cornwall to the city – and opportunity – gets washed away into the sea.
Staying and engaging with the European Union doesn’t solve all of those problems. But it does help. Access to the world’s biggest single market, with all the economic benefits. The opportunity for young people to live, love, work and study abroad in 27 other countries, hassle free. Defence of workers, women and LGBTQ+ community. Opportunities for grants and funding, to prop up the monumental regional disparity. A chance for the South West to thrive as we should.
It’s become painfully clear that the gap between what was promised to the people of the South West and what is being delivered on their doorsteps, grows wider by the day. Brexit isn’t helping my community – it’s hurting.
So that’s why I’ll be marching on 20th October at the People’s Vote March for the Future, in London with thousands of other young people and students.
• Kira Millana Lewis is a supporter of the For our Future’s Sake (FFS) movement.