IN the wake of last weekend’s Break Up of Britain conference in Edinburgh, my thoughts are still buzzing with the lively discussions that unfolded throughout the day. It was a mix of academics, politicians, journalists, and engaged citizens coming together for a spirited exploration of the UK’s pressing democratic challenges.

The atmosphere in the room was electric, filled with the joy of shared engagement. Unlike the usual conferences lamenting the state of affairs, this was a collective brainstorming session that dared to go beyond merely identifying problems. It focused on tangible solutions and the way forward, injecting an infectious enthusiasm that broke away from the usual pessimism that tends to overshadow such events.

With the ongoing challenges of Brexit, the calls for independence growing louder, and questions arising about how the Union functions, more citizens are realising that the traditional structures of the UK may no longer adequately serve the diverse needs and identities within these islands.

Unfortunately, public debate often devolves into accusations instead of solutions. The conference aimed to cut through polarised rhetoric, fostering a respectful, multifaceted examination of the realities on the ground and potential avenues forward.

Various perspectives were shared across numerous panel sessions and keynote addresses, covering everything from democracy in the UK to Scotland’s place in Europe.

Attendees engaged thoughtfully in moderated Q&A sessions and informal discussions during coffee breaks, contributing to a refreshing debate devoid of partisan point-scoring or soundbites. The focus was on understanding the root causes of current tensions and exploring how different constitutional models might better accommodate various identities and priorities within these islands in an equitable, democratic manner.

However, in the days following the event, it is disheartening to see some online portrayals doubling down on simplistic caricatures rather than reflecting the nuanced nature of what was debated. Claims that speakers and attendees were hateful, anti-UK remoaners wanting to break up the country fail to acknowledge that the majority simply seek proper, open discussions to address these existential issues, not dismiss them outright.

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Let’s set the record straight: there was no hate at the conference.

No-one was throwing shade at citizens from different UK nations, not even those who voted for Brexit. What really stood out, and something I want to highlight, is the need for progressives to really understand why people voted for Brexit. If we want to make progress, we have got to understand, not just toss around accusations that shut down conversation.

Among progressives, I feel there is a growing sense of fatigue. The same old story of being shocked or angry at the rise of populist, racist, or homophobic figures is getting old. Asking, “Why do people keep voting for these folks?” is sounding more and more like a broken record.

Frances Foley from the Compass think tank hit the nail on the head, in particular when it comes to Brexit. It is counterproductive for progressives to paint all Brexit voters as far-right. Not only is it off the mark, but it plays into the hands of extremists who want to claim they are the only voice of Brexit voters.

If those on the left really want to make progress, they’d better dig into the various reasons – economic, social, and cultural – that led to the Brexit decision. Instead of just pointing fingers at Leave voters, let’s try to understand where they are coming from. That is the real key to having a meaningful conversation and moving forward.

In France, left-wing parties grapple with a familiar challenge, having lost two consecutive presidential elections and struggling to regain a political foothold. The current poll numbers are depressing, with about one-third of French citizens indicating openness to voting for far-right parties. Yet, succumbing to defeatism won’t lead us anywhere. It is essential to recognise, with humility, when mainstream progressive movements lose touch with their voters.

The priorities of these voters – economic stability, healthcare, education, security, and climate action – are often inadequately addressed by existing parties and policies. For too long, the left has played catch-up with the right and far-right, adopting questionable stances on immigration and laïcité.

This approach has alienated working-class voters, leading many to disengage from the political process altogether, viewing it as a farce. The remainder has shifted towards the far-right.

Fortunately, there are signs that some on the left are acknowledging these shortcomings. Noteworthy proposals were presented, like radical left MP François Ruffin’s advocacy for pragmatic, compassionate immigration reforms recognising the contributions of undocumented residents already integrated into French communities, or the French Socialist Party leader’s idea of a “republican capital”.

The “capital républicain” proposed by socialist leader Olivier Faure aims to address the persistent inequality in access to education and opportunities based on social background: the government usually spends more money on students in lengthy, prestigious studies than on those who drop out early and need support to find training and jobs.

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The idea is then to provide a universal endowment of €60,000 at birth, linked to an individual’s educational path and accessible throughout their life. The estimated annual cost of this initiative is €8 billion and Faure suggests funding it through a higher inheritance tax.

This proposal seeks to create a more equitable system, offering a commitment from public authorities that is not identical but equivalent, aiming to restore faith in the republican promise and address inequalities stemming from social background.

These examples showcase a refreshing willingness to seriously engage with real challenges in an innovative manner, rather than resorting to conservative identity politics that have estranged many voters.

Sometimes, it is crucial to shift the focus from why extreme opponents win to understanding why progressives lose. French economist Julia Cagé has aptly emphasised this point. In a recent post on social media about the election of Javier Milei as Argentina’s new president, she brought home two critical points:

“1. Our fight against opponents cannot be won by criticising their hairstyle, fashion sense, choice of words, or chainsaw. We must engage on the battlefield of ideas.

2. Argentinians aren’t idiots. Hence, we should strive to comprehend the factors influencing the vote in Argentina.”

She underscored the responsibility of the right and, notably, drew attention to the role of the Peronists. In a country grappling with a staggering 143% inflation and a 40% poverty rate, Argentinians voted for Milei but, more significantly, against left-wing Sergio Massa.

“Let’s move beyond saying, ‘Poor Argentinians, they’ve really screwed things up.’ Instead, let’s collectively explore policies to persuade the most disadvantaged citizens to trust the left in efficiently managing the economy and redistributing wealth.”

There is no alternative. Progressives need to face the reality of recent defeats and ask tough questions. It is time to reflect, get uncomfortable, and come up with new ideas. Sticking to old narratives won’t cut it. Let’s acknowledge the disconnect with voters, understand their concerns, and bring in fresh, innovative approaches based on real understanding and dynamic solutions.