If Remainers get another shot the key will be combining pragmatism with hopeby Jonathan Lis / June 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
The second anniversary of the doomed European Union referendum might seem like a good time to renounce referendums forever. The spring of 2016 was a festival of national gloom, thick with vitriol, bombast and naked dishonesty. Also, it is becoming increasingly apparent, with outside influence and outright cheating. On the eve of the poll, thousands of people will have hoped, demanded or seethed “never again.” So why would Remainers want another, how could we make it different, and perhaps most crucial of all—how could we win it?
The question of why is not as clear-cut as some pro-Europeans propose. There are many Remain voters who continue to despise Brexit but insist we should respect the vote, and others who feel that a people’s vote would fall victim to the same dirty tactics as last time—with the same result. On the other side, some fervent Remainers have insufficiently considered the question of how a great number of people would respond to a new referendum, let alone a Remain win. We must take these concerns seriously. Indeed, we must make them a focus of the entire campaign.
The principal fears are that Leave voters—particularly from poorer areas, many of whom voted for the first time in years—will definitively conclude that the system is rigged against them, and that the “establishment” will always win. Some high-profile Brexiteers allege that there could even be civil disobedience and unrest. Indeed, they may actively encourage it. Worryingly, there would be no obvious means to staunch the poison. We would never have any cast-iron proof that Brexit was a bad thing, and so an epochal myth of betrayal would be born without any clear way to dispel it. This could assume the hue of a “stab-in-the-back” myth, in which the fabled liberal multicultural elites supposedly stole the promise of freedom and sovereignty from the rooted and “authentic” middle England.
Alarm bells sound from both left and right. Tabloid newspapers denounce Remainers as “thwarting the will of the people,” as though 37 per cent of the electorate from one day two years ago must exclusively represent the nation’s dreams and aspirations for the rest of time. Certain voices on the left, meanwhile, now denounce pro-Remain organisations like Open Britain and Our Future Our Choice as being in the pocket of right-wingers and “centrists” more intent on blocking a future Corbyn government than a Tory Brexit. The truth—that these organisations are dominated by the left and centre-left, many of whom support Jeremy Corbyn on a range of issues beyond Brexit—escapes this narrative. In any event, the anti-Brexit movement must be cross-party because Britain is cross-party.
But if this is the battleground, this is where we battle. The questions themselves give the answers. We back a people’s vote to preserve and guarantee people’s economic security and public services; to fight for an inclusive, open and international future for this country and its communities; and for a “system” that puts people, not ideology first. Much of the campaign would inevitably retread the familiar ground of sovereignty, immigration, economics and monetary contributions, but such arguments must be centred around those pillars.
The first task, then, is to appeal to people who disagree. Many of the voters who feared mass migration were not racist but instead worried about their local hospitals, schools and jobs. The answer is not to dismiss migration as a necessary evil but to promote it as a necessary good that keeps our economy and public services afloat, and shows Britain as a welcoming and vibrant place to live. If necessary, a campaign can point to EU rules which do permit additional restrictions on free movement, and argue that the response to communities which may feel a negative impact from migration is to increase investment. With investment also comes jobs. Remainers must warn people about the loss of current jobs, but also remind them about the possibilities of new ones. This type of campaign would focus on a decentralisation of power away from London that increases people’s sense of power over their own lives. If you feel alienated or not listened to, it may not matter that the “elites” are based in London rather than Brussels.
The new Remain campaign has to be positive, realistic and targeted. It needs to focus on widespread concerns about austerity, schooling and the health service and demonstrate that it shares them. Indeed, it can learn something from the 2016 Leave campaign by leading with such concerns—unlike that campaign, doing so truthfully. Of course things will get ugly. Remainers must expose the lies of a cake-and-eat-it Brexit that promises each voter’s wildest dreams and delivers none. They must hammer home the opinions of experts and demonstrate the two-year evidence of a flatlining economy and plunging confidence. And certainly, they must demonstrate why third-country trade deals will be impossible or worthless, and either risk peace in Northern Ireland or split the UK’s internal market with a border in the Irish Sea.
Remainers must convince the centre-right that the “will of the people” is mutable, and show the ways in which Brexit means losing control, not winning it. That will also mean speaking hard, necessary truths. Britain is no longer an imperial power and never again will be. The “Global Britain” we need is the one we already have, and the one EU membership allows us to develop and shape. On the other side, we must convince the left that the EU is not a corporatist bogeyman of global capital. Brussels cannot and will not prevent a radical left-wing agenda, and indeed, an economy pounded by Brexit and shorn of investment will be unable to provide the public services, jobs and living standards that all British people deserve.
The last Remain campaign had the advantage of the government on its side. This one must summon and be led by the voices of those outside the London establishment. EU voices are also key, and ideally EU citizens will constitute part of the electorate, as they currently do in local elections. We also take in our hands the future of long-term British expats and 16 and 17-year-olds: parliament must enfranchise them.
Finally, the referendum must seek to curb outside influence. Alleged cheating or Russian interference on the Leave side may not have changed the outcome, but the authorities must do all they can to prevent anything like this. There is little we can do about dishonest campaigning or outright lies. Currently it is perfectly legal to spread any lie you wish in an election campaign provided you do not smear an opponent. That, one day, must change. Elections should be treated like advertisements: if you are forbidden to lie about the health benefits of a chocolate spread, you should not be permitted to lie about our children’s prosperity.
And so as we mark two years of this national calamity, and as many of us march on Saturday, we must combine hope with pragmatism. A repeated 2016 campaign will repeat the loss. We must convince people that we are on their side, and that Brexit will not only fail to solve their problems, but in fact make them far worse. There is a better future. We must fight for it while we can.