Our commitment to democracy must extend to Brexit, argues Andrew Catherall
Millennials getting involved in politics face a paradox. With the cost of living spiralling, rising tuition fees, and starting on the housing ladder now a daunting task, political apathy is not a viable option for my generation. At first glance, we might also seem the demographic with the best chance of influencing policy: the Tories are practically begging young people to join, and are even throwing the odd policy sop towards us, with both of these likely to intensify as the next election nears in a cynical bid to stop the haemorrhaging of their youth vote. Jeremy Corbyn and his Momentum backers speak constantly of how they place young people at the heart of their policy agenda, and have been rewarded with an increasingly youthful party membership. Corporations constantly pander to us on social media, and some such as the BBC have even gone as far as to introduce ‘reverse mentoring’ schemes in which senior managers are specially taught by junior employees how to communicate with people like me. However, despite all of this, when it comes to the most consequential issue facing the nation, we seem politically invisible.
Unlike the government, young people’s position on Brexit is unambiguous. The millions of 18 to 24-year-olds who went to the polls on 23 June were the most diverse voting bloc demographically, yet spoke with near-unity in saying we believe our future to be European: Remain won by a landslide 75 per cent, and when considering the votes’ exclusion of European Union residents and 16 to 17-year-olds this is almost certainly a considerable underestimate. There is thus an extraordinarily high level of political consensus among the young about the kind of Britain we want to live in: one that is open, outward-looking and embraces our friends on the continent in the mutually beneficial trading, foreign policy and security partnerships that the EU provides. This position is not just the preserve of those at the start of adulthood, with a majority of the under-55 demographic agreeing with us in the referendum that Britain’s best future is inside the EU.
This is where Labour should – and under many past leaders almost certainly would have – come into play. With a public increasingly exasperated by Theresa May and her clownish cabinet’s stunning incompetence in the negotiations, official forecasts predicting our already floundering economy will continue to slow, and a spike in racial and religious hate crime, anyone familiar with the proud history of our party would predict we would be leading the charge in demanding that the people be given the final say on whether they really want to sign off on this Tory coup d’état. Indeed, 58 per cent of students believe Corbyn backs Remain – presumably incapable of comprehending that a man who has spent his life fighting for social justice would contemplate whipping his colleagues into voting hand-in-hand with the Brexiteers.
What I find even harder to comprehend is that the leadership believes young people will accept their position. Polling commissioned by the new and rapidly growing youth-led group ‘Our Future, Our Choice!’, which campaigns for a referendum on the final Brexit deal, found that a Labour party which continues to be complicit in Brexit will lose 34 per cent points of support compared to a pro-EU Labour Party among under 40s who voted Remain. This huge drop in support, from 73 per cent to 39 per cent, seriously compromises our hopes of forming a government after the next election. OFOC also found that far from being apathetic, 40 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds would consider actively campaigning against Brexit. These results made headlines, but to me the truly surprising thing was that media commentators were surprised by them: far from being cult-like in their support for Corbyn, young peoples’ support for his leadership is contingent on him taking a pro-European stance.
A referendum on the final deal is not an ideological move. A recent Guardian/ICM poll found there to be a 16 point lead in favour of such a vote. Neither is it undemocratic – this is not a ‘second referendum’, but a first referendum on the terms of departure which were unknown on 23 June. Indeed, thanks to the sleuthing of Lord Adonis, we now know many prominent Brexiteers supported entirely analogous proposals prior to the referendum.
The only way to improve a democratic decision is to add more democracy, and thus the process begun by the people must also be finished by the people. Britain is at a crossroads, with two very different visions of our nation’s future on offer. One is backed by Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the other by the nation’s progressives – now is the time for Corbyn to pick a side.
Andrew Catherall is a member of Progress. He tweets at @AMCatherall
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