Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The politicians got it wrong – not the people

Due to the role reversal of the People’s Vote campaign – Brexiteers in charge, Remainers against the government – a new poll is all to play for, argues Matthew Doyle

Making the case for a new referendum on Europe may seem like a fool’s errand in the current political climate with populism on the march and Brexit now looking like the canary in the coalmine for Donald Trump, and worse.

The arguments against another vote are being made across the political spectrum, most vociferously by those who having got the result they want in June 2016 are determined the question not be reopened.

There are those on the left – some sincerely, more cynically – that argue against another vote because it will be divisive and that the real threat is not Brexit but an emboldened right.

As ever, much of this is analysis is based on looking at the last campaign not the nature of the next one. The ‘Remain’ campaign would once again be the pro-institution side in an age of anti-institution feeling – a reason many feel Remain lost the last time.

It is certainly true that having David Cameron as the front of the campaign did not help to motivate traditional Labour voters to turn out, but the fact that he ended up being the dominant message carrier was more Labour’s fault that his.

Additionally, the fact that so much of the economic argument centred around big business and the banks, whether they would stay or go, did not help with communities who already felt forgotten by London; those voters were hardly going to lose any sleep about whether a few bankers had to move to Frankfurt or Dublin.

None of this means an argument for a People’s Vote cannot be made now, so long as some obvious traps are avoided and the focus is not just on Brexit – but the causes of Brexit too.

As with all things, the question is cui bono? In this case, there can be no doubt. The benefit of the United Kingdom keeping as close as possible a relationship Europe would be felt in every class and every community across the country.

Does this mean we are simply saying ‘the public got it wrong’ last time? No, and the Remain side does have to recognise that despite the ‘Leave’ campaign’s lies around Turkish accession or NHS funding, and external Russian interventions online, there were voters who went into that polling both to send a message and knowing it might make them worse off.

The problem comes, for either side, when trying to assert categorically what that message was. Those on the Leave side who say people ‘clearly voted for …’ cannot be taken seriously as there were clearly various motivations in why people voted, as all the polling and anecdotal evidence shows.

This is partly a symptom of the way in which the referendum was run and reported. The government was making the case for Remain and the scrutiny was on their position. This meant the advocates of change, of leaving, were not accountable in the same way – a problem that was exacerbated by the different voices and groups speaking for Leave, who had no ideological or organisational coherence.

There was also a problem with the coverage of the vote and the media coverage of the debate. As the BBC has admitted on climate change, a crude pursuit of balance is a disservice to the viewer or listener. Coverage in the referendum where you had 200 experienced trade negotiators on the one hand, ‘balanced out’ by Nigel Farage saying it would all be fine.

And the then United Kingdom Independence party leader was not even part of the official Vote Leave campaign, he was just one of many voices making random assertions about what the future could be.

Across these various spokespeople for the Leave side, there was no definitive vision of what leaving meant. It was suggested we would have a future the same as Switzerland, South Korea, Canada, or Norway depending on what day of the week it was.

Contrast this with the Scottish referendum where the case for change was being made by the Scottish government. Independence had to be set out in a detailed document that covered everything – down to Scotland’s participation in Eurovision.

Of course there were still plenty of political arguments, but they were around a specific plan. Voters in the European question are still waiting to get that same level of clarity. The referendum was based on promises, a People’s Vote will be based on facts.

The ‘take back control’ slogan was a great example of the blank canvass slogan on to which voters could project whatever they wanted. Taking back control could mean anything from simply wanting to withdraw from the political institutions through to kicking out foreigners, just as ‘Make America Great Again’ was everything from reviving American manufacturing through to building a wall with Mexico.

One thing that cannot be denied is that immigration and freedom of movement was a key factor in how people voted. Not just in the white working class communities where it is assumed that immigration was a motivation, but also among the Asian community where there was a particularly disingenuous campaign run by the likes of Tory minister Priti Patel arguing that fewer Europeans would mean more members of their families being able to come to the UK.

For any People’s Vote campaign to be won, the public will need to be reassured that the issues other than the simple fact of European Union membership – such as disenchantment with the political class, a feeling of being left behind and concerns about change and globalisation more generally – will still be addressed.

I do not disagree with Gloria De Piero’s argument, on page 22, that we need to be doing more on the ‘causes of Brexit’ part of the argument, and there is an opportunity here that the Labour leadership has failed to capitalise on.

But we also have to be clear with people that our ability to tackle any of these issues, even if Labour were to win a post-Brexit general election, would be seriously hampered – to put it mildly – by the economic impact of us having left.

There is also a reality that makes going back to the public more likely: the fact that the current parliamentary arithmetic means the odds of any deal passing are low.

The government are trying to pre-empt this scenario by saying that if you vote down Theresa May’s deal, you are therefore supporting a so‑called ‘no deal’ Brexit. But we know this is not true. Parliament will never vote for a no deal Brexit.

What all of this also means is that if there is another vote then the Remain option has to be on the ballot paper – effectively reversing the June 2016 vote.

The idea that the referendum would simply be on ‘the terms of the deal’ – as currently being advocated by the Unite the Union leadership – is bizarre as Labour voters would be being asked to vote on a deal that Labour MPs had already rejected.

And this is another way in which ‘the establishment’ will be different this time. The pro-Brexit side are the establishment now rather than the anti-Brexit side – and the campaign will be against the government’s deal rather than in support of it.

More than that, we only get a People’s Vote if we beat the Tory government in the House of Commons.

Nobody can seriously argue that a government that triggered article 50 before it had any sort of a plan, had either listened to what people who voted Leave truly wanted from Brexit, or invested time in understanding the anxieties of those who voted Remain.

It is not that the people got it wrong but that the politicians got it wrong, from the promises they made in the campaign, through to their ability to deliver them now. And yes, that means acknowledging that this is the final say for this generation of the debate at least.

Ultimately winning an argument with the public, that the politicians have messed up and the public should therefore have a say to break the deadlock, is the easy part. Ensuring that the instruction given by the public is different to the one given in 2016 will be a lot harder.

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Matthew Doyle is an associate at Progress

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Matthew Doyle

is chair of Labour Party Irish Society and is a former adviser to Tony Blair from 2005-12, including in his role as Quartet representative

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