In the third of our Brexit posts, our Publicity Officer Owen McArdle writes why he thinks supporters of a People's Vote should be more concerned about another Leave win, and work to soften Brexit instead. CULC's Brexit panel event will be taking place at 18:30 on Tuesday.
Few things in political discourse rile me up like the phrase ‘a People’s Vote to stop Brexit’. My dislike of the phrase might be partly brought on by the fact that my final exams are a scary five months away and I would really not appreciate having the distraction of a referendum campaign alongside them. But more fundamentally I find the whole concept to be disingenuous. Clichéd though it has become to say it, we have indeed already had ‘a People’s Vote’, which turned out a victory for Leave. And ‘to stop Brexit’? Well, I presume there are going to be two options on this ballot.
And supporters of a new referendum as a proxy for cancelling Brexit would be advised to have a little more caution here. It is far from guaranteed that a referendum would produce a Remain vote. I will leave the question of whose support is softer for people who are much more familiar with the data than I am, but ultimately whilst the majority of polling places Remain in the lead, it is the proportion of ‘don’t know’ answers – generally between fifteen and twenty per cent – that should still be of concern. The softness of support for the EU in Britain should be clear enough from other polling on the topic of Europe: such as when more voters would oppose than support re-joining the EU even if Brexit caused our economic situation to be ‘a lot worse’ – and that in a poll which otherwise showed a nine-point lead for Remain. I expect that Leave would win again, but polls like that shock even me.
In CULC it is very easy, in a city that voted nearly three-quarters in favour of Remain, to forget that most Remain voters do not feel that strongly. The people that raise Brexit with us on doorsteps at the weekend and the people who go to marches in London are but a small and particularly passionate part of the sixteen million who voted Remain. Most people are far less bothered. On a recent CULC canvassing visit to Leave-voting Peterborough, the poor quality of repairs to the pavements was raised with me on the doorstep by twice as many people as brought up Brexit (either favourably or not). As much as ‘Project Fear’ (a term that it is easy to forget was first employed by the SNP and their fellow Yes campaigners in 2014) is discredited, it was probably actually quite effective in keeping the Remain vote as high as it was.
So where exactly is the plan B of the People’s Voters if Leave does indeed win again? Their lack of support for those in Parliament and elsewhere who are trying to mitigate the adverse effects of Brexit is infuriating. They seem so confident of victory that they appear to have given little to no thought to the possibility of a Leave outcome. The best-case scenario in such a situation would be a return to the chaos we are currently in; more likely would be a very hard or no-deal Brexit, brought about because the very politicians who could right now be softening Brexit will have instead chosen to take a gamble on a failed plan to try to end it altogether. Nobody can seriously claim that all Brexits are equal in their impact on the economy; a new referendum would be a reckless gamble with people’s living standards.
What is clear enough is that the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign is just a front for people who want to cancel Brexit. That is a perfectly legitimate position to take, even if I disagree with it, and I would have an awful lot more respect if they jettisoned the referendum and the talk of democracy and were upfront about that. But that is politically impossible in the mainstream, given even the Liberal Democrats cannot bring themselves to promise that in the (shall we say unlikely?) event that they were to win a majority.
And if that is not reason enough, just imagine waking up the next morning to a Conservative government, which should no longer be in office as it is, given a (perhaps literally) vital shot in the arm. That on top of a hard Brexit as well. As Labourites we should do everything we can to stop such a situation ever happening. Luckily there is a Labour government that has already been doing that: the Welsh Government produced Securing Wales’s Future, alongside the late Steffan Lewis and Plaid Cymru, which set out a plan for a Brexit that would keep Wales and the UK within both a customs union and the Single Market. Sadly under Adam Price, Plaid have drifted towards the referendum option (albeit they and the SNP could probably be drawn back towards the ‘Norway plus’ model), but this is the policy that has been adopted by the Labour frontbench at Westminster, in practice if not verbatim. In a sign of the unusual alliances that Brexit can forge, I find myself on the same side of an internal Labour debate as Jeremy Corbyn, possibly for the first time ever.
There will be people who would be unhappy with the new setup, in particular the requirement to follow Single Market directives and enforce common tariffs from outside the political institutions of the EU. However, is it not clear by now that there is no solution to the Brexit crisis that pleases everyone? This is a question of priorities, and I merely propose a solution that fits my priorities – leaving the political institutions of the EU (remember how they handled Catalonia?), and avoiding large-scale economic disruption – and that I think has a good chance of passing through Parliament if the will is there to find a solution at all. But I do caution those who might have eyes on a bigger prize, and ask them to consider the risks too.
Many people are thoroughly fed up with the whole Brexit process. Not everyone is as interested as those of us who write blog posts like this, but I would be very cautious in assuming that people see Remain as the option to end the arguments. I voted to Remain in 2016, and I would probably do so again in the likely context that a second referendum would take place in. However it is not enough to say that there is ‘a good chance’ that Remain would beat hard Brexit, ‘a good chance’ that exporters would be able to sell their produce to Europe without tariffs, ‘a good chance’ that the Irish border could remain open. Unlike working within Parliament for a softer Brexit, a referendum can by definition never offer more than ‘a good chance’ – and ‘a good chance’ is simply not good enough.