How the campaign for a People’s Vote is changing politics (again)

A new generation is making the campaign for a People's Vote on Brexit the next insurgency for change in Britain.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
15 September 2018

The call for a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal, conceived by Caroline Lucas, was adopted early this year by a broad coalition of people and organisations who want the British to think again. The concept is a neat one. It is not a demand to re-run the referendum. It is a claim that those who instructed the government to negotiate Brexit must have the final say. It is a demand for continued democracy. Or, to borrow a phrase, for voters to ‘take control’. Which means that Leavers can support it too. 

While I liked it for these reasons, it seemed to me unlikely to happen and I feared that if it did it would deliver the same result. Now, it looks as if I was wrong on both these counts. 

Since the Cabinet met at Chequers and set out what it wants for the country’s relationship with the EU to be, the Brexit alliance has disintegrated. There is a good chance that whatever deal the Prime Minister now achieves, it will be voted down by the Commons. If so, a People’s Vote has become more likely than not, as the only way out of the impasse.

More important, poll after poll shows opinion has started to turn against Brexit with most constituencies now showing a majority for Remain. This is an essential development to reassure those MPs who fear that another plebiscite will deepen not resolve the division in the country. 

It seems like a paradox. A People’s Vote has to be about democracy. But Labour’s English MPs in particular need to see in advance that a new referendum can unify the country. While nothing is certain they want to know that a major shift is taking place in the ‘people’s will’, or at least the will of their own supporters; one that can gain consent rather than empower the right.

Such a shift has not yet occurred but it is on the cusp of happening.

It has been a three stage process. The first was the stubborn refusal of Remain supporters to swing behind Leave. You would expect a bold, democratic adventure like Brexit to generate public support. It had the press, the government and institutions such as the BBC in lock-step support of what they accepted as the country’s historic choice. Yet for two long years the division expressed in the referendum barely changed. This will come to be seen as the great, strategic failure of the Brexiteers. They had their moment and lost it.

A second stage began in July after Chequers. The Cabinet decided it was in the best interest of the UK to remain in the EU’s regulated space, at least for manufacturing. This was a wise call and potentially popular, had May addressed the country to explain why it is essential. Instead, she pretended nothing had changed, her government split, and the costs of exiting the EU became clearer. A large Focaldata analysis shows 2.6 million largely Labour supporters have switched to Remain while only a million Remainers, mainly Conservatives, now back Leave. If a referendum were held tomorrow, Brexit would lose its 2016 majority. Remain has the momentum.

This is not enough yet to convince nervous MPs they should return the decision to the public. Nonetheless, an essential second-stage boost took place. Now, fuelled by fresh leaders, new arguments and an affirmative engagement with the EU, Remain is about to go into orbit. It is seizing the mandate for change as it becomes the insurgent opposition to the Brexit status quo.

The emergence of fluent younger advocates is a vital part of this. Femi, of Our Future Our Choice and Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson of FFS are both part of the People’s Vote Alliance. Eloise Todd and Layla Moran signal the emergence of sophisticated women able to challenge the boy’s game of Brexit. Todd, a northerner, heads Best for Britain; Moran a new Lib Dem MP, is an emerging star, with Palestinian heritage. The feminine leadership of the call for a rethink of Brexit is reinforced by the TUC’s General Secretary, Francis O’Grady and her demand for a ‘ballot on the deal’. While in terms of experienced, credible politicians, who are not tarred with the ongoing, sectarian disputes of the main parties, Caroline Lucas is in a league of her own.

Along with fresh faces, People’s Vote is generating attractive new arguments. It is hard to over-estimate the importance of this. It is now possible to rethink Brexit and appeal to Leavers’ judgment, rather than slagging them off. The disastrous ‘Stronger In’ campaign of 2016 sank under the weight of its euroscepticism. Its patronising insistence that we could not afford to leave the EU, only served to reinforce a sense that we should if we could. It also immunised Leave voters from rational consideration of the costs. An attitude vented by Boris Johnson, while still Foreign Secretary when was asked at a diplomatic reception about business’s concern with Brexit. He replied, “Fuck business”. Both the Financial Times and the BBC quoted the full Anglo-Saxon without asterisks. Yet his supporters still cheer him on. If Panasonic move their headquarters to Holland it’s one up to Blighty!

In the referendum the Brexiteers positioned themselves as the anti-elite democrats. Now Johnson has exposed himself as a hard-right, tax-cutting supremacist. The revelations of its secretive off-shore money and illegal backing by Carol CadwalladropenDemocracy and Byline have spotlighted Brexit as a project of the privileged.

It also turns out that issue Johnson, along with other leading Brexiteers such as the ex-Secretary of State for Brexit David Davis and Jacob Rees Mogg, lead on can be turned against their cause. They define Brexit to mean the rejection of a “common rule book”. It is, Johnson wrote in the Sun, "the freedom to bust out of the corsets of EU regulation and rules - to do things our way". Voters, however, want European regulations. They like clean beaches, environmental protection, high food standards, safe cars, medicine that is scientifically checked, fair employment laws and ease of business. They don’t want chlorinated chicken, or roaming charges if they go to Spain, and they do want to be reimbursed if an airline cancels their flight. A careful IPPR investigation shows that people overwhelmingly support sharing regulations with the EU, including a third of Leave voters. Lord Ashcroft has reported a similar finding. The EU is above all a union of shared regulation not sovereignty. Brexiteers make a big mistake when they muddle the two.

From this starting point of mutual benefit the EU becomes a positive addition to our democracy. It becomes a means for regular people to have more not less control over our lives.

The referendum’s outcome was Albion’s shout-out against elite entitlement. It was a just revolt against powerlessness, the hollowing out of democracy and uncontrolled inequality. Those who voted Leave can congratulate themselves on having given the old order a fatal kicking. However, it is now becoming clear that Brexit itself will simply revive the same old clowns in worse form without changing the way we are ruled. Gove and Johnson are indeed hardly different from their university chums Cameron and Osborne 

Helped by vivid stories about the cost to regular people’s lives as businesses are shredded, voters have begun to understand that Brexit promises even more incompetent version of the old greedy order. In response, People’s Vote, with its fresh leaders, optimistic arguments, and fearless attitude to the EU, is inspiring a revulsion from Brexit that will remake democracy in Britain. 

Anthony Barnett is the author of The Lure of Greatness. His lecture on ‘Albion’s Call: Democracy meets Globalisation’, is on 19th September at Kings College London.

The Lure of Greatness, England’s Brexit & America’s Trump 

“Brilliant”, Suzanne Moore, “Blistering”, Zadie Smith
“A dazzling, all-encompassing, big picture analysis of the Brexit vote, easily the best of its kind in print, brilliantly written and endlessly thought-provoking. Do read it.” Andrew Sparrow, Editor, Guardian Politics Live
“Responding to momentous events with deep and passionate arguments… for his verve, range and insatiable urge to take on vast themes, Barnett deserves loud applause… this is a very good book.” John Harris, New Statesman
“The best book about Brexit so far… brilliantly caustic, there is some comfort in that Barnett has been right about so much before.” Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times
“One of the most important political books of 2017”, The Guardian Editorial on Renewing the United Kingdom, 1 January 2018
“Essential reading for students of politics, constitutional law and international relations.” Professor David Marquand
“A wonderful and compelling page turner that artfully weaves together debates on freedom, security, liberty, sovereignty and nationalism... This is a book that deserves to be read.” Natalie Fenton, Goldsmiths Professor of Media and Communications

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