It's time to disband the 'Tribe of the 48%'

We cannot ground an effective political movement on the 48% who voted Remain. Instead, we must look for solutions to the political divisions that created this tribe.

Sunder Katwala
28 July 2016
A Union flag, a Saltire, and an EU flag. Andrew Milligan / PA Wire/Press Association Images

A Union flag, a Saltire, and an EU flag. Photo: Andrew Milligan / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All Rights Reserved.Britain’s surprise vote to leave the EU, with Leave’s narrow but decisive win by a margin of over a million votes, led to a surprising outpouring of emotion on the Remain side of the referendum. It was surprising because there had been precious little emotion over the previous weeks of a campaign, which had been entirely focused on the pocketbook economic risks of leaving the EU. Indeed, there had been precious little emotion across the previous four decades of British engagement in the European club, largely seen as a transactional economic relationship, joining a common market without ever being entirely comfortable with the political idea of 'ever closer union' that animated the founders of the European project. Yet, in the days after the referendum, the banner was raised of a new tribe - the 48%  - with Facebook appeals to sign petitions or attend rallies and even a new “Newspaper for the 48%”. The 48% knew what they wanted: that Britain shouldn’t leave the European Union even if a majority of the country had voted that we should.

There appeared to be no shortage of ideas about how Brexit could be stopped – but none that looks at all viable. The idea of blocking the referendum in the courts lacks any sound legal basis in Britain’s uncodified constitutional system. The idea of a parliamentary rejection of Brexit is even more tone-deaf to how the public think about democratic legitimacy. Indeed, there is a serious risk of damaging the public reputation of the ex-Remain camp as being dominated by an out-of-touch elite who simply cannot accept the result of a democratic vote.

 there is a serious risk of damaging the public reputation of the ex-Remain camp as being dominated by an out-of-touch elite A good democratic argument can be put that a general election should take place before the UK has formally completed its departure from the European Union. But those who see this is a route to reverse Brexit seriously underestimate just how difficult it would be to elect a government on a pro-EU ticket. More than seven out of ten Parliamentary constituencies had a Leave majority.  The current political turmoil within the main opposition party makes it difficult to see when the British public will next be offered any viable alternative to a Conservative government. Those who want to make the principled case for EU membership have every democratic right to keep making the argument, but they are unlikely to prevail.

From the inside, those involved saw the 48% as a vibrant new social and political movement. From outside, the shocked response looked more like the early stages of the grieving process – denial and anger after the lost vote. A new British Future report published today, ‘Disbanding the Tribes,’ suggests that there are strong arguments for seeing that grieving cycle through the next stages – depression and bargaining through to acceptance – difficult though this would be for those most committed to a Remain vote.

There are important gains if they do. Those who backed Remain face a choice between trying to reverse the referendum result to prevent Brexit - and almost certainly failing - or seeking to influence the type of Brexit we get. The large, defeated minority would find that they could have significant chances to shape the form that Brexit might take, but that this will depend on their first accepting that it is going to happen.

Many people will want to engage in the debate about what changes after Brexit could mean for the causes they care about: employment rights and environmental protections; how Britain can play its full role on global issues like defence and international development; and how welcoming we are to those who seek to come here to do business, learn at our universities or work in our economy. Those 48%ers who remain fixated upon proving that we are going to hell in a handcart post-Brexit are unlikely to be part of these conversations. But their voices in support of an internationalist, open, and outward-looking post-Brexit Britain are needed now more than ever.

voices in support of an internationalist, open, and outward-looking post-Brexit Britain are needed now more than ever.

A key progressive dilemma is the tension between two different 48% tribes. 48% of voters preferred Remain to Leave in the 2016 referendum. 48% of voters in England also voted in 2015 for parties other than UKIP or the Conservatives. These are not the same 48% – they comprise two different, shifting and temporary alliances.

Of the 16 million voters in the Remain 48%, around 4.5 million voted Conservative in 2015.  Calling for a ‘progressive alliance,’ made up of a united left-liberal-Green flank, to mobilise the 48% around a plan to remove the Conservatives from office is not likely to be the most effective appeal.  Of the 15 million who voted for ‘progressive parties’ in May 2015, around a third went on to vote for Leave in the referendum, across SNP. Liberal Democrat and Green voters, as well as from Labour.  So the idea of a political realignment, founded on the referendum result, may be more problematic than its proponents might think. Many of the voters to whom it would hope to appeal might not want to come to the party. In fact, that crossover vote of ‘Remain progressives’ amounts to just a third of the electorate – who themselves hold mixed views on the priority or urgency of the European Union.

For some, it won't matter that the 48% doesn't exist, or may only be half of its purported size. Tim Farron of the Liberal Democrats has spotted the gap in the market for a "Cosmopolitan UKIP", a liberal and urban mirror party to Nigel Farage's populist insurgency, responding to defeat by stealing the slogan "give us our country back". When Farron says "we are the 48%", he may well mean "we were the 8% in May 2015 and we would love to be the 16% next time that Britain goes to the polls". 

Those may be good Liberal Democrat party tactics. A similar approach may sometimes help to build a broader liberal base for progressive campaigns too. But liberal causes should take care to  not become defined and confined by being part of a minority tribe. Those of us who want to defend values of tolerance and internationalism should want to succeed with majority support too. After Brexit, it will be important to entrench social values in British society, and show that a vote to leave the European Union in 2016 certainly does not entail turning the clock back to the country that we were before 1972. There is no reason why the progress that Britain has made on equal opportunities for women in society, on gay rights and on the reduction of racism in our society over those decades should not be sustained outside the European Union.

One of the first big political decisions involved in getting Brexit right has been how we treat the 3 million EU citizens currently living in Britain. This is not an issue that sets the 16 million against the 17 million: 84% of the public are happy to say to Europeans in Britain: ‘this is your home and you continue to be welcome here’. Voters across the Leave-Remain divide can show that they are united against a toxic, racist and deluded minority who believe that the referendum vote gives them a licence for prejudice, hate speech and street racism. Yet neither the 48% nor the 52% can do this alone: we need to work together.

Some political issues are central to the contest between political parties at elections. Others are uncontested and are not at stake as the political pendulum swings – they form the foundations underpinning equal citizenship in our democratic society. If we want that to be the case for our shared support for equality and our opposition to racism, prejudice and discrimination, then it is essential to maintain broad and sustained majority support for them.

This September, the issue of refugee protection will also return to the agenda, with UN and US summits, and the first anniversary of the death of Alan Kurdi; the Syrian child whose body was famously photographed washed up on a Turkish beach. Our tradition of protecting refugees long pre-dates Britain’s membership of the EEC and will outlast our membership of the EU too. It is a source of pride for seven out of ten Britons. This autumn, it needs to be clear that the invitation to uphold that tradition is not going out to just one side of the referendum: everybody should feel invited to come together and stand up for Britain being a country proud to welcome refugees.

The 48% does contain most of Britain's graduates, but few of those who left school with no educational qualifications. It is curious to take too much pride in doing best among those with most educational qualifications and worst among those with fewest, given that the task in the referendum was to secure majority consent in a society where we have a universal adult franchise, not one restricted to university graduates. 

It is curious to take too much pride in doing best among those with most educational qualifications and worst among those with fewest

The referendum illuminates the long-term, growing divergence between the politics of social justice and those of identity and belonging – and the need for much broader geographical and cross-class reach of those pursuing progressive coalitions.  There will be no successful defence of liberal ‘open society’ values without engaging a much broader coalition than is achieved by the polarising frame of ‘open versus closed’, which pits the confident, liberal minority against the nativist, left-behind minority - but which also leaves most of the public unpersuaded by either camp.

A more successful strategy will require liberals to engage with both the gains and the pressures of ‘openness’; to be able to respond constructively to legitimate concerns about the impacts of immigration on public services, jobs and culture; and to engage with the values and interests of blue-collar and non-graduate audiences. If we are to secure majority consent for the values of an open and fair society, we need to do so together and ensure that it works fairly for everyone.

Even on a disagreement this big, we – Leave and Remain, old and young, graduate and non-graduate, metropolitan and provincial  - can still find much common ground. "Build bridges, not walls" has long been a slogan of internationalists. But preserving and strengthening the 48% and 52% tribes will not build a bridge, it will build a wall. It is time to tear it down.

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