Remainers need new messengers for a new media

The cards are still stacked against the next Remain campaign. It's time to learn lessons and regroup.

Josiah Mortimer
7 March 2019, 11.38am
Young Remain campaigners outside Downing Street
Isabel Infantes/PA Images

I’ll make one prediction about the next referendum campaign, if and when it comes to the fore; it will be characterised by a single word: betrayal.

The moderate right will claim the 2016 referendum has been betrayed, by Remainers intent on reversing the ‘will of the people’. The hard right will claim the moderate right betrayed voters’ ostensible will for a ‘full Brexit’ – a near-total end to European relations, closing the borders and raising the drawbridge.

And Remainers will – with much justification – claim that those behind the original Leave campaign lied to the public, that they cheated, and that the hopes and aspirations of the millions of Brexit voters were co-opted by a radical right, intent not on restoring parliamentary sovereignty but turning Britain into a minimal-rights, low-wage, corporate free-for-all.

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The structure of our institutions – from Parliament to the fourth estate – means it is likely to be Leavers who will have the upper hand. Consider the state of debate in the past two years: it is easy to forget that the DUP’s dominance over the Brexit narrative was secured on a mandate of just 290,000 votes at the last election, out of 13.6 million.

The Greens and Lib Dems won ten times the DUP’s number of votes, yet their voices have been over-shadowed by a vociferous – and over-represented – right. In a warped system, those with unearned parliamentary clout call the shots.

In an era of populism – good and bad – whoever wins the next referendum will be the side which captures the narrative of ‘elite betrayal’.

The requires an entirely different set of messengers to last time. As openDemocracy’s Anthony Barnett has noted, that means Remain 2.0 cannot – and must not – be dominated by the old guard, the usual suspects.

Blair, Cameron, Campbell, Mandelson. These four leading figures of the 2016 referendum cannot speak for those hurt most by Brexit.

A generation is now starting to speak up for itself. Last week, around the corner from Parliament, around a hundred young activists – many of them 18, some younger, all raging at the disaster that has been this government’s handling of Brexit – launched a national tour putting forward young people’s views. Many of them were too young to vote in the last referendum – but will have a vote in any future one.

It is the start of a movement. But it is one of many that must emerge if the next Remain campaign is to succeed: working-class, women-led, youth-led, ex-Leave, diverse, impassioned – and by god, an absolute contrast to Brexiteer dinosaurs. (The launch of the Independent Group, sadly, appears to have failed to recognise this. A closed-off Westminster launch event and an emerging policy platform that reads like a Progress pamphlet from 2005.)

But even with the right messengers, the medium matters too. A Remain campaign will have to contend with a largely pro-Brexit press. New research has outlined just how evidence-free was reporting on the EU in the years leading up to the Brexit vote. Analysis by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 2016, which sampled national print newspapers, also found a ‘dominant pro-Brexit bias’.

The same study revealed a similar picture for (ostensibly impartial) TV news bulletins, with many issues totally locked out of the conversation: indeed the conduct and process of the campaign itself attracted the most coverage, followed by immigration and the economy.

This will not come as a surprise to openDemocracy readers. Indeed, in the midst of the EU campaign I wrote here that voters felt totally left in the dark by a debate centred entirely on personalities – with women and young people particularly excluded from the conversation.

That creates a need to build media – and raise up voices – that represent all of Britain. Not one small clique.

The hard-right area already building their ‘betrayal’ narrative: the likes of ‘Unity News’ and other outlets for radicalised UKIP voices are growing by the day.

In the (impressive) push for a second referendum, it has felt like there has been no time to pause and think: what do we need to do differently? From Parliament to the press, the cards are stacked against a second Remain campaign.

Over the past two years, Left Foot Forward as well as holding the Brexiteer right to account – has been providing a platform to a new, radical Remain. For learning lessons, and raising up new voices: the spokespeople for a progressive renaissance. But we need readers’ support.

Because a new Remain campaign cannot rely on the statistics or interests of an old guard. It must air entirely new debates altogether.

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