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A “People’s Vote” on Brexit – be careful what you wish for

We will never build a progressive internationalism on the basis of a democratic fix. We need democratic renewal at both UK and European level.

Image: People's Vote march at 2018 Labour Party conference. Credit: Peter Byrne/PA Images, all rights reserved.

When thinking about Brexit and Europe, we should remember the words of Hans Magnus Enzensberger: short term hopes are futile - long term resignation is suicidal.

Over two years on from the vote, and now heading fast for the Brexit door, progressives are still in a mess when it comes to Europe and are in danger of turning a crisis into a terminal democratic and political catastrophe. How did we get here – and what do we need to consider before we make any future moves, in particular a second referendum?

A second referendum – and let’s call it what it is, rather than pretend it’s something else – could be the right move. I remain open. But more than anything the process that gets us there has to:

  1. Examine fully the deep causes of the Brexit vote
  2. Understand the deep and probably abiding cost of a second referendum
  3. Build a deeper democratic path to that vote
  4. Construct a reform agenda for the EU and not just press the rewind button
  5. Put in place a domestic reform agenda which speaks to the causes of the explosive Brexit vote.

Brexit cannot be fixed by Remainers beating Brexiteers

Let’s start by being clear: there is no good society (socialism) in one country as some on the left naively hope, without capitalism being tamed through democracy and regulation at a regional (European) and global level. The only way to achieve a good society is through democratic participation of citizens at every level in which institutions impact on their lives. From this perspective, we can start to build an argument that could start to reunite our polarised country and heal the wounds that were revealed by the Brexit vote.

In all this I have felt terribly torn. I believe utterly in the need for international solidarity and through Compass have worked to achieve that across Europe for the last decade or more. Brexit feels like a sharp step away from this goal and towards despair about a future in which the UK tries to ‘go it alone’. And yet we need to respect the people in so many communities who voted to Leave and provide a way forward with them that’s doesn’t rely on Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Farage or worse. Brexit cannot be fixed by Remainers beating Brexiteers. There has to be a ‘win-win solution’, and the only way to secure that is through the deepest possible democratic processes.

Democracy can’t have full stops, but needs commas

The Brexit vote, like it or not, was a big democratic revolution. The turnout was enormous compared to general elections and over three million of our fellow citizens voted who never do. More than 17 million people voted for the UK to leave the EU. Both sides can make a case for what was fair and what wasn’t: the £350m bus figures versus predictions of a recession and huge job losses. Stupidly, all agreed on the nature and terms of the referendum. The government was clear in its intention to interpret the referendum result as a binding vote and sent letters to every household saying as much. If Britain voted to Leave, then – it was commonly accepted though not expected – leave we would.

Sadly, the Remain camp ran a poor campaign and the vote was lost. At the 2017 general election over 82 per cent of votes were cast for parties supporting Brexit. Of course, voters had little choice and everyone knows what a warped democratic political system we have, but that’s the system and no-one can say the government does not have a mandate to implement Brexit. I recount this only to illustrate how complex and cloudy the democratic terrain for any second referendum is.

Brexit won. But this, just like the ongoing Scottish debate about independence, was no settled will of the people. Indeed, voting was incredibly polarised: 80 percent of women under 25 voted to Remain, while England outside of London saw a majority of 11 percent for Leave. Some argue that ‘a win is a win’. And the truthful answer is that it is – and it isn’t. Brexit did win – but only just. Nigel Farage told the Daily Mirror in May 2016 that a 52/48 Remain victory would be “unfinished business by a long way”. He went on to tell the BBC that “there could be an unstoppable demand for a re-run of the EU referendum if Remain wins by a narrow margin”. “Win or lose this battle,” he concluded, “we will win this war.”

He was right. But how and when any second referendum is pushed matters enormously. Democracy can’t have full stops, but it should allow for punctuation marks – time to breathe and reconsider. We have never been give this time.

There were two early and disastrous mistakes. First, Theresa May decided to weaponise the vote to attack Labour, by trying to drive a wedge between the party and its majority of Brexit-supporting constituents. Instead of a parliament that could build a consensus around the nature of Brexit, she made the debate toxic – surely she must now regret this move? But the Labour leadership was also deeply at fault by insisting on hastily invoking Article 50, when what the country needed was time to explore the complex nature of a 52/48-result. It is a considered democratic space we need to open.

If progress were a piece of Brighton (Remain) or Blackpool (Leave) rock, then the word running through the length of them must be ‘democracy’. Democracy is the only means by which we build the good society. That isn’t just democracy as rule of the majority but the plural search for shared assumptions, meaning and purpose – in a better future for all of us precisely because it is negotiated and not imposed. We need a consistent and principled approach to democracy – or we are nothing.

A “People’s Vote” – and the toxic space the far-right are waiting to exploit

It’s why the alarm bells started ringing in my head when at anti-Brexit strategy meetings campaigners kept reminding themselves not to call it a second referendum and instead call it a ratification vote and more recently a People’s Vote. If the argument is that a vote against any deal automatically means we revert to remaining in the EU, then this is disingenuous to stay the least. Surely the rejection of the deal means the government should go away and construct a better deal; not a reversal of the whole thing without a clear and unambiguous vote on doing so – a second referendum? There can be no democratic sleight of hand; only a clear and unambiguous vote to reverse Brexit.

So we have to get the democratic process right, but we also have to dig deep into the causes of Brexit. Some showed interest for a while and visited Leave-voting communities, but it soon waned. A few stuck at it: Caroline Lucas did, and Anthony Barnett made an early and strong intervention with The Lure of Greatness.

If there is a second referendum, I fear that a pro-EU view might win simply because a large swathe of people just won’t bother voting a second time, because they are resigned to the fact that the ‘elite’ will always win and will keep coming back until they do. They will give up on democracy. And who could blame them?

Just as I hate the thought of the social and economic damage Brexit could bring, I can’t bear to think what a second vote would do to the hearts and hopes of the people who voted for Brexit, who for once trusted the system, who had a democratic outlet for once in their life – only to find that they didn’t. Politics and democracy has already failed them, closed their industries, marginalised and humiliated them – and then offered them a huge scream button to hit in the shape of the referendum, which they duly pressed. Could they now have even that last bit of power taken away?

A second vote could turn them away from any residual belief in democracy. It will confirm to them the suspicion they have always had: that the elite, the establishment, London always win – and they never do. They will feel more marginalised and humiliated than ever. Of course, Remainers may argue that Brexit will make these Leave-voters’ lives immeasurably worse, but that is a long conversation we need to have.

Many Leave-voters were from affluent homes in the South, but talk to Labour MPs in the North and they know this is the toxic space the far-right are waiting to exploit. Banks, Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Robinson don’t want a messy soft Brexit compromise. They want either want a no-deal Brexit or for Brexit to be stopped, so that out of the sense of betrayal, resentment and rejection they can build a populist hard-right movement. It could well be the case that a ‘street first’ strategy would then really take hold, with immigrants and asylum seekers targeted, windows smashed and faces spat at, and a drift to heaven knows what form of politics. Britain will never have experienced such political poison.

Robert Peston, in his letter to his Father, has a reasonable take on this aspect of the Brexit vote:

"But poor people who voted for Brexit were not wrong, in that it was probably the best opportunity they would ever have to give the establishment a proper kicking, for ignoring them, for forgetting they exist. During most of the previous thirty-odd years, Britain and most of the rich West had been run on a deceitful prospectus. Labour and Tories had argued, and even for the most part believed, that they were governing for the whole nation. But that was tosh. They were governing for themselves and for those who work in the City and the service sector in London and the South-East. They were governing for property owners. They were governing for a highly skilled, internationally mobile elite of corporate executives, bankers and entrepreneurs. This is not revolutionary rhetoric, it is observable fact, which cannot be ignored by left or right."

Those who helped pave the road to the Brexit vote – Clegg, Cable and Blair – saying ‘have another go’ only diminishes the case for a second referendum. New Labour in its smug dismissal of all things Old Labour, its lack of concern for pay or houses, its failure to confront Murdoch, the Daily Mail or the bankers, its calling for British jobs for British workers, helped get it to this point. They had little good to say about the EU and no interest in democratising it.

Of course, I fear the shock doctrine of the right given any hard Brexit or no deal, but the festering venom of a society in which a large section of it give up totally on democracy is equally if not more awful. As things stand, any second referendum is likely to be more polarising than first, ‘project fear’ on stilts. And because of the complex nature of the possible questions being bandied about, it could be more chaotic.

We are witness to a deeper democratic malaise and a politics that hasn’t worked for so many people for so many years. Domestically, we have no written constitution, no proportional representation, a broken and bankrupt system of local government and no rules for referendums – we simply don’t have the structures or culture for proper democratic deliberation. We live in a world where power and politics have been separated. Brexit certainly won’t fix this, but will a second referendum create the conditions for deep democratic renewal?

Dominic Grieve, a politician who I usually have huge regard for, recently asked whether we should “accept Brexit cannot be implemented and think again about what we are doing”. Let me be clear, I didn’t want the UK to leave the EU but it can’t be akin to Hotel California – somewhere you can check out from, but that you can never leave. Grieve simply highlights the democratic deficit of an organisation that feels itself to be beyond democracy. It has echoes of Tony Blair’s ‘sink or swim’ speech to the Labour conference in 2005 when he (in)famously said: “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.” Is it any wonder the people voted to stop it when they had the chance?

What does a good Europe look like – and why is the UK ignoring the debate?

If our relationship to democracy needs to be thought through, so does our relationship to Europe. If a second referendum is simply just about a return to the status quo, then the underlying social, economic and democratic problems will simply return.

I didn’t want Brexit to happen, but I can’t say I’ve never wobbled in my commitment to the EU. A Europe that breaks the economy and hearts of the Greeks is not a Europe I felt very at home in. But I know the good society I want can only be built through European and global forms of solidarity and democracy, that climate change, finance, investment, our hearts and hopes are all now borderless.

This autumn marks the tenth anniversary of a publication called Europe - the Good Society. It was authored by the now leader of the German SPD, Andrea Nahles, and UK Labour MP Jon Cruddas. It set out the case for a social and democratic Europe in the 21st century and sparked a debate across the continent. The only place where it didn’t really ignite debate was here in the UK – because most progressives have had little or no interest in what a progressive Europe looks like. To the Blairites, Europe was a place to be mildly ridiculed because of its failure to be New Labour enough, to see it only as a space for market-based reforms, while working time directives and the rest were all rejected or wriggled around. The more traditional left, who opposed the UK entering the European Community in 1975, still held out for socialism in one country. Compass ploughed a deep furrow, publishing work and promoting networks across the continent about what a good Europe could look like. With the help of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), and Social Europe, from Berlin to Stockholm, Budapest, Rome, Lisbon and beyond, the debate flourished. But it continued to fall on deaf ears here. Europe was either about free markets or it was a place to leave, with more progressive elements in the unions, the Greens and the Labour left squeezed.

Today, others have admirably continued this debate, DiEM 25, European Alternatives and Another Europe is Possible have set out the policy agenda for a good Europe. Other than Yanis Varoufakis, no one in the UK has made a convincing case about how the EU can be transformed to make this desirable agenda feasible. How do we get a constellation of 27 countries to agree to a very different type of Europe? We need answers to have any credibility arguing for a better future.

Labour’s dilemma

This isn’t just about the Labour party, but Labour is now by far the biggest tent on the progressive campsite. We have to start by recognising the huge electoral dilemma the party faces when 70 percent of its members and supporters want to Remain, but 70 percent of its seats voted in majority to Leave. Shift too far to Brexit and it could lose cosmopolitan seats, move too far to Remain and it loses heartland seats. Labour’s big majorities are now in and around the Remain cities. This is a genuine political dilemma. Add in the looming threat of a new centrist party, likely to be turbo-charged by Brexit happening, and the threat of a revamped UKIP if it doesn’t, and Labour’s Brexit problem grows exponentially. Still, watching some in Labour rejoice at the recent rise in the polls of UKIP at the expense of the Tories shows how little some have learnt from the last ten years: as long as our party does better, it doesn’t matter that the country shifts to the right!

Because of these dilemmas, Labour’s strategy to date has largely been to keep quiet and hope the Tories would implode under Brexit contradictions before the Labour party would. But whatever happens, it’s hard to imagine the Tories and the DUP calling a general election any sooner than strictly required. It looks like Labour will vote against whatever Brexit deal the government presents, even if that opens up the chances of an exit from the EU without a deal. The Tories might change leader, but why would they call an election before 2022 they could well lose? And even if they do, would Labour be better placed to handle Brexit and deal with its consequences?

Labour’s problem is that it is not thinking or acting deeply or long-term enough. In or out, what Europe does it want and what are the wider alliances that can make its vision possible? Why aren’t stronger links being forged with radical social democratic governments like that of Portugal? Where is its analysis of the causes of Brexit and the democratic crisis that enabled it? And what are the strategy, narrative and policies that help unite our polarised cosmopolitan and communitarian society?

What is to be done?

If a second referendum is a risk worth taking, then how should it be pursued? Any response to the tumultuous Brexit vote needs to be equally as bold. It requires a rigorous and coherent plan that deals with domestic and European realities of the Brexit debacle. Here is the start of a plan that tries to combine reality, a commitment to democracy and a progressive internationalism.

1.     A Citizens Assembly on Brexit

Learning from the Irish abortion vote and other successful conventions and assemblies, the government should task 100 randomly selected and representative citizens to discuss all aspects of Brexit and come back to the country with a plan for what should be done – accept a deal, no deal or a referendum to reverse the original decision. This would take approximately one year. There has already been an informal, although professionally delivered, mini Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, run by a consortium of universities and civil society organizations, backed by prominent Remainers and Leavers. Its remit was on the narrower issues of how the UK should leave and it came out with sensible approaches that would deliver in effect the softest of Brexits. Such an Assembly should include the voices and views of EU citizens living in the UK.

2.     Develop a systemic domestic policy response to the causes of Brexit

Brexit was at least in part about jobs, pay, housing, health care, schools, transport, immigration and more. All of us, but mostly those who voted Leave, need to see a sustained and coherent political response to the call for change.

3.     Develop an agenda and a change process for a Good Europe

This cannot just be about a return to Europe as was; we need a new policy agenda for a Europe that is much more equal, sustainable and democratic. In addition, a theory of change has to be developed to show how a different EU could be actually delivered. This will require much deeper dialogue and relations with parties and movements across Europe than most in the UK have thus far been interested in.

4.     A Constitutional Convention for a New Democracy

If Brexit exposes the hollow democratic nature of our society, then one of the most urgent tasks is to make our political system fit for the 21st century. This could be a really expansive rights-based approach that doesn’t just renew older democratic structures like the Commons and the Lords, but extends democratic rights to all aspects of our lives. In short, how do we really take back democratic control in the 21st century?

Of course, the issue with all this is time and at the moment we don’t have it. But what would happen if the Labour leadership got the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Plaid Cymru on side around such a coherent process – and got voices across Europe to back this move? It would at least put huge pressure on the Tories to shift and send a signal to the rest of Europe that the UK was serious about reconsidering Brexit. That could be the spark to extend Article 50 for two years while a different response to the causes of Brexit was put in place. This process might, despite obvious Tory reluctance, open up the ground for a general election.

This approach won’t be easy or quick but it has the benefit of being based around defendable democratic principles and practices and it could unite a progressive alliance around a programme and approach to Europe and a new Britain.

Perhaps such an agenda would not appease hard Brexiteers or hard Remainers. But it would ignite a process that would allow democracy to take its course. The country is in a mess and there is no easy or painless way out. I totally get that the priority for some is just to stop the ‘Brexit madness at any cost’. But I fear those costs as much as, if not more than, I fear Brexit. We will never build a progressive internationalism on the basis of a democratic fix. As the Chinese warned us: ‘be careful of what you wish for’.

Neal Lawson is Chair of Compass. He would like to thank Francesca Klug and Anthony Barnett in particular for comments on an earlier draft.

About the author

Neal Lawson is Chair of the pressure group Compass and has written many pamphlets for the organisation on the themes of democracy and equality. He was author in 2009 of All Consuming (Penguin) and was co-editor in 2001 of the Progressive Century. He serves on the Boards of UK Feminista and the AV Referendum Campaign.  He is a Contributing Managing Editor of the quarterly journal Renewal and writes for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He appears regularly on radio and TV.  He was previously a trade union researcher, an adviser to Gordon Brown, and a communications consultant. 

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