A spectre is haunting British politics- the spectre of a People’s Vote. With the Brexit negotiations at an embarrassing deadlock, calls for a second referendum have been growing ever-louder. Once the mourning’s of a small group of “Remoaners”, the government’s inept handling of Brexit, and the likely extension of Article 50, has made a second referendum a distinct possibility. Given the uncertainty surrounding events in Westminster, Remainer’s must be ready if and when their time comes.
The vote to leave the EU was shock, a huge upset which defied months of polling and political commentary. Brexit was a silent revolution which the Remain camp failed to foresee. Given this, it is of paramount importance that the new Remain campaign learns the lessons of the 2016 vote. There can be no room for complacency; Brexit has happened and will happen again if we are not careful.
So how can we prevent a second victory for Leave?
There needs to be a drastic overhaul of the way in which we view, and the language we use to describe, Britain’s relationship with the European Union. The Remain campaign of 2016 was devoid of any sincere emotion. Its leaders were too complacent, so assured that the people would come to their natural senses that they seemingly did not see a point in making passionate calls in favour of staying in Europe. Neither Corbyn nor Cameron showed an ounce of enthusiasm for the EU whereas those on the opposite side led a blistering, populist campaign which promised people the chance to “take back control” and re-invent Britain’s role in the world.
In this post-truth era we, unfortunately, find ourselves in, politics is driven by emotions. Factual information has been displaced by sloganised nostalgia. Arron Banks, the key businessman behind Leave.EU, recognised this shift in political discourse claiming that “the Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You’ve got to connect with people emotionally”. The Remain campaign must prioritise simplicity and ensure their passion for the EU resonates with the British public.
Fear-mongering has proved ineffective in the fight against populism. The Remain campaign of 2016 was devoid of one crucial characteristic: hope. Widely labelled as “project fear”, the Remain camp warned us solely of the calamity which would ensue should we leave the European Union. Instead of offering any cause for optimism (the possibility of a new, dynamic relationship within a rejuvenated Europe) Cameron naively chose to support the status quo, cementing the view that the establishment had little to offer ordinary people.
To combat this complacency, we must do a couple of important things. Firstly, and most importantly, we must listen to Leave voters. It is true that economic liberalism has not worked for everyone; you only need to walk around the old industrial towns and cities to see this. Austerity has led to underfunded public services, higher levels of poverty and unemployment.
It is no wonder that those living in ignored communities feel a huge sense of resentment to the European Union; the embodiment of neo-liberalism. If we are to treat Brexit as a protest vote (which many on the left have suggested), then surely we have a duty to listen and act on their behalf. Jeremy Corbyn recently warned how the European Union’s “support for austerity has caused hardship for ordinary people”, a key factor in the growing tide of populism. Something clearly has to change. Those who feel abandoned must be shown that they matter.
One way of doing this would be to launch a scheme of “nationwide regeneration”, helping to fund areas most affected by austerity and de-industrialisation with the £39 billion dividend we would save from the reversing Brexit. We must fund areas, especially those with high levels of deprivation, to ease pressure on already over-strained public services. After all, it is austerity that fuels populism, not immigration. Increasing public spending in areas suffering from austerity would drive a wedge between the racists (concerned solely by the spread of alien ideas contrary to their minimalist world-view) and those who rightfully believe that their public services are under too much strain and have listened to those who would scapegoat immigrants.
Unfortunately for our future Remainers, a pledge like this bears an un-canning resemblance to the Leave campaigns pledge to invest £350 million a week into our NHS which failed to come to fruition. This was an incredibly effective campaign tool which brought support and attention to the Brexit movement, winning over support from well-meaning members of the public. The Remain campaign must seek to emulate politics of this sort: politics of hope. Crucially however, given the volatile political atmosphere of our times, Remainers cannot afford to go back on this promise should they win the vote. In the post-truth age of fake news and deceit, it is vital that we bridge the gap between politicians and the people; restoring faith in political discourse which has been eroded by lies, deceit and fear-mongering.
Brexit was a revolt against “elites” in society. The politicians, bankers and businessmen who have benefitted from free trade while providing little, if anything to those at the bottom. The Remain campaign needs to be a grass-roots movement. People simply do not trust politicians anymore. Why would they? Our prime minister has made u-turn after u-turn to protect her own position; to such a degree that over a third of her party lack confidence in her. Whatever she says cannot be taken at face value. It is for this reason that the face of the Remain campaign must be that of the people- groups like Momentum and People’s Vote group- who have been campaigning for this cause for over a year; organising protests and influencing politics from the outside. This needs to be seen as a peoples movement rather than a politicians plot to reverse an unpopular decision.
One consequence of a second referendum which Remainers cannot adequately prepare for is the huge backlash which will accompany this apparent “betrayal of democracy”. The far-right will mobilise heavily against the betrayal of the people’s will and there is likely to be a resurgence in xenophobia and hate crime. It is the duty of Remainers to isolate these radicals by winning over moderate voters with evidence that, if managed properly, the EU can be a force for good in this country.
Should there be another referendum; Remainers cannot afford to be complacent. The 2016 vote has taught us important lessons; it held a mirror up to our society and revealed just how fragmented we have become as a nation. If we fail to learn the lessons of 2016, Brexit will be a political reality; most likely in a harder, more patriotic form. Britain is divided, there’s no use pretending it’s not. Unless Remainers can bridge the gap, we risk emboldening aggressive-style populist nationalism which will have profound consequences for us all.