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A referendum to unite a divided country
28 Jan, 2019

Chair's message to members - 28 January 2019

Dear Member or Supporter

There is now an interval. Last week we had the statements by the Government and Opposition. They showed that neither party leader has any interest in moving the debate forwards or in creating a pathway to a real choice for the electorate. This week we will have the votes. Jeremy Corbyn has put his name to an amendment that includes a public vote as an option; but it also contains his customs union option so no Conservative will vote for it; and for as long as he continues to promote his Brexit it is hard to see the official Labour Party really pushing the referendum option. That will come later - if we keep up the pressure. So I doubt that this week's round of Parliamentary votes will take us much further forward towards Remain.
 
So let's use this intermission to address one of the questions we have to win on if we are to have a referendum and then heal the country: the claim that a referendum would be divisive.
 
At one level the charge is absurd. The country is bitterly divided already. Going ahead to make an irrevocable change with a Brexit - any Brexit - that has minority support and that offers few of the promised benefits will divide us further. 
 
But we have to come up with better lines than that.
 
Because having begun with a referendum only a further referendum can confirm or change course. So Gordon Brown's idea of a one year debate is pointless unless we know there is a referendum at the end that can make a decision.
 
Our aim must be to heal the country
 
52R:48L won't do it: as the man said, "that would be unfinished business by a long way". We have to do at least as well as in 1975: 67R:33L on a turnout at least as high as in 2016. That means persuading six million Leave voters to vote Remain - with enthusiasm. It is not enough if they still want Brexit but vote Remain because they cannot afford it. 
 
So our campaign has to be about the positives of EU membership. Peace. Pooled sovereignty gets us more of what we want: from worker and environmental protection to standing up to big multi-nationals. Individual freedom to build our lives over the whole continent. Sure, prosperity; but that is not the over-riding point (Leavers sneer that all we care about is our wallets while they care about Britain and freedom). 
 
We have to address Leave-voters' concerns: sovereignty and immigration. That means talking in our terms about what they care about: identity, faith in Britain and Britain's place in the world, freedom. 
 
We have to find the language that makes Leave voters see freedom of movement as desirable. The economic benefits of immigration are irrelevant. Rather it is stories about our common heritage, about personal contact, about the sort of people Leave voters can identify with who have used FoM to improve their lives. Remind voters that immigrants assimilate. 
 
Everyone has to feel that they had the chance to present their case
 
So the ballot paper must include all options that have significant popular support - no matter how unpalatable we find some of them. At the moment those are Deal, No-Deal and Remain.  Otherwise Leavers would argue that Brexit would have won/ would have turned out a triumph if only the one true Brexit had been available.
 
How best to structure a referendum with more than one option? Perhaps start with the final question: "This one Brexit plan or Remain?"; that would be Round 2. An earlier Round would have chosen the best available Brexit.
 
We have to forestall the betrayal narrative
 
The people cannot betray themselves. Nor can MPs "steal" Brexit from the people by giving the decision back to the people.
 
The existence of a plan is why 2019 would not be a re-run of 2016. To "Tell them again" we can respond "Let's get real" and point to the facts in the plan, to the absence of cake. 
 
We should run with the same franchise and counting rules as in 2016. If we change the rules half way through the game it will be easy for Leavers to say for example that they would have won in 2019 if only Remain had not cheated by giving 16/17 year olds the vote.
 
We have to conduct an honourable campaign
 
We must not make promises we cannot keep. The Remain campaign will not form the next government of the UK or the EU. So we should not present a particular analysis of the underlying causes of the Leave vote, nor particular remedies - these are contested by the parties. Our role is to say that the EU is not the source of most discontent, that it would be easier to address problems if we Remained (more time, more money, chance of EU-wide solutions) and - neutrally - that all the parties have heard the electorate - really heard - and now have a view on what the problem is and how it should be solved. It would not just be wrong in principle to let the Remain campaign be or appear to be a front for a particular party ideology. It would also be tactically inept as it would put off the millions of Remain voters in the other parties. 
 
So I feel ambivalent about the People's Voice listening campaign launched by the People's Vote campaign. Sure, we cannot campaign on a return to the status quo. So it is good that the new campaign tries to identify the underlying grievances, though it will be seen as too partisan to do so effectively. But it risks skewing the Remain campaign towards a political party; and suggests a willingness to put forward a programme we cannot deliver - much like the Leave campaign. Do please fill in the questionnaire - but I invite you to use the chance to argue for neutrality and no undeliverable promise.
 
Similarly we must not promise 'Remain and Reform the EU' as we will not have the power to deliver. We can go no further than to say that from the inside we can reform it. 
 
More important is our personal conduct. London4Europe member and conflict resolution specialist (yes it's come to that - lessons from Afghanistan!) Sandra Khadhouri has produced a draft of a referendum campaign pledge. It calls for good conduct by all sides. We have posted it as a blog and invited comments. Please have a look at it. Would you sign up? Would it be useful? How can it be improved?
 
The pledge recognises that we must have an inclusive campaign 
 
We could run the referendum process in a way that restores Britain's reputation. Citizens' Assemblies could be a useful tool where groups of citizens address the issues with the help of facilitators. Local councils could hold them in their areas.  Most importantly, we have to lead by example, treating our opponents with consideration and courtesy, being fair and open in our arguments.
 
We do have to get on with it 
 
The People's Vote campaign has focussed on getting MPs to vote for a referendum. It has made astonishing progress towards that aim. But neither it nor the other national bodies have shown any real and visible thought either on how to structure the referendum process to be healing or how to win it for Remain. Both need to start now. 
 
The national Remain bodies, including the European Movement, should set up two joint bodies. One to argue for a referendum process that will unite the country in the traditions of fairness, good humour and open discussion. The other to be the kernel of the Remain campaign. The country is still at half and half on the merits of Brexit; the campaign is a short period to change deep-seated views. Every day's delay is thousands of Leave voters not converted. Local campaign bodies do not need to wait for the national campaign to be out there arguing for Remain, as many have been since 2016. You can find your local body to join here and other ideas for what you can do here.
 
London4Europe AGM postponed
 
We have postponed the AGM from 18 February. Sorry. A new date will be announced presently.
 
 
 
  
  
RICHARD NEWCOMBE
Chair
London4Europe
 
This e-mail sets out the personal views of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of London4Europe.
 
 
Twitter: @London4Europe