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Even so, a people's vote is the right plan
30 Jul, 2018

Anand Menon makes good points and draws the wrong conclusion

The always interesting but sometimes wrong-headed Anand Menon wrote in the Guardian of 25 July 2018: “A second Brexit referendum would be a painful, toxic waste of time”. Former senior civil servant and London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg treats the article seriously.

We must not fall into the trap of dismissing as merely unhelpful articles by neutral or sympathetic observers which do not support our case. Rather, they show us the weaknesses in our position – weaknesses which we have to recognise and then overcome. Let’s be clear: the weaknesses are real; and we are not yet dealing with them.

So let’s look in order at Anand Menon’s objections to a referendum on the terms of Brexit with the option to Remain (a People’s vote).

There will not be enough time

The Institute for Government had a detailed look at the referendum time-table and their work should be the key reference point for this discussion.

My assessment for L4E was that if the decision to hold a referendum was taken at the time of the Meaningful Vote in November 2018 then there would be enough time – just - to hold a referendum before the planned Brexit Day.

That depends on the Labour Party committing itself at its 23‑26 September 2018 conference to supporting a people’s vote and acting on that; on the negotiations proceeding at pace; on Remainers not trying to change the franchise from that used in 2016.

More time might be available if the EU was willing to countenance disruption of the European Parliament elections and plans for resizing. As part of a campaign risk management plan the People’s Vote campaign should be in contact with the EU authorities.

A referendum would be a re-run of 2016

As Anand Menon points out: there is a real risk that the political declaration on the Framework for Future Relations – the only bit of the deal worth voting on – will be too vague to amount to anything.

Vagueness is not particularly the EU’s friend. Their concerns could be met by emphasising contingency: that this is the deal but that if the UK changes its red lines another deal would be on offer.

But in spite of her promise of clarity, Theresa May would want the Framework vague to keep her party together. Pro-Brexit Jeremy Corbyn would also benefit from vagueness to enable him to achieve his rather different and as yet unstated Brexit objectives.

The country would suffer from a blah blah Brexit decision. Again we have to hope that Labour’s pro-EU membership is able to overturn the policy of the pro-Brexit leadership – and make that change effective. The need for absolute clarity on the Irish border should help.

After all, in reality there are only three relationships we can have with the EU after Brexit:

  • Norway/ EEA + Customs Union
  • Canada-style FTA (+ Irish backstop)
  • No relationship/ no deal/ crash out/ WTO

An effective opposition ought to be able to ensure that the Framework is clear on which of these three relationships is intended.

With that clarity, it would be obvious that cake was off the menu. We would also at last learn what the point of Brexit was. Even allowing for popular uninterest in Brexit, we have all learned so much more since 2016 about the UK, our place in the world, the EU. People would make a much more informed choice than in 2016.

Holding a referendum would make Leave voters angry

Yes, it would.

Not holding it would make Remain voters angry.

At least we have arguments to present to Leave voters. The key ones are:

That Leave voters would be angry is no argument for making a decision badly in the absence of a plan whose costs and benefits, risks and opportunities have not been defined.

A referendum would reinforce divisions in society

Society is deeply divided. As Anand Menon points out, attitudes have hardened. NatCen draws conclusions from the 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey: “People’s attitudes to staying or leaving are now more likely to reflect their sense of identity, their social values and what they think will be the consequences of leaving the EU than they were before the EU referendum campaign began”. That will make it harder to change minds – as we have to change hearts.

The full chapter on Europe is worth reading. There are two groups of people where support for Leaving has risen strongly: those who think that EU membership undermines British identity (feeling) and those who think that we will be economically better off outside (thinking).

That points to two campaigns:

One focussed on identity and feelings. We could show how Italians have stayed Italian. We could talk about British citizens have multiple identities (Londoner/ European/ British) which reinforce each other. We can also show how immigrants to the UK assimilate – and talk less about diversity. We can show how pooled sovereignty benefits us all – even with laws on bendy bananas, how shared sovereignty helps us get what we want, how the EU is more democratic than people think.

The other would be focussed on economics and thinking. But we need a new approach, because Project Fear failed catastrophically and the post-2016 re-runs are not making an impact. So perhaps we should ask Brexiters how their Brexit would work? Why would we have better free trade agreements? Would we then become like – Germany is now? We can point out that immigration does not lead to materially lower wages.

There would not be a clear majority for any outcome

Anand Menon is absolutely right if the referendum were held today. YouGov’s July 2018 tracker puts the score at 46R:41L. Remember the headline numbers in opinion polls come with an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points. So that result might as well be 43R:44L. The only fair thing to say is that the country is still divided half and half.

Yet there has only been bad news about Brexit. Apart from the absence of a Day1 recession, nothing has worked out better or easier than Leave said it would.

The reason for the poor polling is clear: our campaigning misses the mark. We have dissed the referendum and Leave voters. We wasted two years urging MPs to reject the referendum result rather than spending the time campaigning to win the referendum on the terms. We have focussed on our hurt. We have repeated Project Fear. We have ignored Leave voters’ concerns (sovereignty, immigration, take back control, threats to feelings of Englishness). We have given them no reason to vote Remain. All that needs to change.


So, Anand Menon’s points are good ones – but ones we can overcome. But we have to work to do so. We have to deserve to win.

And winning does not mean 52R:48L. That would be “unfinished business by a long way”. We have to win convincingly, as in 1975, 67R:33L. At least. That would begin to heal the country. That will not happen by increasing student turnout, running a better campaign or demographic change. It will require us to make a case that leads six million Leave voters to choose enthusiastically to vote Remain in their own best interests.

Signing up to the people’s vote is just the start.

Let’s remember what the point of it all is: peace. Always has been. We knew it. Staying in and supporting the great European Peace project is worth all the unpleasantness of a referendum. And it gives us a message of hope and purpose to put forward.

But people take peace for granted. So then we must do the work: plan our campaign with the aim of addressing Leave voters' concerns and persuading them that it is in their interests, on the basis of their concerns, to vote Remain.

That means writing an offer.

Some is finding the language to persuade people to change their ideas – about international co-operation, about immigration, about identity.

Some is about real change. We should show how the different political parties will answer the challenge of “take back control”, of left-behind communities, of poor education and training, of low-grade jobs.

There are only a few months in which to change six million voters’ minds. Until the Remain bodies come together, with representatives of the political parties, to prepare the offer to Leave voters and to launch that campaign, there will always be a doubt whether we are even trying to win.



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