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What Remainers should have done differently

People hold up placards and European Union flags as they pass Trafalgar Square on a march and rally - Credit: NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, editor-at-large Alastair Campbell kicked off a debate as to what more Remainers could have done to stop Brexit. Here, writers, politicians and campaigners have their say.

Mary Honeyball 
Former Labour MEP

We pro-Europeans must show humility. We lost. Leave won. Many Leave voters were on low incomes, over 50 and male. They viewed the EU as an alien force working against Britain and its people.

We must listen to those who feel this way. Really listen, not just mouth platitudes. Those pro-European organisations with local groups could mobilise in the areas who voted Leave to find out what those living there think and feel.

We have too often viewed Leave voters as the victims of tabloid newspaper rhetoric rather than people with genuine concerns. What is required now is a proper understanding of them and their views. We need to look beyond snapshot opinion polling and discover the reality. ‘We’ must become more than just those who voted Remain. We must work to understand. Only then will we be successful.

Miriam González Durántez
International trade lawyer

We must start by accepting that we pro-Europeans have failed comprehensively. Brexit is clearly what British people want, because they voted for it four times: in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019.

There are many things that could and should have been done differently. But the most important question is: what should happen now?

With victory comes accountability. Every single time things go south because of the hard Brexit negotiated by Boris Johnson, the Conservative party should be made accountable for it – not because of a sense of ‘I told you so’, but because there will be opportunities in the near future to revisit the relationship with the EU. Just look at the pressure for another referendum in Scotland only six years after the previous one – who would have thought? And certainly negotiating a much closer relationship with the EU will be possible in four years time, after the next general election.

When those opportunities come, people should have a clear view on the effect that every aspect of this hard Brexit has had on their lives. The main lesson from the failure of the anti-Brexit campaign is that noise serves for nothing unless it translates into political action. No matter how frustrated we may be with our political systems, change is only possible through politics.

If we really want to change things we all need to spend less time demonstrating and venting anger and outrage in social media and much more time campaigning and canvassing. The issue is whether all those who dedicate themselves to showing outrage and anger have the capacity to accept the compromises that politics require.

Barnaby Towns
Former Conservative Party adviser

In politics, the best time to think about strategy and tactics is before, not after, the event. In our case that meant the three-and-a-half years from Cameron’s January 2013 Bloomberg speech announcing the referendum through June 2016. Laser-like focus on the many benefits of our EU membership – not ‘Project Fear’ – communicated by cross-party messengers with some currency with the electorate was required. Perhaps Alan Johnson and Ken Clarke fronting the campaign but not David Cameron and George Osborne. Instead, most Remainer activity took place after the main event with the weakest argument: we had already had a referendum and lost.

Denis MacShane 
Former Europe minister

It was almost mission impossible. Labour under Corbyn was never going to be pro-EU. The Lib Dems had sunk thanks to Clegg’s coalition with Cameron. Most Tory MPs switched to Brexit. The press were gung-ho for Brexit.

I tried to encourage constituency-level information campaigns but all the funding went to glamorous but pointless high court fun and games.

There was a small window from July to October 2016 if all Remainers had united around the Norway option (out of EU but in the single market and customs union) but pro-European Labour MPs were terrified over freedom of movement. The Remain campaign in 2015 and 2016 was appallingly led and organised, and no better after July 2016.

Tim Walker
New European writer

My answer is informed by my experience standing – very briefly – as the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in Canterbury at the last election. What it brought home to me is that politics has become hopelessly top-down in our country, too many of our politicians have become blindly obedient creatures of their parties, and, somewhere along the line, it became acceptable to have an arrogant disregard for what ordinary voters on the ground actually want.

The absurdity of the situation was brought home to me when I sat on a sofa in a TV studio during that election with rival candidates Rosie Duffield (Labour) and Tom Tugendhat (Conservative) and noted that we were all at heart Remainers.

It took Tom a few moments to remember his party line and protest, and for Rosie to start explaining that she didn’t agree with her leader on Brexit, but was still happy to stand under his banner, and that was when I realised none of us could be who we really were.

That my party expected me to trudge on, zombie-like, with my campaign when it became clear that all I was going to do was divide the Remain vote and let in a Tory Brextremist in Anna Firth, I realised I personally couldn’t take any more of it, but I’m not a professional politician and never will be.

It was glaringly obvious from the start that Johnson was unscrupulous and unfit, Corbyn unelectable and Swinson simply under all kinds of illusions about herself and what was possible. But, in the final analysis, the party leaders weren’t the problem. The problem was the system that had brought us to this pretty pass – and that we’re going to have to fix or there are going to be more nightmarish aberrations like Brexit to come. 

Ian Dunt
New European writer

The ultimate failure of Remain lay in an absence of cooperation. This took place in two ways. First in the split between the movements for a People’s Vote and soft Brexit. And second between anti-Brexit politicians at the 2019 election. This wasn’t, in my experience, a problem at the grassroots level. Most people I met fighting Brexit, for instance, were fairly open about whether they’d take soft Brexit or a second referendum. But at the top level, and particularly in parliament, it was a major issue.

Cash Boyle
New European podcast host

The biggest mistake made by Remainers was to assume that there would be the same strength of feeling on the decisive issues. That complacency was arguably what 
led to the referendum being called in the first place – it was inconceivable to David Cameron that Remain could lose.

To give an example, the devotion to preserving freedom of movement was widely presumed to be equally felt by all. After all, what reasonable person would want to sacrifice this privilege? Yet in reality, for an influential number, having that unrestricted right doesn’t matter when Brexit guarantees trips of up to 90-days visa-free.

The disparate views on this freedom exemplify a disconnect that ultimately influenced the vote: Remain was seen as the ideology of the metropolitan elite, whose love affair with the EU is little more than a status symbol. This is patently false, but Remainers could – and should – have done more to push back against the strategic creation of an us vs them narrative.

The reason for failure – despite a huge effort – appears obvious to me. The anti-immigration rhetoric which drove the Vote Leave campaign propelled the desire to strive for true sovereignty. What’s lamentable is that this sovereignty was never truly lost.

James Ball
New European writer

I think Remainers had such a tough hand after losing the referendum that it is almost impossible to say what could’ve been done differently after the vote without the benefit of hindsight, which feels like an unfair advantage.

The big mistakes of Remainers were made before the referendum result, and were largely steeped in arrogance – a government that did not think losing was a serious possibility, and was 
setting everything up to limit the damage caused once they won. Had the vote been taken seriously earlier, it could have been structured better, the campaign could have been run better, and the outcome could have been better. 

Imagine a two-phase referendum: it would have been a non-starter for David Cameron but would almost certainly have kept us in the EU. Or else a campaign less focused on healing the Conservative party and more focused on winning. Or even a Remain campaign that spoke anything like plain English. There is much Remainers could’ve done differently, but almost all of the big changes needed to happen before the 2016 vote – after that almost every hand was a losing one.

Gina Miller

Once the 2019 election was called, I could see that the only chance we had was a tactical voting campaign similar to the one that reduced the forecasted landslide victory for Theresa May in 2017, but, unlike that election where we were able to work in collaboration, have a clear message and where the other side did not also have a powerful tactical voting campaign, things were far more complicated, disorderly and fractious.

Our realistic aim was not to defeat Johnson but to reduce his majority to ensure a more robust parliament. I set up a tactical voting campaign and website, commissioned the best polling experts and social media data experts possible to identify the candidates, executed social media campaigns in the target seats and went door to door to support candidates most likely to win against Johnson’s Brextremists.

Instead of understanding that this was the paramount goal once the election was called, different factions and groups distracted, even demonised each other, employing devious tactics to undermine each other whilst the Brexit factions worked in concert.

As civic organisations, the odds were stacked massively against us, and so often when I addressed rooms full of potential supporters, I saw that the terror so many people had of Corbyn outweighed any rational arguments I could make. Asking voters to tactically vote for Labour whilst reassuring them that the data showed there would not be a Labour majority government was just too enormous an ask. 

Bonnie Greer
New European writer

As a former deputy chair of the British Museum, I am always impressed with the British genius for categorisation. But it is also this great country’s downfall. From my American ex-pat observation, it seems that it is near impossible to do more than one thing here and be considered any good. You can only do one thing well, be one thing well.

Remain did not really speak outside of the one thing it did well: be metropolitan, elite, well-travelled, monied. It did not look like it let in enough of the non-metropolitan, the non-white, the non-university educated, the non-London-based. What Remain needs to do now – to paraphrase Joe Biden – is to Build Back Better.

Frances Barber

Brexit was something a lot of people felt in their hearts, rather than their heads, but it was their heads only that we tried to engage with. Our campaign lacked colour and fun and humour. There were those who talked about “good old Boris”, but no one in their right minds would talk about David Cameron – who led Remain in the referendum – as “good old Dave”.

We could have tried something like taking off The Life of Brian’s “What did the Romans ever do for us?” sketch, but doing it in relation to the EU.

Had we used the considerable talents of Remain celebrities to pump out exactly what the EU has done for Britain – i.e. Welsh invigoration, Erasmus, freedom of movement, roaming charges, health insurance, etc – then maybe we could have got somewhere.

We were also much too polite, if not deferential. So much of what was being said was patently absurd, but we let it stand. We should have made fun of our political opponents as it’s only when a politician is getting laughed at that he knows he’s beaten. All we had was the relentless gloom of the Cameron campaign.

We should have turned the cameras on the millions of Brits enjoying living in Spain, Portugal, France and highlighted their sense of loving their adopted homes, but still retaining their sense of loyalty to the UK.  Particularly older people, as the Brexiters assumed it was the liberal young elite that wanted to stay.

Constantly attacking Brexiters for being thick and bigoted was a catastrophe. You never win anyone round to an argument by abusing them.

It’s a privilege to travel regularly, as I am sure most readers of The New European did in better times, and we all knew that Brexit would mean interminable queues and inconvenience for us, but that was never going to play well with Brexiters who often travelled rarely – if ever – beyond our shores. 

My family live in Wolverhampton and voted Leave. No argument I could come up with would win them over. The assumption was I was out of touch. I had suddenly metamorphosed into a member of the metropolitan liberal elite. We allowed that mud to stick and what’s worse is that we diffidently gave up our flag and patriotism to those who cared about only their own interests.

We should not have allowed them to say, too, that Churchill and Thatcher – two heroic characters for Brexiters – hated Europe when in fact they both played their parts in taking Britain into Europe.

Thatcher for all her faults got us on to Europe’s top table. A lot of people never realised how powerful we were. That point was never made strongly enough and it’s only now we have left will they experience the diminution of status which would always inevitably come when we severed our links with our big neighbour.

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