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Ed Davey is right to rule out the Lib Dems campaigning to rejoin the EU

Sir Ed Davey at the Conrad Hotel, Westminster, London after he has been elected as the leader of the Liberal Democrats. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday August 27, 2020. See PA story POLITICS LibDems. Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Former Lib Dem MEP Caroline Voaden on her new leader’s controversial decision not to endorse a policy to reverse Brexit

There is no surprise in the arguments that rage on Twitter between the pro- and anti-Brexit brigades. But slanging matches between those of us who voted Remain are relatively new, and rather depressing.

It’s clear many of us in that camp are highly anxious. Having weathered a global pandemic and watched the bottom fall out of our economy over the last few months, it’s no wonder people’s nerves are frayed.

And with stories now coming out of Westminster that Boris Johnson may renege on commitments he gave over Northern Ireland, there is no surprise that tension creeps ever higher.

But just because we are impotent in the face of the prime minister’s 80-seat majority, it doesn’t mean we should turn our frustration and anger inward towards those we think are letting our side down. They should not be the focus of our energy and our ire.

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Instead we have to be realistic, and to plan strategically to play a long game.

December’s general election showed our undemocratic first past the post system to be truly heinous. The Liberal Democrat vote rose more than that of any other party and 3.7 million people backed our unequivocal Stop Brexit message – one in eight of all votes cast. We got 11 seats, while the SNP got 35 with just a third of our votes.

It’s clearer than ever that our democracy is broken, and Johnson has our electoral system to thank for his majority.

So our job now, as the third opposition party, is to do our best to hold his government relentlessly and unstintingly to account as it fails to deliver what Vote Leave promised in 2016.

But it is also to remember that only 2% of UK voters now think Brexit is the most important issue – we are back to the numbers seen before the EU referendum was even a thing.

Voters are concerned about health, the NHS, jobs, the economy, crime, immigration. As a national political party we have to hear those concerns and convince voters that we care about them too, and have the answers.

I’d also like us to talk much more loudly about the democratic deficit and the need for Labour to get on board with electoral reform.

Proportional representation should no longer be the holy grail of political nerds – every one of the 56.4% of people who didn’t vote for the Conservatives should be campaigning for change.

In the meantime, we have to face the reality that in December 2019 millions of people decided they would rather see Johnson in 10 Downing Street than any other candidate.

Despite all the evidence, the misgivings about Brexit, the nervousness about his character – he was the choice millions of voters made.

And we have to take heed of the millions of people who thought we weren’t listening when we said we would unilaterally revoke Brexit if they voted us in.

As newly-elected party leader Ed Davey says, we have to start listening. And we have to convince voters that we hear their concerns. Making ‘rejoin the EU’ a major policy plank for the party right now is not going to achieve that – rather it will make us look even more cloth-eared than we did last year.

This doesn’t mean we can no longer be the home for those ardent Remainers who put their lives on hold for years to fight Brexit. It doesn’t mean we are any ‘less European’.

As Ed said at the weekend, on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: ‘We are a pro-European party, I’m passionately pro-European, I want to be as close to our EU friends and colleagues as possible because that’s in the interests of people of Britain.’

I sat with Ed in Brussels last year as he met liberal leaders from across the EU. I have no doubt that he is as passionate as anyone about our EU membership.

But Ed wants to see our party win seats again. Because in the real world it’s only when you’re in power that you can effect change. And he’s right that in two or three years’ time people still won’t be ready to revisit the Brexit issue.

Later this month Lib Dems will ‘gather’ online for their annual conference and will debate a Europe motion.

It will be a heated debate (they always are), but I am pretty sure we will end the day with a policy that confirms our desire to see the UK staying as closely aligned with the EU as possible, so that the door can remain open to us returning one day, but without committing to a policy of rejoin. And I for one think that is right.

Lib Dem voters know that membership of the EU is best for Britain. And that tearing ourselves away from the EU will have long-lasting and damaging effects on all areas of life, commerce and society.

So we must campaign vigorously for standards to be upheld – in agriculture, food imports and workers’ rights. We must keep watch on what happens with medicine imports, stock levels and drug testing programmes that we have been a part of.

We must do all we can to protect our academic, scientific and cultural life, and we must push for the government to maintain cooperation in defence, security and judicial areas.

Advocating rejoining now risks undermining our ultimate goal of taking up our seats once again in the European parliament.

It’s less than a year since the country elected a pro-Brexit government and while we know the tide will turn, it hasn’t yet.

By saying loudly and proudly that we are unashamedly a pro-EU party, we are clearly differentiating ourselves from Labour and I believe we still offer a political home to all pro-Europeans.

By working to achieve closer relations with the EU, and highlighting the folly of Brexit as it unfolds, we will prepare the ground to make it easier for us to rejoin at some point in the future.

But this is a long game, and we must make our moves tactically and cleverly.

• Caroline Voaden was leader of the Lib Dems in the European parliament

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