Abi Wilkinson: Don’t expect Labour to halt Brexit – it’s down to all of you

PUBLISHED: 13:37 25 August 2017 | UPDATED: 16:33 29 August 2017

Pro-EU protesters take part in a March for Europe rally against Brexit in London. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images

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Labour cannot halt Brexit, says Abi Wilkinson, instead it is down to a grassroots movement to swing opinion and then the politicians will follow.

Here are several things I believe are true. First of all, that Brexit is going to be an unmitigated disaster with few – if any – silver linings.

Secondly, that the Leave campaign lied to such an extent that it’s difficult to argue voters had the opportunity to make an informed decision in the referendum.

Thirdly, that if the Labour Party appears to be attempting to block or reverse the result of the referendum at this point, it will alienate a significant chunk of its voters and risk losing dozens of seats in the next election – while doing nothing to actually affect Tory Brexit plans.

It’s easy to understand the frustrations of those who feel their views should be represented by one of the main two parties, but the thing is, currently at least, stopping Brexit is a minority position even amongst Remain voters. “The 48%” might make a good rallying cry, but it masks the reality that the majority of voters are now of the opinion we should just get on with it. We have referendums relatively infrequently in this country. There’s a reasonable belief that “the will of the people” should be respected even after a comparatively tight vote.

If political elites appeared to ignore the result of a popular vote, it would damage already fragile trust in the democratic process. It doesn’t help that the Leave campaign effectively marshalled anti-elite sentiment as part of what was, in truth, largely an intra-elite conflict. Slogans like “take back control” and “had enough of experts” resonated with people who felt neglected and ignored by politicians.

Of course, there were multiple (sometimes interconnected) reasons people voted to leave the EU. For years, certain newspapers and politicians have been claiming that immigration is the source of every domestic policy issues: Immigrants are taking our jobs. Immigrants are to blame for the housing shortage. Immigrants are the reason the NHS is over-stretched.

The notion that stopping freedom of movement would improve their own lives resonated with some of the electorate. The Leave campaign also claimed that leaving the EU would save money that we could spend on public services. Who can forget the erroneous £350million figure that they slapped on the side of a bus? Some voters believed that the UK shouldn’t be subject to EU courts and legislation. Others, given a binary choice, would probably always opt for some sort of change. A proportion voted for straightforwardly racist reasons.

It’s the anti-elite aspect that really makes Labour’s position difficult, though. It means that if the party came out in favour of remaining in the EU, it might actually make that less likely to happen. It would provide the most dedicated Brexiteers with an enemy to rally against and make those ensure of their vote more inclined to double down in defiance. It would also provide a useful distraction from the calamity of the Brexit negotiations as they continue to progress.

If there is a chance that Brexit can be stopped, the demand has to come from the ground up. As it becomes increasingly clear that Brexit in reality will be nothing like the Brexit the Leave campaign promised, a campaign needs to be launched. It should point out that a referendum can’t be considered truly democratic if the public were misled about what the options were. Or at least, that offering voters a final say once the options are clearer is the most democratic option of all.

If this movement is led by politicians, it will simply be dismissed as meddling elites. Even celebrity involvement would need to be considered carefully. What’s needed is a grassroots army of campaigners, holding street stalls, distributing leaflets and talking to friends, family and acquaintances about the issues.

The 48% identity needs to be abandoned – as that immediately sets up a conflict between previous Leave and Remain voters. Basic psychology tells us you’re unlikely to win anyone over by shouting at them, blaming them or attempting to make them feel stupid for their decision. The fact is, this country hasn’t been working for everyone. Anger at politicians is reasonable. So was the desire to see some sort of change.

The line must be, strictly: the public deserved a say on whether we should remain in the EU. The result of the referendum was clear, so the government attempted to negotiate a deal as voters instructed. Now that the details of that deal are clearer, it’s only right that we’re given a say again.

Public opinion already seems to be slowly moving against Brexit. Opinion polls suggest that if people could go back in time and vote again, the result would be to remain. There’s every chance that as things continue, the percentage of regretful voters will increase. If the negotiations go really badly, it’s also in the government’s interest to give people a say on the final deal. That way, they’ll be held less responsible if we do still leave and the economy crashes as a result. The job of Remain campaigners is to reach out to Leave voters rather than to rage at them. And to present a final deal referendum as more democratic – not some sort of subversion of the popular will.

Expecting Labour to lead on this is a mistake. If the public mood changes, it seems fairly likely the party will follow – but Jeremy Corbyn simply does not have the power to prevent Brexit. If anyone does, it’s people like you: the readers of The New European. But only if you mobilise now.

Abi Wilkinson is a writer and journalist

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