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6 September 2019updated 02 Sep 2021 5:50pm

Get heard on the People’s Vote march – but remember those who were only heard once

Brexit, and the reasons for it, cannot be fixed by Remainers beating Brexiteers. 

By Neal Lawson

As tens of thousands prepare to march through the street’s of London on Saturday to rage against Brexit and demand a “people’s vote”, they should spare at least a thought for those who have been raging in towns and villages across our nation for decades. People for whom the Brexit vote itself was a once in a lifetime chance to be heard and, for a moment, take back control. Of course people should demonstrate to change events as they see fit, democracy is always an on-going conversation, never a full stop. But Brexit was the biggest democratic revolution of our life times and any attempt to overturn it must be handled with incredible care.

The bottom line is this, how we get out of this mess must be more democratic than how we got into it. That isn’t just democracy as rule of the majority but the plural search for shared assumptions, meaning and purpose – in a better future for all of us precisely because it is negotiated and not imposed.

So the start of this democratic march cant simply be the demand to vote again. It must start instead with empathy for those who used the vote to demand change, who have lived for decades being ignored and without hope. Many marching will argue that theses people voted against their own interest. Well maybe. But when you hear of workers in car plants knowing they might lose their jobs if they voted Brexit, but saying it was all about taking back control, then part of me really admires that prioritisation of democracy over materialism. And when a Brexit voter exclaims “you can’t be skint twice” then maybe you can start to understand why a majority of our fellow citizens voted as they did. Brexit was the result of decades of neglect, life scaring inequality, humiliation and powerlessness. Any settled will of the people over Europe can only start from such an empathic place.

The second step of this democratic march to a settled will is to come up with cures to the causes of Brexit as big, if not bigger than Brexit itself. Two and half years on it is shocking that this hasn’t been attempted. This week Compass, the organisation I chair, has tried to right that wrong by publishing a wide-ranging collection of essays on why Brexit really happened and what we do about it. Thinkers and politicians have been drawn together from a cross progressive politics, from Jon Trickett and Lisa Nandy in Labour, to Caroline Lucas from the Greens and the SNPs Tommy Sheppard. The cures suggested, like Universal Basic Services and Basic Income, a green new deal, pay ratios, proportional representation, dealing with immigration at a regional level and much more would help stem the demand for Brexit.

Step three on the long march must then be building a deeper democratic path to any second vote. It’s why alarm bells started ringing in my head when at anti-Brexit strategy meetings campaigners kept reminding themselves not to call it a second referendum and instead call it a ratification vote and more recently a People’s Vote. This is disingenuous to stay the least. There can be no democratic sleight of hand, or we simply sow the seeds of a new and nastier rebellion.

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As thing stand, if there is a second referendum, a pro-EU view might win, simply because a large swathe of people just won’t bother voting a second time, because they are resigned to the fact that the “elite” will always win and will keep coming back until they do. They will give up on democracy. And who could blame them? 

Of course, I fear the shock doctrine of the right, given any hard Brexit or no deal, but the festering venom of a society in which a large section of it have tuned their backs on democracy is equally if not more awful. Any second referendum is likely to be more polarising than the first. It would be “project fear” on stilts. And because of the complex nature of the possible questions being bandied about, it could be even more chaotic. 

Of course, what is being revealed is a deep democratic malaise and a politics that hasn’t worked for so many people for so many years. Domestically, we have no written constitution, no proportional representation, an absurdly centralised state, no rules for referendums and too few examples of deliberative democracy – we simply don’t have the structures or culture for proper democratic negotiation. Brexit certainly won’t fix this, but will a second referendum create the conditions for deep democratic renewal? 

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t do try, but if a second referendum is a risk worth taking, then how should it be pursued? It requires a rigorous and coherent plan that deals with domestic and European realities of the Brexit debacle. Here is the start of a plan that tries to combine reality, a commitment to democracy and a progressive internationalism.

First, learning from the Irish abortion vote and other successful conventions and assemblies, the government should task 100 randomly selected and representative citizens to discuss all aspects of Brexit and come back to the country with a plan for what should be done – accept a deal, no deal or a referendum to reverse the original decision.

Second we need to entrench a systemic domestic policy response to the causes of Brexit. There can be no hitting the rewind button to a world that was but must never be again – precisely because it created the social, economic and cultural conditions for Brexit. And that applies equally to the re-imaging and eventual restructuring of Europe. We need an agenda and a change process for a better more equal, sustainable and democratic Europe too.

Finally, we need Constitutional Convention for a new democratic UK settlementThis could be a really expansive rights-based approach that doesn’t just renew older democratic structures like the Commons and the Lords, but extends democratic rights to all aspects of our lives. In short, how do we really take back democratic control in the 21st century?

Of course, the issue with all this is time. But what would happen if Labour got the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Plaid Cymru on side around such a coherent plan – and got voices across Europe to back this move? It would put huge pressure on the Tories to shift and send a signal to the rest of Europe that the UK was serious about reconsidering Brexit. That could be the spark to extend Article 50 for two years while a different response to the causes of Brexit was put in place. Already the likes of Blair, Clegg and Heseltine are demanding more time. We are in a terrible mess, we need time and a plan to get out of it.

Brexit, and the reasons for it, cannot be fixed by Remainers beating Brexiteers. So march, fly your gold star spangled colours and burst your lungs with anti-Brexiter chants. Citizens making demands is always a good thing. But remember those who felt so alienated form our country that they voted for Brexit and think for a second how they will feel when the march dominates their early Saturday evening TV screens and sense the one toehold they felt they had on democratic power is being taken away. The country is in a mess and there is no easy or painless way out. The cures must be as deep and complex as the causes. Those that march on Saturday should make their voice heard, but they should think for a moment about those voices that have only ever been heard once.

This is an edited extract from the Compass report The Causes and Cures of Brexit that was supported by the Open Society Foundations and The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

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