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The pointlessness of a ‘People’s Vote’

Credit: Simon Dawson / Getty

Credit: Simon Dawson / Getty

February 5, 2019   6 mins

With barely eight weeks to go until Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, calls for a second referendum grow more shrill. It’s not entirely unlikely that there won’t be one. But it is unlikely that a second ballot would achieve what those advocating it want: overturning Brexit altogether.

There are several key obstacles to this. The first is that very few Leavers have changed their minds. In the nearly three years that have passed since the first referendum there has certainly been a slight drift toward Remain. But the scale of this shift is routinely exaggerated by the second referendum herd.

Only last week, the latest poll by Survation had Remain on 55% and Leave on 45%, while the ‘poll of polls’, which calculates an average from all polls, gives the two camps similar figures. Allowing for a margin of error of three points, the argument that the ‘will of the people’ has fundamentally changed should be met with scepticism.

These numbers are also similar to those seen in the final week of the first referendum, with pollsters like YouGov, Populus, ComRes and ORB all putting Remain ahead. Look a bit closer and you also see that very few Leavers display ‘Bregret’; even today, after everything, 90% say that the vote for Brexit was ‘right’. In fact, it is actually people who did not vote in 2016 who now lean heavily toward Remain. So the question the Second Referendum agitators must consider is, will 2016’s non-voters turnout when it matters? And we don’t really know. It still looks like a coin toss.

Those campaigning for a second ballot must also grapple with the inconvenient fact that most people don’t want one. As my colleague Sir John Curtice has pointed out, the popularity of a second referendum is “clearly largely confined to those who wish to reverse Brexit”. Indeed, according to recent polling, most people think that the original result should be respected. Even when pollsters remind them of the gridlock within parliament, only 36% think that a second referendum is a ‘good idea’. Dragging reluctant voters back to the ballot box to have a say on something that they do not really want to have a say on is risky, especially when Leavers will argue that Remain ‘just doesn’t get it’.

And I’m not entirely sure that they do get it. If they did, they would not be issuing economic warnings from the snowy hills of Davos. Some readers might argue that this is a cheap shot – but one key lesson of 2016 is that optics matter. The ideal script for Leavers has always been the one trotted out by distant politicians in faraway places talking only about economics. In recent weeks, Tony Blair, George Osborne and Roland Rudd were perfectly willing to deliver those lines on cue.

These optics are key because a second referendum is bound to be far more anti-establishment than the first. There will be much less talk about trade and much more talk about all that is wrong with Westminster. Leavers will inevitably claim that that the political class have ruined Brexit, ignored people’s concerns and been unable to reach a decision. They will also argue that politicians have actively sought to  thwart the entire project despite voting for the first referendum to take place, Article 50 to be triggered, standing on manifestos committed to leaving the EU and then voting for the Withdrawal Act. We already know that anti-establishment populism and distrust of politics was a significant driver of support for Leave (for research see here and here). It’s not hard to imagine how these drivers will become even stronger.

Britain does need to tread carefully. Last week, the Edelman group found that 61% of all British people feel that their views are not represented in politics; 59% believe that government is not listening to ‘people like them’; and 58% feel that most politicians are not being honest with the public. Similarly, ComRes discovered that nearly eight in ten Brits feel that politicians are not taking into account the views or concerns of ordinary people while nearly two-thirds feel that the main parties do not offer an appealing choice of who to vote for. Clearly, some of these disillusioned voters are Remainers but the warning signs of a larger rebellion against the established politicians are visible. This is what Leavers are planning on, of course. Their slogan will be ‘Tell them again’.

Remain, meanwhile, needs to stop arguing that those who voted for Brexit did not really know what they were voting for. This sits uneasily with all that we know about Leavers. As virtually every study has shown, most Leavers did know, at least in broad terms, why they were voting for Brexit. They wanted powers returned from the EU to the nation state and they wanted to end freedom of movement, which they see as being central to slowing overall immigration into Britain.

Many also wanted a wider shake-up of what they see as a broken settlement; a place where London gets a lot and everywhere else gets a little; where influence and status are too strongly organized around the university-educated middle-class; where economic power is too strongly concentrated in financial services; where some of our prominent liberal commentators can come across as uncaring, condescending or even openly dismissive of traditional ways of life; and where the national conversation can appear neglectful or contemptuous towards Leavers. Remainers tend to struggle with conversations about things that are not material and extend beyond individual rights; things like dignity, recognition, solidarity, belonging, tradition, identity and culture.

For example, one reaction to the Brexit vote that has angered Leavers has been the rush to frame them as bigots, racists, the perpetrators of hate crime and as coming exclusively from the white working-class. Vox-pops with white pensioners complaining about immigration in Stoke-on-Trent or Clacton dominate. Meanwhile, we’ve heard almost nothing from minority ethnic, affluent or liberal Leavers who also made Brexit possible. If Brexit really was only driven by white workers who had been battered by Thatcherism and austerity, who just wanted better wages and a bit more job security, then all of this would be much simpler. But it was not. Anxiety about cultural and social change mattered as much, if not more so, than anxiety about economics.

Rather than change the messengers and the message, many Remain leaders are stuck in an ‘economic doom loop’, recycling and endlessly repeating claims about domestic economic risk. This is deeply problematic not least because when people think about the EU they tend to stress external risks: large-scale migration, borders, security, the refugee crisis, terrorism, whether the EU is sufficiently democratic and transparent, and whether it really is possible to reform things like free movement.

Furthermore, while economically insulated middle-class Leavers are unlikely to be swayed by the argument that Brexit will shave a few points off growth, economically left behind Leavers are convinced that today’s economic settlement, which they are being asked to sustain, is exactly why they have been left behind.

I think there are also other reasons to question this strategy. Irrespective of the validity of the claims, we are now at a point in British politics where voters have been subjected to nearly a decade’s worth of economic catastrophising. Warnings about the economy ran through the 2010, 2015 and 2017 general election campaigns, as well as the 2014 campaign against Scottish independence and the 2016 campaign against Brexit. Voters are not only tired of elections but are perhaps also tired of the strategy.

Even when Leavers do think about the economy they are also often not thinking about the short-term shocks. Remainers should reflect on the fact that while many Leavers accepted at the time of the 2016 referendum that Brexit could well entail some economic disruption, this would be worth it for the longer-term gains. Today, for example, Leavers appear fairly convinced that five years from now, their households will be better off as a result of the country leaving the EU.

Lastly, the relentless focus on economic catastrophe is also at odds with the objective economic reality that now surrounds us. I think, on balance, it is reasonable to claim that Brexit has curbed some growth and that No Deal would cause disruption. It is also true that levels of pessimism about the economy are reaching levels that we have not come close to since the depths of the financial crisis, though I suspect that the drivers of this are actually mixed and not all down to Brexit.

But it is hard to convince voters that the sky is about to collapse when Britain is experiencing the strongest labour market figures on record and as wages are now beginning to outstrip inflation. Unlike when Britain initially voted to stay in the European Community in the 1970s, when the country really was the ‘sick man of Europe’, we now live in an age when growth across the globe is forecast to slow, including and perhaps most importantly in China, while the fundamentals of the Eurozone area look far from strong.

Economic activity in the EU area has now fallen to the slowest pace in five years, manufacturing is squeezed, business confidence is down and there are still big problems with banks, debt and unemployment, especially in the south. I’m just not convinced that asking people to compare Britain’s economy with the picture across the Channel is a wise move in the current environment.

In any case, after last week’s votes in parliament, the likelihood of a second vote has receded. But those continuing to campaign for another referendum would do well to consider the points above. Too few have reflected on the lessons of 2016, a basic problem that will also likely hold back any new anti-Brexit ‘centrist’ party. In fact, they’re making the same mistakes all over again. And given that Remain seems unable to change the messenger or message, a second referendum could easily deliver the same outcome as the first.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.


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