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Fighting Brexit: public opinion and cross-party co-operation

January 21, 2018 1:29 PM
Originally published by Liberal Democrat European Group

Nick HopkinsonIn the previous two posts in this series, I examined the legislative process and prospects for the EU negotiations. Our challenge is how to shape public opinion and move parliamentarians from other political parties to build an overwhelming national will to stop this Brexit madness, and in so doing attract more support for ourselves.

We can still stop Brexit. We can withdraw unilaterally our intention to leave the EU before 29 March 2019. Lord John Kerr, former head of the Diplomatic Service, has said as much, whilst Professor Sir Alan Ashwood has argued it "takes two to tango.". UKlegalfuture is lobbying the Government to release its legal opinion. The verdict of litigation underway in Scotland might provide further ammunition.

We must be ready to counter accusations of being 'undemocratic'. Democracy is a process. It did not begin and end on 23 June 2016. Voters can and do change their minds. There is no finality in a democracy, otherwise it isn't a democracy as David Davis famously argued. Political parties and causes do not give up because they lose an election - they regroup to fight another day. Remainers respect the result of the 2016 referendum every bit as much as Leavers respected the result of the 1975 referendum. It is not democratic to try to shut down debate. Circumstances change. New facts emerge.

Unfortunately many leavers are still not correlating unfortunate evidence of lower economic growth, investment leaving the UK, a weaker pound, higher inflation, squeezed living standards, and a deterioration in public services since the EU referendum to the impact of Brexit. If they do, many regard it as a price worth paying for a delusional 'independence'. These attitudes appeared even more entrenched amongst Leavers when I was campaigning before Christmas. However, what politics has been unable to change, the markets ultimately might. A possible second major fall in sterling, further relocation of jobs and declining investment could eventually register with enough voters.

At the moment, a referendum on the terms of any deal (with the option to remain) appears unlikely even though a now sizeable majority (50% to 34%) now want a referendum on the deal. Unless public opinion changes substantially from the continuing equal split between Remain and Leave in the next 10 months, growing support for a referendum will be insufficient to persuade enough MPs to support one on the terms.

To defeat Brexit, we need to increase co-operation with pro-European grass roots groups such as the European Movement, Best for Britain, and the groundswell of individuals on social media (who often use #FBPE on Twitter). We also need to continue engaging in cross-party efforts, e.g. Vince Cable's participation in the recent Single Market summit.

Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn and his key allies appear to be "the handmaiden of Brexit" as Tony Blair put it in early January. Their empty vision of a Brexit for working people is already contributing to squeezing living standards, threatening jobs, reducing funding available for health and welfare, and undermining protection of (often EU-wide) working and social rights. Corbyn appears to be clinging to the illusionthat the Single Market and Customs Union are incompatible with Labour's economic programme. However, Labour does tend stay one small step ahead of Tory Brexit, e.g. proposing Single Market and Customs Union membership during the transition period before the Tories adopted this a few weeks later. Most recently Sir Keir Starmer has called for an independent economic impact assessment to be published before Parliament's final Brexit vote.

Labour's 'destructive ambiguity' on Brexit may have served it well in the 2017 General Election, but now the Labour leadership is clearly behind the curve of opinion within its own party and voters. Many (particularly the young) supported Labour in the 2017 General Election because they thought it opposed Tory hard Brexit. YouGov (17-19 December) found 63% of Labour voters wanted to stop Brexit with only 22% wanting it to proceed. Similarly, Queen Mary University of London found 87% of Labour members want to remain in the Single Market, 85% want to remain in the customs union, and 78% want a referendum on any Brexit deal.

Although Labour's apparent alignment with Tory hard Brexit is good for us and membership, Labour still has a potentially pivotal role in stopping Brexit. A new Labour campaign group, Remain-Labour, argues only Labour can stop Brexit. Labour's party before country Brexit strategy would appear to be aiming to give the Tories enough rope to hang itself. We should therefore not be surprised if Labour makes opportunistic last minute moves to stop, or at least soften, Brexit, particularly if the Government fails to reach a deal with the EU.

In the last post of this series, I'll examine the prospects for an early General Election, a referendum on the terms and why it may succeed.

Comment on this article here: https://www.libdemvoice.org/fighting-brexit-public-opinion-and-crossparty-cooperation-56361.html#comment-462251

* Nick Hopkinson is chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and former Director, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.