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Would Remain win a second referendum?

I think it unlikely that we will have a second referendum before we leave in 2019. [1] Brexiteers fear losing it and Labour fears fighting it. So why ask the question? It will become clear.

I think if a second referendum was just a rerun of the first, then Remain would win comfortably. It is now pretty clear there will be no £350 million a week for the NHS, and instead as the OBR suggests there will be less money if we leave the EU. The economic concerns that the Leave campaign so effectively neutralised with ‘Project Fear’ are now becoming real: we had a depreciation (as predicted), real wages are falling, and GDP per head in the first half of the year is almost stagnant. I could go on, but this is enough for many Leavers to change their minds.

Partly because of this, a second referendum would not be a rerun of the first. Leave would have a new theme, which they would plug away at relentlessly. They would argue that the very existence of a second referendum was an attack on democracy. The people had already decided, and a second referendum was an attempt by MPs to take power away from the people. The people needed to take back control from MPs as well as the EU. They would argue that you should vote to Leave again to preserve democracy.

The simple point that people should be allowed to change their mind would be met by lots of rhetoric that sounds convincing. If a second, why not a third? Referendums are meant to last a generation, and not to be held every few years. (Quotes from David Cameron saying similar things from the last campaign would be trotted out.) We know from the polls that this argument has power, as many people who voted Remain think that nevertheless we should respect ‘the will of the people’. Many think that on a constitutional issue like this, a referendum should override the views of MPs, and will feel that by voting Leave they will be upholding this principle. In this sense it would be like the Labour leadership election in 2016, which Corbyn won in part because members felt MPs were trying to take members power away.

If your reaction to this is to say ‘what nonsense’ or ‘who would be so idiotic to fall for this tactic’ then you are who I’m writing this post for. The view that Remain lost and that result should be respected is a perfectly valid point of view. Furthermore, as Owen Jones has pointedout, the polls suggest there are many besides himself who take that view. It does the Remain cause no good whatsoever to suggest that people who hold this view are in any sense stupid. (The opposite is also true - the Re-Leavers view is also not obviously right, and needs to be argued. Is parliament overriding the referendum result really a 'coup against the popular will' when people realise they were duped and so no longer support Leaving?)

In addition, Remain campaigners just saying a majority of the electorate didn’t vote for Leave because some people did not vote will not convince anyone. Simply asserting that the original Leave campaign was based on lies is also not sufficient, because all election campaigns involve politicians telling lies of some kind. We need much better arguments than this if we are going to convince Remainers who think the original referendum result should stand.

A good place to start is a postby Richard Ekins, a Professor of Law at Oxford University, who argues “Political fairness and democratic principle require one to respect the outcome of the referendum even if one is persuaded that Brexit would be a very bad idea”. His arguments are strong and they need to be addressed (as I triedto do in March). We need to argue that the chosen electorate for the first referendum was not fair, and to allow just a simple majority to decide such an important and potentially irreversible event is not democratic, even after the event. We need to argue, as I triedto do, that the lies told by the Leave campaign went well beyondwhat normally happens in an election. In these circumstances a referendum result is not something to respect, but something you resistwith all your power.

Remain campaigners also need to be politically realistic. To say, as some do, that Labour’s commitment yesterday (to staying in the Single Market and Customs Union during the transition period) means nothing and is “not good enough” because it still involves leaving the EU in 2019 completely misunderstands political realities. Brexit is not going to fall apart of its own accord. As George Eaton argues(see alsoStephen Bush), the best bet for reversing Brexit is through a Labour government. Given this, to suggest that Labour would campaign against Brexit if it wasn’t for Jeremy Corbyn is both misdirected (it ignores manyMPs in Leave voting constituencies who think Labour have to support Brexit) and counterproductive (if Brexit is reversed, it will likely be by a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn).

When Owen Jones described‘Hard Remainers’ online as increasingly resembling a cult, I was both shocked and surprised. I am, after all, someone who argues online that the referendum vote should not ‘be respected’. By cult he meant those he encountered who were
“Intolerant, hectoring, obsessively repeating a mantra that doesn’t convince outside of their bubble, subjecting any who dissent from their hardline stance to repeated social media pile-ons, engaging in outright abuse and harassment, saying that people who voted Remain aren’t really Remain supporters and are heretics.”

Now I like to think I do none of those things, and I know some of those campaigning to Remain who do not do these things either, but I can also see that others might take a much more aggressive and purist approach. This is a strange but I think real phenomenon: the less likely something is to happen, the more some demand that only it will do. The reality is that staying in the Single Market and Customs Union outside the EU permanently is a lot more likely than simply staying in the EU, and less costly that leaving either. Because it is obviously inferior to staying in the EU it may be how rejoining the EU eventually happens. Those campaigning to Remain are in no position to be aggressive or absolutist.


[1] A referendum where Remain is an option, and assuming we leave in 2019 and the Conservatives remain in power until then.  

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