Brexit on the streets in Bishop’s Stortford

On 31 March, as part of the Liberal Democrats’ national Europe Day of Action, Hertford and Stortford Liberal Democrats were out in the market place in Bishop’s Stortford.

This was mainly about talking with people about Brexit and hearing their concerns – though we also collected 136 signatures on a petition for a referendum on the final deal.

At a principled level, it’s essential to talk with people who voted Leave if there is to be a realistic prospect both of reversing Brexit and healing the divisions this saga has exposed.

Although many of the comments echoed previous stalls, this time felt different. My ear was caught particularly by people expressing deep worry over Brexit. I’m used to people being pleased to see us at a stall and keen to sign a petition, but what was new was the sense of people wanting to talk about why they are worried. The sense seemed to be “now it is getting serious”. The big difference here seems to be the emerging story of the involvement of Aggregate IQ and/or Cambridge Analytica in the referendum, and whistleblowing from people involved in the Leave campaign about possible rule-breaking.  The realities of those will doubtless come into focus in due course, but it seems to have rattled people. It’s one thing to accept a vote that’s not gone the way you would like. It’s even possible to do that when you fear that some of those voting didn’t really understand the issues. But the fear emerging is that this has gone much further in the direction of undermining the democratic process itself That is unsettling people. If Brexit is to be understood to be legitimate, it is essential that these charges are investigated. A referendum on the deal won’t help people unless they can be sure that its result can be trusted.

Whatever its cause, the sense of worry is serious. Good government relies on those in power acting in a way that contains the anxieties of the population.  Right now Brexit means the Tories are failing to do this, and Labour are not doing a good job of showing they would be better at it.

What may be the same thing from the other side was the stridency of some of the Brexit supporters. My sense is that there are fewer of them, but they are shouting louder. I’ve got used to being called a “traitor” or “undemocratic” by the extremists. What caught my ear this time were people saying they want “the hardest and fastest Brexit possible” and “it can’t happen too soon”. The passion is real, but a long way from the cool-headedness that would be needed to negotiate something this complex. The language actually sounded sadistic. Like the harshest of Thatcherites, the impression is that those demanding Brexit think they’ll be fine, and might actually be glad if others suffered.

In all that chaos, the danger is that the subtleties get lost, so a “referendum the deal” is mis-heard as “a re-run of 2016”, and that the failure of the two big parties to contain the anxities around Brexit leads people (again) to support Brexit as a way of waving two fingers at “politicians”. Words from the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution float in my mind as the obvious alternative, but I am struggling to see how to make these heard.

* Mark Argent was the candidate in Hertford and Stortford in the 2017 General Election

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8 Comments

  • I wish more people had taken note of the poll that Mark Pack had circulated around the party a few years back (2014?). IPSOS-Mori conducted a sophisticated poll asking people to put themselves in one of 5 categories regarding the EU. 20% wanted to leave the EU (doesn’t sound much but 28% of the total electorate is 40% of those who actually voted). But 38% wanted what David Cameron was after, a reduction in EU powers. Together – 66% of the total electorate felt we were in too deep already but to remain would mean committing to ‘Ever Closer Union’ (whatever that means). It is obvious (to those who want to see) where the centre of political gravity is over this issue. Keeping this country on a path to ‘Ever Close Union’ against the wishes of its people was always going to end in tears. Remainer’s tears.

  • Katharine Pindar 4th Apr '18 - 5:27pm

    Good to have this account of talking to the people, thanks, Mark. With both the Government and Labour failing to convince the country that they have the right answers, it’s no wonder people are worried. The Media convey the idea that everything is virtually settled, when people know that it is not – for instance, reports that free trade deals even with countries the EU has agreement with so that it should be easy for us to follow on may take at least four years to negotiate (Times, yesterday). However, the stridency you report from local Brexiteers is not likely to be convincing the people who quietly keep their heads down and hope anxiously that solutions will be found.

    Steve’s comment reminds us always to tell people that if we remain, it will be in an outer tier of states and not in the Eurozone, and that is a perfectly viable position.

  • I can only echo Steve’s comment. There was a good and popular case to be made for EUreform but the Lib Dems (and others) were having none of it. Worse, one of Clegg’s first acts as leader was to ram through support for the Lisbon Treaty against the wishes of many MPs even though it was transparently only a quick reheat of the Constitution that had earlier been roundly rejected by EU voters. Some of the party then spent the next few months trying to convince themselves that this was OK really.

    For voters it became quite simple – you didn’t support us so we won’t support you.

    As for the referendum, I’ve said many times that generals who fight on ground of their opponent’s choice can expect to lose – or at least massively underperform. Q.E.D.

  • Laurence Cox 4th Apr '18 - 7:47pm

    Here is a LSE blog posting reporting on research that shows the “squeezed middle” to be a significant source of Brexit voters:

    http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/brexit-and-the-squeezed-middle/

    “So, based on the above, the Leave vote was not more popular among the low skilled, but rather among individuals with intermediate levels of education (A-Levels and GSCE high grades), especially when their socio-economic position was perceived to be declining and/or to be stagnant. These findings point to an alternative narrative to that of the left behind.”

    Did you find this on your Bishops Stortford stall?

  • @ Mark
    ‘so a “referendum the deal” is mis-heard as “a re-run of 2016”,’

    This is the bit that worries me. I don’t know how you defend yourself against that charge.
    Are you saying that it is only the deal that is up for a decision and that the result of the 2016 referendum will be honoured and we will leave the EU. I suspect not. because you will want to introduce into the ‘referendum on the deal’, the option of remaining in the EU. You are therefore opening yourself up to the charge of being dishonest with the electorate. It is this perception of dishonesty in politics and the LibDems in particular that will lead people to putting the two fingers up to the establishment in the same way that they did in 2016.
    IMHO there is only one question that can be asked and that is ‘Do you want to nullify the result of the 2016 referendum?’ How we get to the point of public opinion accepting that this question should be asked (bad result of negotiation? corrupt Leave campaign?), is the issue we need to focus on.

  • People are sick to death of this “we don’t believe in referendums, but we want another one” rubbish. Wake up, two thirds of the electorate just want to get on with it.

  • @PJ
    The point about a referendum on the deal rather than a re-run of 2016 is that in 2016 “Leave” was not defined — so it was whatever people thought it was. That means people voting “Leave” were voting for a range of different things where, once people actually know what “Leave” means (i.e. a deal has been negotiated) then we can ask whether that is prefereable to EU membership.

    This means it is really important to talk of a “referendum on the deal” (which is what it will be) rather than a “second referendum”.

    I could argue that simply going ahead without a referendum on the deal would actually be undemocratic because, having vogted for one thing in 2016, people would find themselves being given something quite different.

  • Peter Hirst 9th Apr '18 - 9:36am

    I agree with the sentiments expressed. I sense a sort of desperate resignation to the decision. If we can pick apart the process, then our sense of fairness will surface and demand another look.

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