If we want to save Britain’s relationship with Europe, we mustn’t demand a second referendum

Too many people have given up on saving our relationship with Europe.

At present, things don’t look good. We’ve an incompetent government, flirting with exiting without a deal. A Prime Minister who has swayed like a weather vane, supported Remain, but, now it is expedient, advocates an extreme Brexit.

We’ve a charlatan of an opposition leader, who claims he supported our membership of the EU, but sabotaged the Labour Referendum campaign, and has since used his power as leader of the opposition to promote an extreme Brexit.

However, we shouldn’t lose heart. Brexiters are nervous, and with good reason. They know, if public opinion shifts, unprincipled politicians will turn on a sixpence.

As a party, we’ve made a referendum on exit terms the centre of our campaigning. But is that wise? Surely it’s pointless to campaign for a referendum we’d lose. Instead, our focus must be on changing minds.

Many politicians are terrified of the electorate, despite knowing full well what a disaster Brexit will be. However, if public opinion changes, and the majority demand the final say over whether the Brexit deal on offer is acceptable, most MPs will be happy to give it to them.

So how do we change minds?

Not with insults. Insulting our opponents can be cathartic, but when we resort to name calling, we’re losing the argument.

The winners of this Brexit debate will be those who can make the public angry with their opponents. If the public are angry with us for contemptuously dismissing those who voted Leave in the Referendum, we’ll lose. But if the public are angry with those who lied to get a Brexit without a workable plan, then we’ll win.

The most common attack line of our opponents is their taunt: “You want a second referendum? What do you want, the best of three? You lost, get over it!” By arguing for a further referendum, we can sound as if we’re saying to those who voted Leave: we want you to have a chance to admit you were stupid. That’s irritates people, and we can be sure that irritation will be whipped up by the Brexiters to anger.

Do we need a further referendum? A few argue that we don’t, and that parliament should just vote to Remain. That’s political illiteracy. There’s no way anyone who wants to remain an MP is going to overturn the wishes of their own constituency. The only way we’ll be able to overturn the Referendum is to win another.

But we mustn’t sound like bad losers.

Tricky. Isn’t it?

I think there’s a way round this conundrum. Instead of demanding a referendum on exit terms, we should say: “if the public want another say, because what was promised is undeliverable, they should get one.” And then we talk about the undeliverable promises of the Leave campaign.

If a Brexiter calls us undemocratic, we reply: “Are you saying, if people want another say, you would deny them one?” We can then explain why we think people should want another say.

If a Brexiter says the public don’t want another say, we say: “Not yet, but when they realise you can’t deliver what you promised, they will.” And we then show some of the impossible things they promised.

I think we can still save our relationship with Europe, but not if the conversation continues as it is. If we can change the conversation, it’s possible.

This doesn’t require the Liberal Democrats to dramatically change our message, just fine tune it. At present we’re pledging as referendum on exit terms. If we change that to: “if the people want a referendum, the Liberal Democrats demand they get one,” it’s not a big change. It doesn’t invalidate what we’ve said before. And I think it gives us a much better response to the Brexit attack lines.

The above is just what I think, but a lot of people think differently. If you’re at conference, do come along to the Social Democrat Groupfringe meeting on Monday. I know with certainty that some of the speakers on our high powered panel have different opinions, which is how it should be.

We’ve got Stephen Bush of the New Statesman, Lord Liddle of the Labour party, Wera Hobhouse, the Lib Dem MP, James Chapman, formerly head of staff to David Davis and political editor of the Daily Mail, and they are chaired by Baroness Sarah Ludford. Come and listen, and then tell them how you think we can save our relationship with Europe.

And, of course, do make comments below.

* George Kendall is chair of the Social Democrat Group, which is being formed to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage, and to reach out to social democrats beyond the party. He writes in a personal capacity.

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22 Comments

  • Richard Underhill 16th Sep '17 - 10:24am

    We decided this in 1975, but people such as Nigel Farage MEP and Bill Cash MP determined to overturn the result.

  • nigel hunter 16th Sep '17 - 10:49am

    I sense that the Brexiteers know the tide is changing ie information on migrants. The public are beginning to see that they are a benefit. Equally ‘The Boris’ with his news articles,One that the NHS could get its 350 million but the quote I have seen only says some money can be returned to the NHS.Boris knows that his political ambitions are at stake.

  • You say, “We’ve a charlatan of an opposition leader” , and then you say,

    “So how do we change minds? Not with insults. Insulting our opponents can be cathartic, but when we resort to name calling, we’re losing the argument.”

    I really do wonder sometimes about grown up politics and some one trick pony Lib Dems..

  • Richard Church 16th Sep '17 - 11:24am

    So when will we know that the public want another referendum? Are you suggesting we have a referendum to find out?

  • Neil Sandison 16th Sep '17 - 11:31am

    Agree with George demanding a second referendum without public support would have the same outcome .What drove the argument for leave was what the public ,particularly Labour facing working class voters who felt that unfettered EU migration was taking away their jobs and adding to their misery in a unstable zero hours economy .Have some sympathy with Tony Blairs recent comments on immigration disagree with tory comments that we should limit it to just the brightest and the best because it ignores the valuable contribution seasonal workers in agriculture, catering and tourism bring to our economy .So confidence building that what we are proposing isnt a return to an unsatisfactory status quo in our relationship with Europe does matter .That we will retain some control in the labour market possible through a visa system with migrants actually having a job offer and somewhere to live is important .We insist upon this for non EU citizens perhaps thats the sort of level playing field we should be considering for the future relationship with Europe it would certainly make it easier to stay in the single market and custom zones.

  • @Neil Sandison
    Agree entirely and would welcome a far more pragmatic and qualified policy in respect of support for our membership of the EU.
    Don’t wait for people to change their minds. Acknowledge concerns and work with them.
    I think ‘If public opinion clearly shows’ sort of wording is sufficient for triggering a call for a second referendum.
    Of course the EU would have to be pragmatic also.

  • Little Jackie Paper 16th Sep '17 - 2:01pm

    There is a problem here though Mr Kendall. This is, I think a very interesting article but it seems to me to miss the obvious problem and prescription. The best way to bring about a change in view on the EU is, I suggest, to make the EU something that people might want to actually vote for.

    Although I know it doesn’t go down well on here there does need to be an acknowledgment that the EU is to many people, at best, something very remote and at worst something that simply does not act in their interests. Yes, it may well be that some LEAVE campaigners are rather insincere or have motivations that I do not share. That does not however mean that I can overlook the very real problems in the EU.

    That includes severely asymmetric migration. That includes high net contributions whilst non-recession hit countries take in large sums. That includes EZ vs non-EZ balances of power.

    Yes, it is almost certainly true that the way the UK implements some EU stuff is suboptimal and yes there certainly is a place for European level cooperation. However the stark reality is that if you are on the sharp end of the economic dislocations brought about in part by the EU’s open agenda then you really don’t have much reason to vote for more of the same.

    The question is, as you correctly identify, in part one of tactics. However that does not obliterate questions about WHY it is that a lot of people see no interest in the EU. REMAIN at the referendum basically invited people to vote for More Of The Same and still too many REMAINers don’t seem to see the problem with that.

    What would change in a UK that REMAINs. I wanted to hear the answer to that in the referendum. I’m still waiting.

    For the record – I have for many years felt that Norway is the better model for the UK and I’d vote for the party that offers me EEA IN EU OUT.

  • Little Jackie Paper 16th Sep '17 - 2:04pm

    Neil Sandison – I agree. That referendum was a thumping vote of no confidence in how successive governments have managed immigration. The question is what to do about it.

  • Little Jackie Paper 16th Sep ’17 – 2:01pm:
    For the record – I have for many years felt that Norway is the better model for the UK and I’d vote for the party that offers me EEA IN EU OUT.

    Glede! We could then have a referendum to leave the EEA…

    ‘Norwegians want a referendum on leaving the EEA & warn Brits not to become like them’ [May 2017]:
    https://contrarian.live/2017/05/12/norwegians-wants-a-referendum-on-leaving-the-eea-warn-brits-not-to-become-like-them/

    It seems more in Norway are wanting to have a referendum on the European Economic Area Access (EEA). The claims is that their costs have risen 10-fold since signing the EEA 25-years ago. Norway, while not a member of the EU, still pays around £650 million to Brussels to fund the EEA administration and other EU research projects. Two recent opinion polls conducted by Sentio reveals there is a strong majority wanting to have a say on the EEA agreement: 47% are in favour of a referendum on Norway leaving the EEA, with only 20% rejecting such a referendum. 70% of Norwegians do not want to enter the EU and the Labour Party has recently removed it as a policy platform.

    Norwegian businesses had duty free access on all exports to the EU before the EEA was signed and this FTA would still apply if the EEA agreement were terminated. Ironically Norway used to export more to the EU as a percentage of total before the EEA than after it meaning that the supposed benefits of the club have not led to bigger trading opportunities within the block.

    So to Brexit – Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party, sounded a warning before the UK referendum about following a Norway style deal, stating that “you’ll hate it…that type of connection is going to be difficult for Britain, because then Brussels will decide without the Brits being able to participate in the decision-making.”

  • Why is leaving the EU “too late”? Countries can rejoin.

    Given the previous referendum result was implemented over a period of more than forty years it would be reasonable and democratic to implement this one for about 10. Have another referendum in 2029 and argue the case that we were better off in and still would be.

  • I don’t have a problem with tweaking our position as George Kendall suggests. I am not sure it would make much difference. However Little Jackie Paper makes valid points that to change attitudes to the EU requires more than just hoping the economic effects of Brexit will do it.

    It is clear that among the reasons why people voted Leave were the effects of unlimited migration from the EU and concerns about how it seems we have little control over lots of areas. The answer must be that the EU changes to make itself more acceptable to those who voted Leave. This will involve some restrictions on the free movement of people within the EU and action to reduce the economic push factors that encourage people to leave their home country. It also would include less conformity across the EU (this should be something we can support as liberals) and an acceptance that every closer union is not for all nations in the EU and with less conformity each nation can progress at its own speed – no two speed EU but a 27 speed EU, with different speeds in different areas. So the question really is not just can we convince enough people in the UK, but can we convince enough politicians in the EU that the reforms needed to keep us in the EU are a price worth paying. I am not convinced they have the politician nous and will to do this.

  • Sue Sutherland 17th Sep '17 - 11:55am

    Little Jackie Paper. I’m a Remainer and I agree with you that we need to show what will change if we do stay. We have to address the problems that made people discontented enough not to care about the economic issues that would arise from Brexit and very willing to blame migration for their ills. I think Vince is starting to do this because he’s considering the problems of the wealth divide and how to address them.
    I think people have been taken for a ride by Tory politicians and wealthy press barons who are only interested in keeping their riches and their power. They will benefit from Brexit and a loosening of control on workers’ rights and taxation of their companies. It’s a cruel trick to keep power and increase the misery of those who need the safety net of the welfare state.

  • Jackie,
    So your reason for voting for leave is migration to this country is too high. Your solution join EFTA which allows free movement, I’m struggling to see the logic of your approach in fact I go as far as to say there isn’t any unless you think it will tank the economy and no one will want to come here.

  • As an aside the owner of the Express group is trying to sell it to allow him to invest in property. As the potential owner the Mirror group is driven by profit if the mood changes it makes it much easier for them to change their minds.

  • George Kendall 16th Sep ’17 – 12:05pm:
    As to what threshold is necessary in the polls, I don’t think we need to state exactly what level of support for a referendum is necessary.

    A level of 60% has been suggested…

    ‘Exiting Brexit’ [September 2017]:
    https://medium.com/@chrishanretty/exiting-brexit-3902558a3fdb

    I have heard it said that staying in would be politically feasible if polls consistently showed that 60% of people wanted to Remain. On the basis of the trend I’ve identified, we wouldn’t be anywhere near that position by January 2019. I should add that this analysis, which uses the “hindsight” question, represents the best case scenario for stopping Brexit, since many people think that Brexit is wrong but should still go ahead in order to respect the result of the referendum.

  • We should see the 2016 referendum as giving a mandate for Brexit that is valid and democratic – but provisional.

    In 2016, Leave had no plan. Even now we do not know what Brexit looks like.

    No-one takes a project from idea to implementation without a project review once the plan has been prepared. Reviews always include the option not to do the project. It’s just basic project management.

    So a referendum on the terms of Brexit with the option to remain should be seen as standard good management practice. It allows the people to “Take Back Control”. Now where have I heard that phrase?

  • Martin Walker 17th Sep '17 - 10:16pm

    I don’t accept that it is ‘political illiteracy’ to say that, if armed with a clear mandate at the ballot box, Parliament could overturn the referendum result. Where is the political illiteracy?

    What I do think is politically impossible is to say that we support a referendum if the public want it – that is just diluting our message yet further, and how on earth would we know or demonstrate that? Argue for a referendum on whether to have a referendum or not?

  • Parliament gave Britain an advisory referendum on leaving the EC involving a highly-limited and rather biased electorate. Unfortunately no one bothered to tell the nation that the referendum was legally only an advisory referendum – hence the overwhelming decision of MPs to go through with it regardless due to ‘mandate’.

    If, in any other walk of life, you decide between two options on the basis that ‘I think option A might be best for us’ then discover, some time later, that actually option A cannot ever be better than Option B then would you carry on with option A just because you previously had a big discussion before making that choice? Whether as individuals or groups, one of the reasons that the human race has prospered is the ability of homo sapiens to take fresh information on board and reconsider options. It is clearly daft to do that every five minutes so I agree that demanding another referendum as soon as the last one had finished (which is what a lot of people thought the Lib Dems were doing even though this was not accurate) is neither sensible nor politically astute.

    Parliament, however, has the duty to keep the situation of Britain in Europe and the likely outcome of any procedures, including ‘negotiations’ which we are in and acting in the interests of the British people regardless of what has gone before. No process which has gone on before can properly constrain Parliament for the future. However, Members of Parliament appear, in the main, to be irresponsible cowards and many of them are also mentally lazy. They are not likely to look seriously at the Brexit issue until some considerable time has passed since Article 50 was moved – hence it would be silly right now to call upon them to so do. And we have to recognise that, even if it were found in a year or so’s time to be monstrously damaging to Britain’s interests to carry on leaving the EU, Members of Parliament would not just pull on the brakes on their own. The government and MPs would feel a need to call a second referendum to endorse their assessment of the stupidity of carrying on. Or, more accurately, to cover their behinds. So, for the next year or so, we should stick to dissecting and exposing the truth on the issues rather than being prescriptive about possible procedures.

  • A further referendum would be subject to all the same malign (and benign) forces as the last one. In addition it is likely to be influenced even more by the advancing science of data capture and analysis, targeting sub-sets of voters with emotion-tugging messages. So a satisfactory – to us – outcome certainly can’t be taken as read. Far better for whatever party ends up exercising power to say that all the evidence points to Brexit being a national disaster – especially for those least able to afford it – and consequently they will reverse it.

    I see no reason why we shouldn’t be saying exactly that right now.

  • Peter Hirst 23rd Sep '17 - 3:24pm

    It is tricky; a bit like tuition fees. We tend to get ourselves in corners partly because of the words we use and partly because of the media. As the economy deteriorates people’s views will be at least become more malleable. Listening to some people who voted to leave, only a further referendum will do something to avoid anger, resentment and division. It takes time for people to change their views. A transitional period allows that time. What we must do is leave the option open of remaining in the eu.

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