We nearly lost our temper. But it worked out.

I was recently at an event speaking to a couple of Liberal Democrat friends – let’s call them Tim and Fiona. A friend of mine, Roland, who is a Conservative Party supporter walked up to us with a broad grin on his face. “Well, your party’s gone and done it. It’s abandoned any pretence of being democratic; promising to reverse the result of the greatest democratic exercise this country has ever undertaken. Good for us. You’ll lose.”

I introduced Tim and Fiona and Tim started to respond.

He started talking about only implementing the change if the party got an absolute majority. If not, we would support another referendum, etc, etc.” Roland was starting to look confused. Not quite sure any longer what the party’s policy was. And, encouraged by Tim’s convoluted explanation and somewhat apologetic tone, started goading him even more about the undemocratic nature of it all.

I could see Fiona starting to lose her temper. Eventually she interrupted politely. “May I explain something” she asked. “Sure”, Roland responded with an even wider grin – doubtless now pumped up to make Fiona uncomfortable. He may not have been to Eton, but he was sure that no woman was going to take him on and win.

Fiona’s response was clear, effective and deadly. It went something like this:

“Let me tell you what my party is doing. And let me also tell you what we’re not going to do.

We have told the electorate clearly, honestly and leaving no doubt. If they vote for us in a general election, they are casting their vote to revoke Article 50 and stop this Brexit mess. We are giving them a clear choice – vote for us if you want that; don’t if you don’t. It’s now up to the voters in a democratic exercise – it’s called an election – to decide what they want.

If they choose to vote for us, they know what they’re getting. Plain and simple.

Now, let me tell you, if I may, what we’re not going to do.

We’re not going to impose on the public a Prime Minister who nobody voted for except a handful of Conservative Party activists.

We’re not going to suspend parliamentary democracy at will so that the government’s actions cannot be scrutinised.

We’re not going to prefer dying in a ditch rather than abiding by the laws of the land.

We’re not going to impose on the public a no-deal Brexit that was never, in any way, put to the people in a vote – referendum or election.

And – we’re not going to propose a second referendum only then to refuse to tell the public what we ourselves strongly believe in just in case we might upset some voters.

We are perfectly happy to be telling the public what we believe in, and to be clear on what we will do if they choose to elect us. It remains the voters’ choice.

Now it’s up to the voters to decide which type of democracy they prefer – my party’s or yours.”

To be honest, this is not the kind of speech that Roland expected.

“Interesting,” he said. “Would anyone like another drink?”

PS: this incident never actually happened. But no doubt it will – repeatedly.

* Joe Zammit-Lucia is a co-founder and trustee of the think tank radix.org.uk and a Lib Dem member

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23 Comments

  • I was about to share this on my facebook and stopped as I realised, it had within it statements, attacking a man, a tory voter and a privately school educated person. If we want to convince the centre ground to give the LIb dems a majority we need to take people with us and not shame them for background, gender and previous voting record. I do know male, privately educated ex tories who would be open to this argument but the generalised attack underlying this will turn them right off before they read the end. Please can we avoid stereotyping as we engage with the broad centre.

  • My favourite response is that rescinding article 50 is perfectly democratic unless you are of the view the we don’t have a democratically elected government. Of course we can make it more democratic with PR!

  • Richard Malim 23rd Sep '19 - 2:17pm

    How is what is the policy now “more democratic” than abiding with the result of the 2016 referendum in a referendum [no ifs, no buts] which the party voted for? Or has the party converted to a new form of honesty and clarity it did not have before? Fiona may be clear, but honest she is on her own terms not. There may be more ‘old’ LDs than the MP for Eastbourne who are more than embarrassed by such nonsense which does not even have the logic of sophistry

  • joe, what Fiona should’ve said is, “If you want a policy we’ve got one to spare”…

    “If we win we’ll revoke artice 50 but if, as is likely, we don’t, we’ll offer Labour’s ‘second referendum’ policy although, of course, we won’t do any deals with Labour.”

    If Roland was confused before, after that explanation, he’ll certainly need that drink!

  • Paul Barker 23rd Sep '19 - 3:50pm

    Going slightly off topic, there’s some interesting Polling on Voters willingness to Vote tactically (YouGov I think).
    The most striking result is that LibDems Voters now seem to be more “Loyal” than Labours; we could take about half of their Voters but they only get a third of ours. That is very New & striking.
    I focus on the loyalty aspect because that has always been one of Labours strengths & our weaknesses.
    The idea of Tactical Voting in individual Seats is of course, utter nonsense. Where would Voters get the necessary information ? We can tell them but other Parties will lie, why would Voters believe us ?
    The only sort of “Tactical Voting” that could work is if we are consistently well ahead of one of the other Main Parties in National Polling, If Labour say, were seen as being in 3rd place Nationally then many of their current Voters would switch to us & doubtful Tory Voters would see Labour as less of a threat & possibly switch as well.
    What we need to do now is make more noise.

  • Dennis Wake 23rd Sep '19 - 4:19pm

    In the 1940s the Labour Government nationalised the railways, coal mines, steel industry, road haulage, electricity and gas industries, water companies and the hospitals without a referendum. I have never heard anyone say that it was undemocratic even if they disagreed with it because they had a majority in Parliament and had told the electorate what they planned to do if elected. When the Conservatives privatised most of these without a referendum I do not recall anyone seriously saying it was undemocratic, because they had a majority in Parliament. These actions were far more important to the nation than almost anything including leaving the EU or not. The nation seems to be seized with an obsession where reason has been abandoned. It is time to move on even if this means taking unconventional steps. There is nothing undemocratic about a majority Government implementing a manifesto commitment if it has received a mandate from the electorate who are free to vote as they choose within the framework of the current electoral system which is enthusiastically supported by the Conservative and Labour parties. I wonder if they will be so enthusiastic if one or other of them loses most of its seats.

  • Dennis Wake 23rd Sep '19 - 4:26pm

    Paul Barker: I do not think there were opinion polls in the 1920s but that did not stop voters from switching to Socialist parties all over Europe including the UK. People must want change if it is to happen although electoral systems can delay it for a while.

  • David Allen 23rd Sep '19 - 5:25pm

    “We’re not going to propose a second referendum only then to refuse to tell the public what we ourselves strongly believe in just in case we might upset some voters.”

    Fictional Fiona Demolishes Straw Man Shock!

    We were, of course, planning to propose a second referendum, and to make it totally clear that we would passionately campaign to Remain. Completely different from Labour’s fence-sitting position. But pragmatic, in that it would enable us temporarily to collaborate with Labour in order to get that referendum to happen. That, in turn, would provide us a much better chance of actually getting Brexit scrapped than we do with an unpopular “Just Revoke” policy.

    Faced with two unpalatable alternatives – Letting No-Deal Brexit go through against a disunited opposition, versus finding a way to work alongside Labour to get Brexit stopped – Fictional Fiona has made her choice. Brexit it is, then!

  • Michael Cole 23rd Sep '19 - 5:57pm

    This article only increases the confusion.

    We must clearly state that our preference is for a Peoples’ Vote and we continue to argue, campaign and march for a referendum with ‘Remain’ as an option on the ballot paper.

    As Tim said in 2016 the process began with a referendum and must end with a referendum, not a political stitch-up.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Sep '19 - 6:15pm

    @Dennis Wake,

    “These actions (privatisations and nationalisations) were far more important to the nation than almost anything including leaving the EU or not.”

    That’s debatable. In any case, it’s more a matter of reversibility and the extent to which one Parliament is binding the actions of its successors rather than “importance” per se.

    By signing up to the Treaty of Rome, the 1970 Parliament bound its successors up to the present day. There’s no point voting against the government if, for example, you’re unhappy with it’s agricultural policies or fisheries policies. That’s all been handed over to the EU with their Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries policy. There’s lots of other examples that could be chosen.

    On the other hand, privatisations and nationalisations can be reversed. Although having said that, it’s a lot easier to comply with EU law when privatising.

  • Michael Cole, after 3 years there does come a time when enough is enough. With respect what you are suggesting could leave this issue going on for years and years. The time has come to end the matter. Just Revoke the bl…. thing.

  • Labour have just voted for the fudge option. i.e. they’ve failed to adopt a Remain policy. They will now go into the election saying they are neither Leave nor Remain. It’s hard to believe they could vote quite so clearly against their own interests, but they have. We now need to rub their noses in it – go into all the Remain areas and tell people: If you want a Leave party, vote Tory. If you want a Remain party, vote LibDem. If you want a Don’t Know party, vote Labour.

  • The above post is mildly entertaining but not very accurate.

    Giving a clear choice…, Know what they’re getting…, Not going to impose a PM…, Not going to suspend…, Dying in a ditch…, No second referendum…, etc.

    All of the above is the perfect argument for settling the matter with a simple in/out referendum, which is what was done in 2016. Consider the massive turnout and size of the total vote and a margin of well over a million votes.

    Instead, an election includes all sorts of political issues and decisions, turnouts are usually very low and the winner has quite a small percentage of the total vote, often spread over ten or more candidates.

    A correction, the referendum question did not specify whether there would be a deal or no deal. The sentence about this is just plain wrong. The question was remain or leave. What do you not understand about that?

    The first referendum result was clear. Unfortunately a Remain cabinet, and a Remain parliament, ignored hundreds of years of constitutional and democratic convention to prevent Brexit from taking place.

    Let us be clear. It is the policy of this party to trash the ancient tradition of holding a referendum when there is an important constitutional issue that requires a decision by the people. A pillar of our democracy has just been discarded.

  • Dennis Wake 23rd Sep '19 - 8:34pm

    Peter: Ancient tradition ? The first referendum was in1975 not 975. The Government’s booklet issued at the time of the 2016 Referendum refers to striking a good deal quickly with the EU because they want to keep access to our market although less than 8% of EU exports come to the UK while 44% of UK exports go to the EU. No doubt that explains why every time I listen to those supporting Leave they seemed happy to have voted to be poor to avoid the mythical hardships which the EU are supposed to be imposing on us.
    This nonsense has gone on quite long enough. Give it a rest for heaven’s sake.

  • Paul Barker 23rd Sep '19 - 8:38pm

    Not only have Labour adopted a Policy which sounds indecisive, confused & a bit sneaky, they have done so via a traditional Conference Stitch-up. Everyone expected the Vote to be very close & to go to a counted “Card” Vote, most observers thought the show-of-hands looked 50/50 but the Chair ruled that the Leaderships policy had won clearly. Cue shouting, chants of “Card Vote” & others singing “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”. Labour are left looking, indecisive, Undemocratic & Cultist.
    From our point of view Labour Conference could not have gone better if we had organised it ourselves.

  • Arnold Kiel 23rd Sep '19 - 9:06pm

    The second referendum made sense while May’s WA was still in play. It was poor, but a civilised way to exit. The Government is no longer advocating this solution, and seems hell-bent for a no-deal. This option is unacceptable, and cannot be put to a public vote. The Labour-variant is nebulous and looks like a worst-of-both-worlds deal: all obligations and no say. It will not be on paper and ratified by Parliament and the EU institutions before mid-2020, if ever. There is simply no acceptable and specific remain-alternative available at the moment and for the foreseeable future to have a public vote on.

    Why should the LibDems, in the unlikely case of winning the election, take it upon themselves to negotiate something they know is inferior to the status quo? Why would anyone in Brussels engage with LibDem negotiators, who (rightly) would want to tank these efforts? How could a LibDem-Government impose almost another year of uncertainty, economic standstill, and division on a desperate nation for a futile and dangerous exercise none of them believes in?

  • Bless our poor Lexi’s and Brexi’s are getting more desperate by the day. Take me seriously, respect me, we are men of parts are views hold weight they cry. Bless just bless, they hold no weight, they deserve no respect, their parts have long ago failed and their time has past. Go gently into that good night my poor Brexiteers, the time of Empire and the white man’s burden have passed, return to the dusty pages of history and let the world move on. Tis the only thing you can do to make the world better, fade away into obscurity, tis your fate do not fight against it, time and tide wait for no one not even a Brexiteer.

  • The truth is the 2016 referendum was not fully democratic as British citizens living overseas for more than 15 years were not allowed to vote. Among this group are British people living long term in Europe whose futures are threatened by Brexit.

  • TonyH: “Labour have just voted for the fudge option. …. We now need to rub their noses in it – go into all the Remain areas and tell people: …. If you want a Remain party, vote LibDem. If you want a Don’t Know party, vote Labour.”

    I completely agree. The tragedy is that we could have done that much more effectively had we stuck with our well-established policy that we should demand a People’s Vote, and then campaign passionately for Remain.

    Peter: “It is the policy of this party to trash the ancient tradition of holding a referendum when there is an important constitutional issue that requires a decision by the people. A pillar of our democracy has just been discarded.”

    I’m afraid I think this is, up to a point at any rate, fair comment. It really pains me to say that, because I also think that the Brexit movement is grossly misguided, reckless, mendacious and devious. However – They did win in 2016. When we lost the AV referendum, that was the end of the matter. Why not the same this time?

    Well, I think there is a strong case to be made that this time is different. Brexit, which voters chose in 2016, has since collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Brexiters themselves rejected the Brexit deal. The fantasy that we could break all the trading rules and insist on the EU helping us to screw the rest of Europe has proven unachievable. So it is fair to ask the voters to think again.

    But this is not an open-and-shut case! On the contrary, it is a difficult case to make! The millions of voters who still believe we ought to stick with the 2016 result cannot easily be refuted. The very least we should do is to give them the chance to vote again – and abide by the result if a majority still vote to Leave.

  • Peter Martin: Yes privatisations and nationalisations can be reversed but it took between 35 and 50 years to reverse nationalisations. A railway system which carried half the freight tonnage before nationalisation lost almost all that traffic quite quickly except nationalised coal who were obliged to use the railways and now there is hardly any coal traffic because of climate change. Maybe there is a case for nationalising gas, water and electricity as we do not want to encourage overuse but we do want to encourage public transport and since privatisation of the railways there have been big increases in passenger traffic and at least some freight has been retained.

    Must listen to the Supreme Court now !

  • The prorogation of Parliament was unlawful and of no effect

  • Sue Sutherland 24th Sep '19 - 12:57pm

    The problem that we have as a country is that everybody is correct in the democracy argument. We are living through a period of constitutional challenge caused by a PM casually calling a Referendum without any clear rules about how it should be conducted and how campaigns should be run. In addition there were years and years of propaganda and lies from the right wing press against the EU. Why did our democracy tolerate this? Why didn’t it protect itself?
    We are a parliamentary democracy and expect our MPs to make decisions based on their manifestos and on what they believe is good for the country. This is the ideal of course, because both parliamentary democracy and democracy by referendum are flawed. Each side can make valid comments about the lack of democracy in the other’s position.
    We are a party which has always argued for constitutional reform with regard to first past the post. We should be taking this much further and consider how to reform all aspects of our democracy. We should be promising a Royal Commission to consider this and create a written constitution which will detail how referendums should be used and how they interact with parliamentary democracy. At the moment they are advisory but, as we all know, can also be declared to overrule parliament. It should look at the workings of the House of Commons and bring them into the 21st century and, of course, change the electoral system. I believe it’s also vital to consider the role of the media both social and old hat to protect democracy against lies, but that would probably be a separate exercise as would ensuring that every citizen is taught about our democracy and how precious it is.

  • Michael Cole 24th Sep '19 - 1:09pm

    theakes 23rd Sep ’19 – 6:31pm: I was simply advocating clarity of message. I repeat, we continue to argue, campaign and march for a Peoples’ Vote. Please correct me if this is not the case.

    Whatever the outcome, I’m afraid that this issue will indeed simmer for years to come. Do you think that Farage & Co. will simply accept Remain passively ?

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