What next for the Liberal Democrats post-referendum?

Harriet Harman, as acting leader of the Labour Party, explained her lack of opposition to the government’s Welfare Bill with the words:

We can’t simply say to the public “you were wrong”

Well I can.

Public, you got it wrong.

You got it disastrously wrong. You’ve endangered the future of our entire continent for the sake of a handful of Brexiteers’ Magic Beans. You’ve swallowed the distortions and lies of the Brexit brigade. You’ve gleefully thrown reason, evidence and reflection out of the window. You’ve allowed that Brexit brigade to press your basest, most pre-civilised, gut-reaction buttons. You’ve allowed yourselves to be fooled. The consequences for you and your fellow Britons will be dire.

But it’s no use getting angry at the electorate. We need to act. The action I propose is that we give the electorate an opportunity to correct its error. We should put at the forefront of our campaigning:

Get Back In.

Let us have Get Back In as the first item in our manifesto. Let us have Get Back In on every piece of election literature, on our membership cards, as the strap line under our logo. Let us replace the, frankly vapid, “working for you” and “winning here” with Get Back In. We need to make it clear that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote for re-joining Europe. Re-joining Europe fully: no opt-outs, no special conditions, in the Euro on day one. Let us Get Back In, fully.

But wouldn’t we be failing to accept the decision of the electorate? Not at all. We have no power to overthrow the result of the referendum, no power to reverse that decision or force another vote. It is not in our gift and will not be unless the public subsequently votes and in heavy numbers for parties, like ours, that seek re-entry.

But they’ve just voted to Leave the EU and we’re going to turn around and try and sell them the exact opposite? Yes. Politics isn’t retail: if your product doesn’t sell you don’t simply change the product. “The economic suicide look is absolutely huge this season. Let’s have redundancies in the window, let’s have ruined prospects all over that wall over there, let’s have a renewed threat of conflict display over there”. No, we must propose what’s right and, if we fail to convince, accept that decision.

Fine, it’s a principled stand but isn’t it ultimately pointless advancing a policy with no hope of gaining popular support? We need to bear in mind that, although the referendum was lost a full 48.1% of those voting voted remain. The 51.9% that voted to leave are about to start experiencing the effects of their foolishness. I suspect that were the referendum to be re-run this afternoon the result would be very different.

But no opt-outs, no special conditions, the Euro? Come on! Are you crazy? We’ve got to start being honest with the electorate. We’re not going to stop the other 450 million citizens in their progress towards closer union. Neither are they likely to offer us a permanent “associate membership”, a two tier Europe with one member in the second tier. Whilst we do not know the future shape of the EU, at some point “the EU” will be talked about in much the same way that we talk about “the United States”. We have a straight choice: full and equal citizenship in the unified EU or subjects in a separate, friendless, impoverished and diminished UK.
Let’s chose the former, let’s Get Back In.

* Tony Lloyd is a member in Lewisham Liberal Democrats, an accountant and so pro European that he insisted on the European national anthem at his wedding.

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  • Alisdair McGregor 24th Jun '16 - 1:48pm

    I agree. Especially with 16 million people who voted Remain and all other parties (including Labour) shifting to accommodate the Leave crowd, there is a huge space for a Liberal Internationalist, Pro-EU Party in British politics – and that must be us.

  • Martin Land 24th Jun '16 - 1:54pm

    I agree, unless the brexiteers give me a free unicorn.

  • Perhaps we should wait and see who was right. I predict we are not the last to leave the EU.

  • paul barker 24th Jun '16 - 2:01pm

    Excellent! This is what I was trying to think, if my brain were working.
    We can get a chunk of the 48% the same way The SNP got their 45%.
    Get back in!

  • Paul Rickett 24th Jun '16 - 2:06pm

    As a party of internationalists we now need to work supportively with the Scottish and Northern Irish people to ensure their national decisions are respected. If this now means backing Scottish independence so be it. I say this as a Scottish-residing former No-voter. This will be the big test of LibDem courage which the usual Londoncentric perspective above doesn’t begin to engage with. All of the U.K. Is now under the malign grip of nationalism. To have any relevance and dignity we need to have the courage to at least work – supportively but not uncritically – with those elements that retain some kind of internationalist perspective. I fear this however may be too great a leap, however in line with some of our core Liberal values it is. Let’s make the best of a bad situation: we should be quite good at that by now.

  • We have to seek new ground. The Liberal consensus is at least moribund probably deaf forthe next decade. We have to be flexible, perhaps face unpallatable facts that we are out of touch with millions of ordinary voters, and then identify how we do re-connect. It may be on an issue that is not seen as the normal way of Liberal Democrat thinking, it could be caps on immigration from the EU as an example, there are others, we should start supporting Independence for Scotland, perhaps stop being Canute like but going with some flows. If want to survive and be a political force again then we need to be clearly defined and identified with an issue or issues distinct from others. It would not go down well with the moralistic element in our party but I would suggest we have to be practical to survive.
    The cosy centrist approach should be avoided at all cost.
    AND of course stop banging on about PR. It is boring to the majority and anyway potentially self destructive for the party, again Scotland is a good example.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 24th Jun '16 - 2:09pm

    Right do what you’re saying is vote liberal democrat to overturn a democratic decision made by the majority of the electorate? You sure that’s a democratic thing to do? Especially for a party so against FPTP?

  • The people are not wrong, the fact is that everyone from Europe to Westminster they forgot that its peoples lives, if you had concerns you were cast as xenophobic or racist. So perhaps try listening and creating pan european agencies that give countries flexability instead of rigidity

  • I agree with this – we are too often vapid and fail to convey what we are really about. We stand out policies and I bet no other party would say this.
    In terms of once we leave we won’t be allowed back in without adopting the Euro – but in say 10 years time it may not be as unpopular as it is now.

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Jun '16 - 2:26pm

    Hmm. I’m torn on this.
    A: I agree with large chunks of this and wanted a more democratic, more integrated EU.

    B: It is possible to imagine a movement for liberal democracy outside the EU; if we make EU enthusiasm the entry-price of being in a movement for liberal democracy, conservative and anti-politics parties will hoover up those who are Eurosceptic, particularly among the class groups we already find harder to reach. GIven the traction the Brexiteers found among the working classes, are we not just shutting ourselves in a middle class echo-chamber if we go down the route you propose?

  • But what if it isn’t a disaster for England and our huge banking sector starts to look less shaky than the Euro, what if other countries start to shift away from the EU?

    Maybe the point is that this isn’t a failing economy being forced out. It’s the EU’s second largest economy and its largest financial centre pulling out.

  • Malcolm Todd 24th Jun '16 - 3:10pm

    “We’re not going to stop the other 450 million citizens in their progress towards closer union.”

    Are you sure? Like it or not, we may just have done precisely that.

  • David Allen 24th Jun '16 - 3:49pm

    “There is a huge space for a Liberal Internationalist, Pro-EU Party in British politics – and that must be us.”

    Yes, but diving in at once with a demand to set aside our democratic vote would just make us look silly. Everyone else is going to watch and see how things go. There could well be a lot of surprises, probably nasty ones. In a year’s time the options will probably look more complicated than they do now.

    So let’s just set the tone, at this stage. We should all be driving around for the next few years with distinctive yellow window stickers with our party’s name in one corner, and the banner headline “DON’T BLAME ME – I VOTED REMAIN!”

    Let’s start now, when people will probably laugh at us. As events develop, you can bet they will all stop laughing.

  • David Boynton 24th Jun '16 - 3:58pm

    No No No, we need to fight for the Uk while offering a referendums to Scotland, Wales and NI, to finish the subject of the U.K. For a lifetime. While at the same time working with europe on climate change and such like. We need to engage with the world not just the EU

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Jun '16 - 4:00pm

    Have the usual sensible voices praising this article read all of it? ” in the Euro on day one”.

    As I said on here nearly 12 months ago: “My opinion is that the Euro is finished” and whilst I’ve not thought about that statement much since I feel it more strongly now.

    Also, I thought there was a developing consensus against “neverendums”? Referendums are once in a generation things per topic, not each side wanting a referendum every five years and then try to turn over the other side’s vote.

  • But what if it isn’t a disaster for England and our huge banking sector starts to look less shaky than the Euro Glenn 24th Jun ’16 – 2:41pm

    Well at the present time our investment banking sector looks even more shaky than the Euro, given Brexit puts London outside of the EU, hence all the foreign investment banks that set up in London because it was in the EU now have little reason to continue being in London and every reason to move to Dublin or Frankfurt…

  • I hate to be so negative, but it really does seem like, for the foreseeable future, successful parties will be those who promise lower immigration and as many policies against immigrants as possible(less/no benefits, no housing, no pensions, no healthcare, ETC).
    I guess Lib Dems could adopt such measures…or “light” versions of such policies…but it feels pretty antithetical to Liberal values.

    I’m not really sure there is an answer, other than fight hardest for what we believe in and try to weather the storm until the young liberal voters of today make up a majority.
    Either that, or risk alienating our traditional voters again by adopting such positions.

  • David Cooper 24th Jun '16 - 4:12pm

    What an utterly arrogant article. Maybe we should fire the electorate?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Jun '16 - 4:15pm

    I think the obsessive enthusiasm for the EU by some is as ludicrous as the anti stance of those who sahre that obsession.

    Liberalism , social democracy , democracy itself , survives.We must make it thrive.It starts by listening and thinking and planning for the future that can be and ensuring that we have a part in it by not going off half deluded ! .

  • Tony Lloyd is completely wrong our main aim should not be to “Get Back In” the EU. We need to address the concerns of those who voted to leave the EU not ignore them. It would be a catastrophic mistake to join the Euro. A single currency always causes regional problems and the bigger the geographical area covered the bigger the regional problems and the need for financial aid for the poorer regions from the rich. Until the population of Germany and all of the richest countries in the EU accept the need to pay more taxes to be spent in the poorer countries joining the Euro will be a huge mistake.

    I hope we can do some research on how strong our local parties are in the areas which voted to remain in the EU with a view to invest money and time in building up local parties in these areas. It is likely that those who voted to remain will share many of our values and these areas might be the best prospects for us making gains in a future general election.

    @ Matt (Bristol)
    “if we make EU enthusiasm the entry-price of being in a movement for liberal democracy, conservative and anti-politics parties will hoover up those who are Eurosceptic, particularly among the class groups we already find harder to reach. GIven the traction the Brexiteers found among the working classes, are we not just shutting ourselves in a middle class echo-chamber if we go down the route you propose?”

    We must not become “a middle class echo-chamber”. We must reach out to those who voted leave and we must have solutions to addresses the real causes of their discontent, build more houses, ensure real wages increases, ensure that all people can find a job and not feel left behind.

  • Let us Get Back In, fully. …

    I share Lorenzo Cherin’s concerns. As yet and until someone actually invokes Article 50 the UK is still in the EU, so the immediate concern isn’t rejoining the EU but in not formally exiting the EU. However once the UK embarks on the Article 50 exit conveyor, it is highly unlikely that the remaining EU members would consider an application from the UK to rejoin within the next 40 years ie. Turkey is more likely to join than the UK is to rejoin…

    So our immediate concerns are to prevent the invoking of Article 50, to allow events to unfold and permit a second referendum and if that fails to come to terms with our new world outside of the EU.

  • Stevan Rose 24th Jun '16 - 9:33pm

    “Maybe we should fire the electorate?”

    No, but we could make the over-70’s sit a test before they are allowed a vote. After all, they are not trusted to do jury service. Any signs of casual racism or homophobia and they don’t get on the register. I’m guessing they’ll be no option to challenge on human rights grounds going forward. It should reduce UKIP votes considerably.

    In coming weeks and months I suspect there will be plenty of regrets amongst Leavers who start to realise they were sold a pig in a poke. Assuming the Remain claims of doom and gloom were accurate and not grossly exaggerated like the Leave nonsense that is. In which case the regretful need somewhere to give them hope and we can certainly provide that. But the sensible Brexiteers realise they can mitigate most of the risks of exit by taking the EEA – Norway option, something that would probably work for most Remainers as well as many Leavers, whilst keeping UKIP in their box. In that case a Lib Dem obsession with rejoining won’t really help us regain our votes and seats.

    I’m drawn to “Get back in” instinctively but on two conditions. Firstly only if we don’t now take the EEA route as a country, and secondly only if we at last accept the legitimate concerns of the electorate. We cannot have unlimited immigration without the housing, healthcare, education and transport infrastructure in place **first**. People are fed up with overcrowded trains, weeks to get GP appointments, overpriced housing, and an inability to get kids into local schools, because they are competing with recent migrants. This party is perceived as being naive and being unconditionally in favour of open door migration. Unsustainable, we must change that perception or be wiped out. Perhaps we can be the Party of Sustainable Migration. Oh, and I would also add a commitment to a mandatory referendum on any future expansion to kill the Turkey question.

  • As a consistent Lib Dem voter since I first case a vote 20 so years ago … I would say you are on the wrong track. The people have spoken and the result is the UK will leave the EU, likely that process will be complete or at least ongoing before any general election. So the suggestion is that you turn round and say to everyone … You’re wrong, we should rejoin the EU. Well first off that’s likely going to be impossible, the 27 remaining members of the EU would likely slam the door in your face and who can blame them. Second you’re going to alienate between 52 and 99% of the populous … Even those who wanted to remain!

    So look to the future. Listen to what people are saying. Find out why everywhere from Sunderland and Carlisle to Devon and Kent voted leave. You can bury your head in the sand and think it’s down to racism and intolerance of immigration (and I for one don’t believe that immigration itself IS much of a problem) but that will be throwing away the opportunity to reshape this great … And yes we can still be a great if small … Nation.

    So put your heads together, set forth a vision for the future, one where everyone has worth whether a builder, a manufacturing worker, a teacher, a solicitor or even a banker. Look to the future where everyone leaving school has the potential for a secure working life. A life where working gives enough to raise a family in comfort if not luxury. A country where the welfare bill is reduced because fair wages mean welfare is only needed as a safety net. A country where we can provide to everyone in need. A FAIR nation.

  • The sky has not fallen in and free movement etc has only been in place since the early 2000s really. If you were a student in the 1990s you’ll remember that it was not the dark ages.

  • Bernard Salmon 24th Jun '16 - 11:24pm

    The reason that the idea of having as many policies as possible against immigration to achieve ‘success’ seems antithetical to liberal values is because it IS antithetical to liberal values. We believe in treating people as individuals, not just as members of a group labelled as immigrants. Quite apart from the moral questionability of such an approach, it makes absolutely no sense for the Lib Dems to engage in such a race to the bottom – if restricting immigration is your main concern, you’re quite likely to find a policy you like from Ukip, the Tories or the John Mann wing of the Labour Party before you even think to see what the Lib Dems are saying. If we’re not going to express that immigrants are human beings first and foremost and that immigration is a net benefit to the UK, who the hell is?

  • My suspicion is that a deal brokered by the Americans will be cobbled together quite quickly (over the summer). There will be a few cosmetic concessions to allow the Brexiteers to save some face, and the package will be put to a second referendum within the year. The Americans will tell Johnson in no uncertain terms that he has to support their deal or else. Farage will cry foul very loudly, but with economic meltdown looming, a lot fewer people will be listening than did last Thursday. There is simply too much at stake for the global elite both economically and strategically for Britain to be allowed to cut itself off from Europe and for Europe itself to disintegrate.

    Look at the local authority breakdown of Thursday’s vote. Most Tories voted Leave, but not everywhere. You will see some very high status areas that voted Remain, including Elmbridge, where 59.53% voted Remain. The Tories who live in these places are the movers and shakers, the bankers, lawyers, financiers, senior managers, the people who understand how economic systems work. They will be fighting like tigers behind the scenes to avert the apocalypse. Watch this space.

  • Bernard,
    Immigration is more complicated than both camps make out. The idea that it is a net economic benefit, which it most definitely can be, is off set by the negative effect it can have on democracy. The point being if local people are troubled by mass immigration it alters the political landscape. One of the myths that surrounds the EU referendum is that it is areas that have fewer immigrants that voted leave, but this is not true of the Midlands or England generally which both have huge populations and a lot of immigration. And it is not true of Scotland and NI which both have much lower population density and much lower immigration levels. England voted leave. Scotland and N voted remain. You can see a similar pattern across Europe.

    Obviously liberals shouldn’t be trying copy the right wing, but maybe there should be more questions asked about effects of immigration on liberalism.

  • The arrogance of Lib Dems never ceases to amaze me, no wonder you loved the EU so much.

  • @Bernard
    You’re making the mistake of treating all policies that control immigration as policies “against” immigration. There are plenty of people out there who are pro-immigration but can see no moral problem in wanting to control it (in terms of numbers/type etc) so as to optimise the benefits, both to us as the host country and to the immigrants themselves. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this view, yet people who hold it have had to endure years of insults from liberal politicians. This has driven millions of them in to the Leave camp and led us to the mess we are in today.

    Notwithstanding the fact that there are plenty of genuine bigots out there who deserve to be called on it – it honestly isn’t that hard to tell the difference between a true racist and someone who has legitimate concerns about (say) the strain on services in areas that have had a sudden large influx, yet liberals have spent years treating the two groups as if they are exactly the same. End result: catastrophe.

    The heat and emotion needs to be taken out of the entire immigration debate and we need what is essentially a technical discussion about how best to manage immigration for the benefit of everybody. That’s the only way we will drive the toxicity out of politics and get things back to normal.

  • @Steven Rose No, but we could make the over-70’s sit a test before they are allowed a vote.

    I note the casual ageism in your comment, which reflects others around here. My household was quite surprised when our daughter told us the result of her secondary school’s referendum:

    360 – Remain
    365 – Leave

    This from an academy with a relatively high number of children from EU countries, that undertakes many school trips to EU countries and located in an area which has substantially benefited from EU development aid.

  • Stevan Rose 25th Jun '16 - 1:35pm

    “I note the casual ageism in your comment”

    The age profile of remain and leave voters is of significance. Over 65’s are strongly for leave with under 30’s very strongly the other way. Boris has acknowledged that. Schoolchildren are liable to be heavily influenced by teachers and parents however so I would be surprised if that school poll was far different to the result for the area as a whole. Within 10 to 20 years the demographics will have moved such that there will be a decent majority for rejoin. The elderly, often with references to a war that ended 70 years ago, carry a lot of blame for this result but it is the young that will be most impacted. I call that selfish. But it isn’t every senior citizen, just 75% of them.

  • Jenny barnes 25th Jun '16 - 2:30pm

    We haven’t actually left the EU yet. As Imunderstand it, we start negotiating to leave by invoking article 50 and then actually leave once agreement isreached or 2 years is up, whichever is first.

  • Sue Sutherland 25th Jun '16 - 4:31pm

    I think the free movement of people is a glorious ideal between countries of roughly equal economic success. Not enough attention has been paid to what happens when inhabitants of those who have been failing economically are suddenly allowed to move freely and the effect it can have on areas of relevant poverty in richer countries. I like the idea of sustainable migrancy and a technical discussion of the subject, but I like the idea of helping the poorest in our society to share in our economic success even more. The fact that extremist politics has won is because it was working in the fertile field of the powerless who took the democratic opportunity, registered to vote and came out to vote Leave.

  • The discussion above demonstrates how this issue is fraught with split opinions. Unless the libs can find one view, they will get nowhere.

    In my opinion leaving it till an election in 4 years is too late. If the cons overturn the parliament 5 year term and have an election now, then it might be a useful election issue because the matter will not have been decided. The real time to push is right now, and there will never be a better opportunity to join/rejoin/remain in the the EU on such good terms as we have right now.

    i do not accept that a single EU superstate is inevitable. Even the US is not such a state. I do not accept that eventually such an outcome would be necessarily bad, though I do not support it now. I think this is a real opportunity to enshrine two track europe within the treaty, and it is possible even some euro countries will drop out to the outer track. But equally I think the euro system needs improving to prevent banking problems being dumped upon member countries when it should not be their responsibility but should be that of the ECB. That is the central necessary change.

    Right now 2.8 million have signed the petition for a quorum on referenda, which was not met by this one. Already Leave have admitted they lied and have stated they made no promises. They show every sign of accepting the truth of the remain arguments about bad economic consequences, and have no plan whatever what to do next.

    The whole rationale of holding a referendum was that the UK people had not been told the truth about EU membership. Well now Leave have admitted they did not tell the truth about the consequences of leaving. Voters are already starting to report feeling betrayed and that they would have voted differently had they known. A referendum is supposed to be an exercise in democracy, not who can lie most convincingly. It is only advisory, not binding. Parliament knows leave lied. Parliament has a democratic and even legal duty to reject the result because of fraud. Leave had the chance to set out an alternative future for the country, but they chose to lie. It is stupendous arrogance to then turn around and say, ‘we lied, live with it, we tricked you and we will force you to accept it’.

    No, parliament has the legal right to reject this, and the democratic requirement to do so. Democracy means nothing otherwise, and this is no better than the expenses scandal.

  • I should also note that the cons have handled this brilliantly well. Two senior conservative politicians, one leading leave and one remain? As a party they could not lose! UKIP have been well and truly toasted. just as they did to the liberals in recent times. The libs must choose a side. If its in the Eu then they must start to fight right now to stay in and keep the best terms we are ever likely to get. Now. At once. This idea that the party must appeal to everyone, especially the middle ground, is a folly which has well nigh destroyed it. Labour has a similar problem, but that is for them to sort out.

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