Caroline Lucas and Gloria De Piero Debate a Second Referendum

"This isn't just you, but when anybody who wants a second referendum says that, it sends off red smoke in me..."
Gloria De Piero and Caroline Lucas in Portcullis House, Westminster.

In 2016, most young British progressives took the view that remaining in the European Union was their best option. The EU certainly had its downsides, but what united much of the left (aside from Lexiteers – how's that one going?) was that a Brexit led by the likes of Boris Johnson would be a total shit-show. And they were right. However, while still united in the belief that Jacob Rees Mogg is a bellend, the left has become increasingly split when it comes to what's next for Brexit.


This is undoubtedly complex territory: there's a progressive case for holding another referendum, and there's a progressive case for not. Proponents of a "People's Vote" hope the country might come to a different conclusion now there's more evidence and the Leave campaign's lies have been disproven; others feel – despite their initial opposition – that a disenfranchised corner of the electorate has spoken, and with little change in opinion polls MPs have a responsibility to earn their trust.

It can often feel these nuances are being ignored: Conservative MPs are storming off live TV; Tory MP David Davies rudely took his phone out midway through a Brexit debate on SkyNews in a misogynistic display of how little he actually cares. Anything that does get said is drowned out by Mr STOP BREXIT, racist chanting and a lot of other disingenuous noise. So what I thought might be helpful was getting two progressive politicians to have a sensible, adult conversation about whether the country needs another vote. One free from yelling, sexism and Tony Blair.

Gloria De Piero is Labour MP for Ashfield, a Nottinghamshire seat in which 70 percent of people voted to leave the EU. With a parliamentary majority of just 441, it’s not hard to see why she’s vehemently opposed to attempts to stop Brexit. Meanwhile, Caroline Lucas, the UK's only Green MP, represents both a party and constituency (Brighton Pavilion) that very much wants to hold a new referendum with an option to remain – as she also does personally.


With our two MPs taking a seat in Gloria's Portcullis House office, I ask them a single question: Do you think the country should vote again on leaving Europe?


Gloria de Piero: It's right at the bottom of the list. Only if there is absolute deadlock. But is it my preference? And, actually, is it Labour’s preference? Absolutely not. Sometimes I'm confused when people say, "Let’s have a People’s Vote." I wonder who they think voted in the referendum a couple of years ago. Not people? Democracy has got to be respected. I have an obligation to fight for the class that I come from. And while not exclusively, huge chunks of that class – even though I campaigned for, and even launched, Labour’s remain campaign – voted for Brexit. They were trying to give us a signal, they were saying something. I’m not willing to say, "Oi, have another go, you got it wrong last time."

Caroline Lucas: I absolutely agree with you that many leave voters did want to give the establishment a bloody good kicking, and I thank them for that because they needed it. Huge swathes of this country are vastly unequal, many people who voted leave were voting to say that the status quo is intolerable. And we need to listen to that. But I am really concerned that all of the Brexits on offer look like they're going to make life even harder for many of those people. I’m not sure we all knew that in 2016. And that’s the reason I call it a People’s Vote: it’s simply to make the distinction. We are not saying, "Ask the same question again," we are not saying, "You got it wrong…"


GDP: You want remain on the ballot paper, though…

CL: I want it as an option, but I'd be perfectly happy to have a spectrum. I call it a People's Vote because it's the first opportunity we'll have had to vote with the facts. It’s not saying to people they got it wrong. What it is saying is: look, this is what has been negotiated, these are the constraints. People can now see the reality of Brexit, and going back to check that they are still happy with it isn’t a denial of democracy. Let’s be sure before we go ahead.


GDP: People who are calling for a second referendum have had a lot of airtime over the last 18 months. I’ve heard from yourself, from Chuka [Umunna], Nick Clegg and Tony Blair. There has been a lot of airtime given to this argument. And I’m quite pragmatic on this. If I could see a massive desire to overturn the democratic result, a seismic change in the polls, then I’d support you. But the polls have barely shifted.

What was really striking about that 2016 result was that the turnout was so high. One academic reckons 2.8 million habitual non-voters turned out to vote. I’ve met them in my own constituency: 60-year-old men who say that they’d never voted in a general election, but this was the one. No one will ever trust anything politicians say again if we go back on it. The other thing is I just want to stop talking about Brexit…

CL: And that is the biggest myth, to be honest. This is the awful thing Theresa May is saying. She’s saying if we just take this Brexit…


GDP: Oh, I don’t want to take her deal…

CL: Well there isn't another one on offer! Theresa May is saying, 'Take my deal and move on, we want to deal with all these other problems and the country.' Sure, we can express our scepticism about whether she actually does, but nonetheless, she’s saying it. Except we know the reality is that political declaration is a great big black hole. We're going to have years and years more of negotiations as a result. It would be to mislead the public to allow them to think that by rejecting the opportunity to have a say on the final deal somehow we can move on more swiftly.

GDP: That just isn’t going to bring the country together. People can’t believe we haven’t left yet – that is the most common thing I get on the doorstep. I’m optimistic about Labour’s plan for a permanent customs union, which could command a majority in the House.

CL: But that’s not a majority in the EU! That’s just not an option. You're going to have to go back to Brussels and disregard everything they've said about this being the final deal. It’s a total fantasy!


GDP: We've got to unite on the fact nobody wants a no deal. We have to use any tool possible to bring the country together, to respect the vote and to address those issues that you were talking about. The statistics say that we'll take a [financial] hit from no deal, so to avoid that…

CL: We'll take a hit under every Brexit deal! And that’s why I worry about many people who voted Brexit, because they did feel that things couldn’t get any worse, things were so bad – are so bad – and they feel that they have been ignored for generations by politicians in London. Yet the awful truth is, if you look at some of the government’s own modelling, the Bank of England's modelling, a hundred different modelings… they're all basically saying those communities are going to be even worse off.


GDP: Caroline, those arguments have been made! The government put a leaflet through everybody's door, remember. We made those arguments…

CL: And we have a responsibility to our constituents to understand they didn’t vote to make themselves poorer.

GDP: Wait, no. This isn’t just you, but when anybody who wants a second referendum says that, it sends off red smoke in me. Obviously there is no way I want to make my constituents poorer. But I believe in the power of government. The EU didn't give us the national minimum wage, it didn't give us the biggest investment in our schools and hospitals. Being in the EU didn’t stop the financial crash, which hurt my constituents incredibly harshly. I would however be happy to work with you to put down any amendment to say there must be no fall in environmental standards or working conditions.

CL: The leaders of Brexit, however – not the voters – want to get out of the EU for deregulation. They want the chlorine chicken from the US, GMOs, a race to the bottom on labour standards. That is the agenda of the Brexit leaders. You may say a future Labour government will do this and that, but we need cross border collaboration to be working with the EU. It’s not just a trading bloc, it’s a community of values. The idea of pooling sovereignty for the greater national good is so important.

GDP: You’ve just confirmed my suspicion that, actually, putting it back to the people is just because you think they got it wrong. I was a remainer too. [Matthew Goodwin argues] 58 percent of people who voted Brexit say they feel politicians don’t listen to them, and [another referendum] will just compound that. The working class only got the vote 100 years ago; people didn’t think we could be trusted. That’s where I come back to my point: people have spoken, often for the first time ever.


CL: I do agree with you on two things. Firstly, going around lecturing people that they got it wrong is arrogant and stupid. And secondly, I think if the People’s Vote campaign has a chance of being successful it has to change massively. I am lobbying and fighting to try and make that happen. To have Tony Blair, last week, with a People’s Vote backdrop? It’s almost like they’re trying to sabotage the campaign! We need young voices, voices from places like your constituency. People who want a final say because Parliament is gridlocked, and who realise Labour can’t – as Brussels has made clear – negotiate something better.

GDP: I’ve thought a lot about what I’d have done if my constituency had still voted 70 percent leave, but the country had instead voted to remain. I wouldn’t have demanded another vote. I would have used it as an opportunity to find out why.

CL: Believe me, I didn’t wake up the next day thinking, 'Right, let’s ask everyone again.' I have thought long and hard about why people voted to leave. That is what has led me to this point. I think the leave vote was massively important in what it said about our broken political system… it speaks volumes about the kind of country live in. But we’re 100 days from when we’re due to leave. If the Brexits on the table are going to make people’s lives worse, then there’s good reason to give people a final say on the deal.

GDP: But they’ll ask how will it get more people to university? How will it improve wages? How will it find them sure jobs? They’ll say we’ve been in the EU a really long time, and it’s not changed anything. I have a lot of respect for you and for your arguments – but I think the way to bring this country together is to get a majority on board for a permanent customs union, and to have close trading links with the EU. But also to respect the vote, and recognise that a lot of the Brexit vote, just like in my constituency, was optimistic. They thought Britain can be better than this.

CL: I agree with you. Britain can, and must, be better than this. I think that the country is horribly divided. But I think they, and we, are going to be much more divided in a couple of years' time if Brexit happens and then all of the promises which were made are shown to have been falsehoods, with people in worse-off states than before. I believe there is a better chance of bringing the country back together through the opportunity of giving people a final say on the deal. I think your imaginings of what a Labour government could renegotiate are not grounded in reality. Everything you’ve said is premised on there being a Labour government. Right now, that’s not what we have. But a People’s Vote? We can.

@MikeSegalov / @CBethell_photo