A 'People's Vote' On Brexit Is a Terrible Idea
The big-business backed, astroturf campaign to stay in the EU will lose, and it deserves to.
17th Feb 2017. Tony Blair makes a keynote speech about Brexit at an Open Britain event held at Bloomberg in London. (Vickie Flores/Alamy Live News)
A People's Vote? That's so 2016.
Remainers can never be accused of being boringly consistent. From "referenda are non-binding, parliament is sovereign" to "let's have another referendum!", they are wonderfully undogmatic about their dogma.
George Osborne's Evening Standard is the most hyperventilating supporter of the People's Vote, a campaign group calling for a public vote on the final Brexit deal. The paper, promoting a march in London this Saturday organised by the campaign, claims that it's a "grassroots campaign with support from across the political spectrum". Except that it isn't. The campaign, as it says on its website, is run by Open Britain, which also funds an anti-Brexit "youth movement" founded by PR man Felix Marquardt, known as Our Future Our Choice. This is what is known as astroturfing – when an organisation presents a campaign as being organised by members of the public – and its organisers still haven't stopped treating us like idiots.
Open Britain is the successor to Britain Stronger in Europe, the official campaign of Downing Street during the referendum. It is led by the campaign's former press chief James McGrory. Its killer political instincts can be gauged by the failure to notice the significance of the initials "BSE". It was launched by Tory peer and former M&S boss, Stuart Rose, and June Sarpong, in a complacent, gaffe-ridden affair which drew press heckles. Its board, no doubt reflecting its idea of diversity, included Tory MP Damian Green and Labour apparatchik Will Straw, Karren Brady of the Apprentice, New Labour Peer Peter Mandelson and millionaire businessman Richard Rudd. Its first video was essentially a celebration of easyJet, gap yahs and deregulated markets. Its first "letters" to the public were written by such figures as Alan Sugar and Richard Branson, celebrating the fact that the EU gave them huge market access.
In short, Open Britain is the successor to a campaign whose pitch was: the EU is great for rich people! With these impeccable business credentials, it raised more than twice as much money as Vote Leave, raking in donations from Lord Sainsbury, hedge fund manager David Harding and Travelex founder Lloyd Dorfman. As Rafael Behr’s detailed postmortem shows, they used that money to hire the genius who masterminded the Liberal Democrats' 2015 campaign, Ryan Coetzee. Coetzee’s messaging supposed that most swing voters would identify their interests with those of business owners, since the economic dislocations following from Brexit would hurt them, their jobs and their public services. The campaign ignored, as much as possible, traditional social-democratic opposition to the EU, which regards it as an undemocratic business club. This is a view to which many Labour voters still cleaved, and for this, among other reasons, a third of Labour voters ultimately backed Leave. They staged the debate as one between two factions of the right: the Brexiteer loonies vs the sensible, if somewhat hard-nosed, establishment. And lost to the loonies.
Two years on, they appear to have changed tactics. From being a campaign of the establishment, by the establishment and for the establishment, they’re now styling themselves as a populist insurgency. Or what a PR agency might think a populist insurgency looks like, if it was led by the sorts of people who "wanna be inside EU". Liberated from being an official government campaign, they claim they want to build a "new grassroots movement". And they want it, as clearly as possible, to simulate a generational revolt. Hence the mind-numbing Remainer propaganda #askingforageneration, campaigning "For Our Future’s Sakes" (FFS) and pointing out that the old codgers who voted Brexit will die soon, so can be ignored. Hence the ghastly EU Supergirl representing 'the youth of Britain". Hence the People’s Vote march claiming to be a march "for the future", "led by young people whose voices were ignored two years ago".
The one wrinkle in this strategy, apart from the fact that it is utterly vacuous and verging on sociopathic in its incitement of resentment against the elderly, is that their radical, anti-elite, youth wedge is being commandeered by such young upstarts as Tony Blair, Michael Heseltine and Nick Clegg. Such down-to-earth ordinary folk as Delia Smith, Steve Coogan and Bob Geldof. Tracy Ullman, Eddie Marsan and Deborah Meaden. Not to mention, Polly Toynbee, and Chuka Umunna. Granted, Alan Sugar has been dumped, perhaps owing to his notorious propensity to drop a bollock every five minutes. But this cavalcade of ancient stars and politicians looks dispiritingly like the crowd at one of those ITV shows like An Audience with Joe Pasquale. And they’re still treating us as gullible fools to be manipulated by supposedly clever messaging, as if that entire way of doing politics hasn’t been in crisis for the last five years.
Remain would lose a second referendum, perhaps worse than before. There has been a lot of giddy excitement among Remainers over polls which show support for a second referendum increasing. The problem for them is that it doesn’t mean voters have "come round" to their view. A fifth of Leave voters currently back a second referendum, in all likelihood as a guarantee against May’s coming sell-out of her hard Brexit promises. The evidence is that pre-existing attitudes have hardened over Brexit. Recent polling suggests that the nightmare for People’s Vote advocates, the Canada-style hard Brexit trade deal, is more popular among voters than remaining in the EU. All of this is assuming a vote is even possible. Even if parliament were to vote for such a thing, which is extremely unlikely given the parliamentary arithmetic, it would be highly impractical to arrange.
The main reason the Remainers would lose again, however, is that they’ve learned nothing. They still talk in generic terms about "the economy", as though everyone benefits from it in exactly the same way. As though most people might not have slightly different interests, say, to the boss of pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. They still have shockingly little to say about the institution that they say Britain must remain a part of. And nothing at all to say to the large number of people who don’t worship the triumvirate of Blair, Heseltine and Clegg. And they deserve to lose, repeatedly, until they get the point.