Thursday, March 29, 2018

But could Remain win a second referendum?

We Remainers hope for a second referendum on British membership of the European Union.

Will we get one? I doubt it.

But there is a more fundamental question. If we got one, could we win it?

Or, in other words, what has changed about Remainers since June 2016?

The weakness of our campaign then was that it made little effort to talk to older people or to those in the regions. We told people they were doing well from the status quo and should not put that at risk. But a lot of them weren't doing well and felt no compulsion to vote for the status quo. 

And the campaign failed even among those who are doing well. The most striking thing about the results was not that Sunderland and South Wales went for change. It was that swathes of comfortably off Southern England voted Leave too.

If there were a second referendum we could fight a better campaign - and not just because there would be no David Cameron, George Osborne, Will Straw CBE or Ryan Coetzee.

We could find someone who can talk to older voters with credibility - Vince Cable would be a good choice - and admit that the modern world is not one that they grew up in or feel comfortable in. But their grandchildren are very different and it is them we must think about when we go to the ballot box.

We could choose figures who support British membership of the European Union but reach out beyond the Guardian-reading classes.

Jeremy Clarkson is a good example of this. He did appear towards the end of the referendum campaign, but he should have been central to it.

We could do all this, but would we?

Since the referendum there has been a hardening of attitudes, with Remain and Leave becoming more significant allegiances that the old party labels.

In the Remain camp we constantly remind ourselves how good we are and how evil and ridiculous Leavers are. (Leavers do the precise opposite of course.)

If insulting Leavers were the key to victory we would have won the first referendum. But we didn't and there is no reason to believe that calling people "gammons" will help us more than calling them "fruitcakes" did.

This division of British voters into two camps is bad news. Bad news, certainly, for us Liberal Democrats, who are still a long way from re-establishing ourselves as the third party. But also bad news for decent politics more generally.

Maintaining the Leave identity helps the right wing of the Conservative Party, because it means they have a chance of rallying 52 per cent of voters behind the changes they want to make to British society after Brexit.

Some of these will be social gains like maternity leave, but they have more fundamental ambitions. Expect the European Convention on Human Rights to be next in their sights, and God knows would they do after that.
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It is probably all too late, but remember that you do not win close contests by insulting your opponents or reminding yourself how wonderful you are.

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