A proxy for a People’s Vote

Demonstrators march past Trafalgar Square during the People's Vote March for the Future in London, Britain, 20 October 2018. [Vickie Flores/EPA/EFE]

It didn’t take long for the spinning to begin. These European elections were never supposed to happen in the UK but once it became clear that they would take place, it was inevitable that they would be seen as a proxy for another referendum.

The Brexit party may have comfortably topped the poll but, overall, the result was a draw. 35% of voters backed either the Brexit party and UKIP, both of whom support a WTO Brexit. But another 35% backed either the Liberal Democrats, Greens or Change UK, all of whom campaigned on a ‘stop Brexit’ platform.

The two parties who have sought to build coalitions of Leave and Remain supporters, the Conservatives and Labour, suffered heavy losses. The decision facing the UK increasingly looks like ‘no deal’ or no Brexit.

While the pro-Brexit vote coalesced almost exclusively around Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, the Remain vote was more fragmented. On the ground, the Liberal Democrats and Greens were vocal in their complaints that the presence of Change UK, the pro-Remain party formed by Labour and Conservative MPs, was peeling off votes.

“It’s the total number of votes (for pro-Remain parties) that counts,” said Change UK candidate Peter Griffiths.

For Louise Houghton, a Green party candidate in Yorkshire, the month-long European election campaign marked “a negative hiatus where we have to get tribal again”.

Houghton, who is also a People’s Vote activist in her region, told EURACTIV that the cross-party co-operation would resume immediately after the polls.

That message was heard from other parties. In fact, all pro-Remain parties reported numerous conversations with voters advising them how to vote tactically to ensure that enough pro-Remain MEPs were elected.

One irony is that despite the Labour leadership’s equivocation over a second referendum, the most frequent complaint about the cross-party People’s Vote campaign is that it is dominated by Labour supporters.

Houghton added that the People’s Vote tactics still focus too much on the exaggerations and lies told by the Leave campaign in 2016, which implies that Leave voters are stupid, and is counter-productive.

“I hope the People’s Vote campaign will be strengthened by the vote but it’s got to make some changes at the top in London. We’ve got far too much of a Labour bias,” Change UK MP Anna Soubry told EURACTIV in Edinburgh.

“At the grass-roots level, where its strength lies, it’s a wonderful rainbow alliance.”

“Once this election is over, we’re going to see a lot of cross-party cooperation, because it’s in our shared interest to be part of the EU,” said Magid Magid, one of the newly elected Green MEPs.

He said the People’s Vote campaign must move away from a campaign strategy based on facts and figures about the economy.

“We need to keep our messages simple. It’s so important to engage people on an emotional level. You need to think creatively and engage,” Magid told EURACTIV.

“Take back control means something to everybody. It’s emotive and it works. The Remain campaign was saying ‘look at the facts’ but it doesn’t work.

“It feels like there is a real poverty of hope. People want a vision they can believe in. I refuse to believe that the authors of our future are people like Nigel Farage. We need to call them out for what they are and say ‘we’ve got a better story to tell’.

The polarisation is only getting more entrenched. The surge for the Brexit party is likely to push the Conservative party – about to spend the next two months fighting a leadership contest – further to the right.

Having watched their party slump to less than 9% of the vote, Tory MPs are already talking about the prospect of an electoral pact with the Brexit party in a bid to save themselves from oblivion at the next general election.

“God only knows what Boris Johnson would do if he became leader of the Tory party,” said Soubry.

On the Remain side, campaigners hope that Labour’s heavy losses will persuade its party leader Jeremy Corbyn to move more clearly towards backing a new referendum.

“We need Labour on board saying that they are a pro-Remain party,” said Magid.

For the People’s Vote campaigners, stepping up cross-party co-operation in a push for a new plebiscite needs to start immediately.

After all, the UK is still due to leave the EU on October 31, with or without a deal, and without a second referendum, those shiny new MEP mandates secured by the Liberal Democrats and Greens on Sunday night won’t last very long.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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