I’ll start with a confession, I hate referenda. When you live in a delegated democracy, like ours, with a Parliamentary system, referenda are, in my view, a method by which politicians abdicate their responsibility. There is much we can do to further and better democratise our system. For starters, get rid of the unelected second chamber, introduce the right to recall MPs and perhaps, more radically, annual Parliaments or stagger elections so that the complexion of the Commons alters in line with changing public opinion. But referenda, really? The way people vote in them is complex and seldom purely based on the single issue on the ballot paper. A binary choice is not usually conducive to delivering the wishes of voters never mind coherent policies. And my hatred of them is because they are extremely unlikely to reflect what people actually want.
So what I’m about to say, surprises even me. After May’s underwhelming performance in Florence where she kicked her own Brexit ball into the long grass, a referendum on the final deal versus our continued membership of the European Union may be the only way out of the bind we find ourselves in.
We now know that nothing will change until at least 2021. May’s careful choice of words in Italy has opened up the possibility of a transition period extended well beyond this date. No doubt pressure for this to be the case will mount as businesses continue to demand greater certainty before making investment decisions. The good thing is May won’t be around to see the end of this process as she is already living on borrowed time and, it’s highly unlikely that the minority Tory government will survive that long either. I believe it will fall to a Labour government to decide Britain’s future relationship with the EU, in which case we will be able to deploy the policy made by our party conference last year which overwhelmingly passed a motion which left the door open to a referendum on the final Brexit deal.
Apologies for the brutal reality of demographics and the last Brexit vote into which I’m about to delve. But if Britain is to de facto leave the EU in 2021 as May hinted, over 2.5 million people who were entitled to vote in the June 2016 referendum will be dead. The electoral pool will be replenished by a similar figure of those who were too young to vote fifteen months ago. That is a change in the electorate of over 5 million people. And the human birth/death cycle ratio means this figure will increase by over an extra million a year if the transition period is elongated. A Zombie Prime Minister is one thing but, allowing decisions made by the dead to dictate our future is utterly ridiculous. To paraphrase Marx, let not the Brexit vote of dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Hence, with a heavy change of heart, but with a very clear head, I now believe a referendum on the final deal versus continued EU membership may be the only way to ensure a democratic outcome from Tory Brexit.
Manuel Cortes is general secretary of the TSSA.
In Brighton for conference? Why not come to the LabourList-TSSA #FreedomRally where we will host a range of speakers including Cortes and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, 9pm, Albert Room in the Grand Hotel.