Back when I was a taxi driver and I said I wanted to be an MEP, people laughed at me. Now, when I say that I want a People’s Vote, to give British people the final say on Brexit, some people scoff again. But I know that this is one of the most important moments in our collective political life – we have to get it right.
I’m a Labour MEP for the North West and last week I wrote to all the CLPs in my constituency backing Labour for a People’s Vote, which is currently asking CLPs to register a motion for a People’s Vote at conference.
Before becoming an MEP, I was a university lecturer. Many of my students began their course on European politics not knowing what the European Court of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights were – let alone the difference between them. I’m not suggesting they weren’t bright (they were very bright), or that they weren’t interested in the EU (of course they were; they had chosen to study it).
What I’m saying is that, thanks to decades of hostile media coverage and the fundamentally complex nature of the EU, it is something that simply isn’t understood by the vast majority of Remainers, leavers, current affairs enthusiasts – and, yes, politicians.
Let me be clear from the outset: a People’s Vote is not about Remainers having a second bite of the apple. Sure, that’s how some Remainers (and plenty of Leave voters) will see it. And sure, I’m a Remainer and I would vote Remain again. But that’s not why I back a People’s Vote.
The way I see it is this: we voted to embark on our country’s biggest economic and diplomatic upheaval in our lifetime. We did this in the face of unfettered propaganda, fear-mongering and promises on both sides of the debate, which exacerbated an already-limited public understanding of the complex relationship between the UK and the EU.
I don’t mean to cast aspersions on voters, however they voted – it is an enormously complicated relationship which is little understood by anyone outside niche academic and diplomatic circles. This is the fault of the media, of politicians, of Brussels. There are plenty of people to blame for this. But the result, over many decades, is that most people, myself included, didn’t come anywhere near understanding the complex relationship between the UK and the EU.
Politicians and the media on both sides of the debate have tried to boil the EU down to tabloid-friendly sound-bites. The EU means jobs! The EU means immigration! The EU means investment! And so on, and so on.
The fact is, the EU is complicated. I have specialist areas of interest as a Member of European Parliament, such as Foreign Affairs and Human Rights, which I understand very well. But that doesn’t mean I have perfect knowledge of the beast, which is a world of labyrinthine intricacies – and I have no qualms in saying so.
There is a tendency to gravitate towards simple answers and to disparage complexity as unwieldy or bureaucratic, but I’d like to see anyone boil the biggest economic market on earth down to a handy one-page briefing note. Relentless attempts to do so on both sides helped absolutely nobody in the referendum.
Once you accept the necessary complexity of the EU, the idea that you can have a sensible national debate on it via the medium of slogans on the side of a double decker bus, before any actual negotiations have taken place, before any facts are on the table, becomes even more ludicrous.
We have now had an unprecedented period of public, political and media scrutiny of that relationship, of how the EU works, and of how a post-Brexit relationship might look. Media coverage has shifted from ‘straight bananas’ to the challenges of frictionless trade and movement along the border of Northern Ireland.
Let’s use this new-found public knowledge. With a government struggling to negotiate and a public better equipped than ever with the details, the country does not benefit from slamming a lid on democracy now that we’ve all learned what the WTO is.
As socialists, we have a unique responsibility to champion this cause. We have a duty to ensure that the checks and balances of the state lie with the people. We have a duty to be deeply suspicious the moment the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg declare themselves hell-bent on locking the people out of decisions which affect us all so deeply. We have a duty, in fact, to ensure that democracy is not the one-off event this government wants to treat it as.
As a party with a renewed focus under Jeremy Corbyn as champions of grassroots democratic engagement, it is our duty to spread that most fundamental mechanism of social justice beyond our Party and into public life, and to rail against any effort by the establishment to hold us at arm’s length from those checks and balances.
Maybe, in a People’s Vote, voters will vote Leave. Maybe they’ll vote Remain. Maybe Labour voters will decide that, with the details before them, the EU is a long way from perfect but it’s the best vehicle for protecting and advancing social justice. That’s an entirely separate article – but it’s also not the basic point here.
The point is having a vote that is based on a deeper understanding of the EU than most people have ever had. The point is championing informed democracy at every turn, in the face of Tory ministers and ex-ministers who would stop us sitting in judgement of their negotiations; who would stop us, the people, having the final say on the biggest political decision in living memory.
Wajid Khan is a Labour MEP for North West England.