Labour has many decent, sensible anti-Brexit campaigners – MPs, ex-cabinet ministers, academics, writers on Europe, serious commentators – who are hostile towards the idea of holding a new referendum. Their arguments are sincere, well-made and should not be dismissed lightly. But here are ten reasons for which they are wrong.
1. The main argument against a fresh referendum is that the people have already voted and decided. But the people vote and decide in every election or referendum – and then another election or referendum comes along and the people decide differently. In the words of David Davis: “A democracy that cannot change its mind ceases to be a democracy.”
2. Some say we should ‘get on with it’: come out of the EU, either via May’s deal or even a no-deal amputation, and let Brexit take effect. The problem is that in the political declaration agreed between the UK and Brussels, there are years and years of negotiations that lie ahead. In that time, no international business will have certainty and no British citizen can be sure of his or her right in 5-10 years to live, work or retire in Europe. Labour divisions will worsen with the lack of clarity or finality on Brexit.
3. A new referendum could imply that people were duped or stupid in June 2016. This is arrogant nonsense. But we do now know that the Brexit vote was based on endless lies – e.g. 85 million Turks about to have free movement to the UK because Turkey was poised to join the EU. Or the lie that we would have £350m extra a week to spend on the NHS after Brexit.
4. There is now compelling evidence from the United States that millions of pounds were spent to influence people via social media to vote for Brexit. This outside money was used to help the long-standing Anglosphere right-wing ambition to weaken the EU. This foreign finance was illegal under UK election law, and is being investigated by the British equivalent of the FBI.
5. The voters, especially Labour voters, have moved on. Every opinion poll now shows a majority for not leaving the EU. There are also opinion polls showing support for a new vote. To be sure, they are not conclusive, and most are within the margin of voting error. But in a democracy, waiting until you have massive majorities for change is not possible.
6. There are important demographic changes. About 1.5 million elderly people who voted for Brexit in June 2016 have now died in the normal order of things. The old voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. More than a million young citizens have reached the age of 18 since June 2016. Four out of five 18-24 year olds support staying in Europe. One can respect the June 2016 vote but one should also ask the new electorate, especially young people who will be the most damaged by Brexit if leaving Europe is what Britain’s future should be.
7. The cost of Brexit in economic terms: a major reduction in financial and other services that earn the UK a trade surplus. FDI firms from Japan, Germany, US are not sure they can stay in UK when they lose single market access. The current proposed deal does not guarantee market access, which is not covered by staying in a customs union. Business did not campaign in 2016 and has not wanted to criticise the government since then. If a new vote is agreed, this can only happen with the support of the Prime Minister and opposition. This time, unlike 2016, a proper campaign, run professionally, with truthful communications can be organised. The BBC, ITV, Sky in 2016 were not equipped to handle the tsunami of untruths, fake news and false promises of Ukip and the Leave supporters. This time, the broadcasters will be on their guard. Trade unions would take a lead in arguing against the Tory-Ukip-Murdoch Brexit.
8. The problem of free movement is finding its own solution: there is a massive exit of EU citizens from Britain as the EU economy picks up, and the devalued pound sterling is no longer worth so much for remittances back to families in poorer EU countries. Economic forecasts for 2019 place the UK 28th out of 28 EU member states in terms of growth expectation. There are good proposals, some advanced by former Home Secretaries Alan Johnson and Charles Clarke, on how to change the rules of the UK internal labour market – registration, no residence without a job, ending employment agencies hiring East European worker below UK wages, proper apprentice training, prioritising UK citizens in state employment, etc – that can give UK citizens confidence the influx of European workers can be controlled without losing access to the single market.
9. Yes, there would be anger and disappointment. But every major decision changing the settled order of things in the UK – abolishing corn laws, reforming parliament, allowing Ireland to be free, bringing in votes for women, reducing the power of the House of Lords, allowing gay rights, ending fox-hunting – have been divisive and produced counter-demonstrations and angry denunciations. This is democracy. The Swiss, who know about referendums, regularly revote them or hand the decision to the Swiss parliament if new facts emerge not known at the time of the first vote.
10. Even with May’s deal, politics and good government will be blocked as Brexit is a political super-glue squeezed into the machinery of politics, business and government. A new election will resolve nothing as parties will be split on what Brexit offer to make to voters in their manifesto. A new public vote cuts this Gordian knot.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former minister for Europe. He was a Labour MP for 18 years.