We have the chance to hold a second referendum and stay in the EU. But only if the campaign is led by the grassroots.
The need for a so-called ‘second referendum’ – or as I’d prefer, a ‘ratification referendum’ – on Brexit is now clear. And it’s winning a wide range of backers, including the OECD just this week.
First and most fundamentally, democracy demands it. The vote on June 23rd 2016 set a direction of travel. It said, to put it in concrete terms: ‘drive north from Sheffield’. But depending on where you’re heading and the distance travelled, that allows for a wide range of destinations, from Leeds to John O’Groats.
Nothing in the referendum debate, or the vote, indicated which of those it might have been – or any point in between. Daniel Hannan, Nigel Farage and many other arch-leavers at various times said we could stay in the single market. The idea of ‘no deal’ was not even on the radar.
Secondly, we don’t have a stable government or a united Cabinet. The one we’ve got can’t even manage a debate among themselves on what destination they want.
The government aren’t providing leadership. So it must revert to the people.
Thirdly, party politics no longer gives people in most places a choice in our current electoral system. There are fervent Leave MPs within a lukewarmly a Labour Party that supports a long-transition period but eventually Brexit.
And there are passionate Remainers in the largely Leave-backing Tory Party. Only the Greens and Lib Dems line up fairly solidly behind a Stop Brexit position. So with our current politics, an election can’t solve the Brexit mess. (Indeed, with our current electoral system, an election can’t solve anything at all).
The people decided the direction. They must also be allowed to decide whether the final destination is what they want. That means a ratification referendum.
The argument is further strengthened by the fact that the debate since June 2016 has gradually built a far greater public understanding of the issues of Brexit – something that should have happened before the first vote, but couldn’t possibly in the scant period provided.
I think of an audience at the Green Belt festival. After an explanation of the insoluble problem of the Irish border, an audience member expressed with exasperation – to general approval: “Why weren’t we told this before the vote?” People have been told now, and have had a chance to hear.
If the ratification referendum were held at the end of 2018, if and when a deal had been done (or it had become clear that a deal would not be done), the public will be in a far better place to take part than they were in 2016.
But speaking as someone who wants Britain to remain as part of the EU, I sympathise with the cry I heard in York last weekend at a Citizens of Europe event: “But what if we lose the second referendum?”
That’s why it is crucial that we start now to look to build the case for a Remain campaign that looks vastly different to that of 2016. That means this needs to be a campaign led from the grassroots, making the people’s case for Europe.
We need to make the case for EU membership as the way that we can work together with people across Europe – to build a different sort of Europe.
There’s much that needs to change, to democratise, in Europe, as the Green Party has always said. But we’re starting at least starting from a better base than in Westminster.
If we’re going to make multinational companies pay their fair share of taxes, we’re far more likely to succeed by working together through the instruments of the EU than on our own.
If we’re going to defend the environmental standards hard won over decades in the Union, far better to stay in and keep them by default, than put them seriously at risk, as Brexit is doing.
If we’re going to defend human rights in the UK and elsewhere, operating through a multinational format is clearly the way to go.
As I write, the European Parliament vote on banning the glyphosate weedkiller has yet to be taken. But however it goes, there’s no doubt that citizen activism has been a key force in bringing a ban on this ubiquitous product into the range of the possible.
And when it comes to the neonicotinoid pesticides that are harming bees and other pollinators, it was our EU partners who helped drag the UK into this essential step for all of our futures.
None of these were arguments which David Cameron and his friends were ever going to make in 2016. Indeed, they never seriously tried to make any kind of positive case for the EU at all in the first referendum.
But we have the time now to build a different kind of Remain campaign. Not a lot of time, true. We need to start today.
Natalie Bennett is the former leader of the Green Party of England and WalesLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.