Remain campaigners are failing to listen to England-outside-London, argues former Labour MP John Denham.
The woman serving roast hog rolls in Winchester market struggled latex gloves on and off as she served food and handled money. Sharing a joke about all this ‘elf ‘n safety’ she said: “That’s why we need to leave the EU”.
I have no idea whether those food handling regulations emanate from Brussels or are followed so assiduously in other EU countries. But, repeated 10 times a day, I bet the hog roast lady is a more effective advocate than all the former government ministers of the Peoples Vote are, addressing enthusiastic audiences of the already committed.
Peoples Vote has never seemed to appreciate the everyday, almost banal, language, with which Euroscepticism is constructed, and communicated.
It is not the hyperbole of Rees-Mogg or the bombast of Johnson. It roots everyday problems and the sense of decline, insecurity and marginalisation in EU membership, justified or not.
Pro-EU campaigners needed to speak to Leavers in a language that understood how they felt. Most leaders of the People’s Vote have never shown empathy for the way Leavers saw the world. I don’t think they ever wanted to.
Political movements usually construct ideas and policies to reach the undecided and those on the other side. Peoples Vote has made no attempt to do that.
It is easier to call Leavers stupid and ill-informed than understand their worries; there are myriad reasons why rapid immigration may cause concern but it’s easier to call them racists.
In Sunday’s TV debate, Caroline Lucas, usually one of the better People’s Vote campaigners, said Brexit was “of the right, by the right, for the right” sweeping aside all the many Leave voters who are on the left on economic issues. The most public action of People’s Vote has been to persuade MPs in Leave constituencies that they can safely ignore their Leavers.
All this explains why, despite the looming disaster of both May’s deal (if it survives her no-confidence vote) or a hard Brexit, the surprise is how few people have changed their minds.
People’s Vote want to win by mobilising those who didn’t vote last time and hoping others stay at home, not by winning hearts and minds. I wanted to stay in the EU, but I haven’t supported Peoples Vote.
Brexit gave a disrupting voice to people who felt ignored. The progressive response would have been to listen to them. But this has become a battle to silence and marginalise the same people all over again. That is also why People’s Vote should not be confident about winning a new referendum.
Just think about the English. The English delivered the Brexit vote to ‘take back control’. Their alienation has been clear for years. They were far more likely than British, Welsh or Scottish to see the EU as too powerful.
They don’t want Scottish MPs making English laws any more than the Scots want the English making theirs. They want a Barnett formula that protects England’s poorest regions like Scotland is protected.
They feel least well represented in Westminster and Whitehall. These complaints could all have been addressed, but no leading politicians will speak about England.
Labour has just promised a massive transfer of power and resources from London to Scotland but made no such promise for England outside London.
We can’t unite a divided nation unless we engage with the alienation of the Leavers and make a profound change to the way England is governed. Anyone challenging the current course of Brexit must make that promise.
But where should Brexit go?
As soon as Leave won, I thought it was clear that only one option could both honour the democratic decision and minimise the economic costs: a Norway style deal.
In my naivety, I thought there was enough residual ability in our governmental elite to guide us towards that outcome. I hadn’t reckoned with the incompetence of Theresa May, nor the intransigence of the pro-EU campaign.
The scope for Norway has narrowed now, and the ground has been poorly prepared. No one has tried to engage with the Leave vote.
Indeed, the Peoples Vote, so keen to define the choice as a death struggle between two extremes, has conspired with the ‘Hard Brexiteers’ to define ‘what the voters wanted’ in the hardest possible terms.
Both sides have a vested interest in polarising choice as much as possible. The potential of a Norway deal is to speak to the real middle ground: those who didn’t like the EU much but who voted Remain, and those who voted Leave but were worried about the consequences.
For many people it would be a compromise; second best to their preferred option, but better than their nightmare. It’s a compromise that we need. It would give us time to take stock, time for some stability. Time to start listening.
John Denham is a former Labour minister and director of the English Labour Network.
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