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Take two – how would a fresh referendum play out?

December 5th, 2018

A spectre is haunting Parliament – the spectre of a new referendum.  On Tuesday, Parliament voted to allow itself to amend any back-up plan that the government brought forward in the event that its own deal was defeated in the meaningful vote next week. As things stand, defeat in that vote looks inevitable at present. The odds on a #peoplesvote or fresh referendum or re-ferendum or whatever you want to call it have risen sharply as a result.

A fresh referendum is not, however, a final outcome. It is merely a method to help the country choose a final outcome. (For that matter, it may be ineffective in helping if it results in the country choosing an option that is not available.) Far too many Remain supporters are cavorting as if the mere act of holding a referendum will result in Britain remaining in the EU. There is first the small matter of persuading the voters of that course of action.

So how would a fresh referendum play out? Remarkably little attention has been given to this obvious question.

First things first, what would the question be? One of Leavers’ best arguments against a fresh referendum is that it is not at all clear what would be asked. Would it be Remain vs Deal? Remain vs No Deal? Deal vs No Deal? All three ranked by the Alternative Vote method? Two questions, and if so which two questions? You get staunch advocates for all of these. Before you work out how the referendum would play out, you have to know what the options are.

To keep this to reasonable length I’m going to assume that the referendum is between Remain and No Deal. If you favour a referendum that involves Deal, you will have to work through the different dynamics for yourself, though there are clear similarities.

The first thing to note is that Remain lost last time. Why shouldn’t they lose again? What answers do they have to Leave’s arguments now? Remain supporters have spent over two years bleating that Leave lied about having money to put into the NHS and scaring the public about immigration. But they have given no sign that they have come up with new arguments. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and thinking you will get a different result. Remain supporters are shaping up to do the same thing. Are they insane?

Remain supporters seem to be pinning their hopes on the public concluding that Leave is not delivering on the prospectus at the last referendum. Perhaps this will be successful by itself. I doubt it. For all the fact that the most militant Leave MPs are hugely exercised by the question of sovereignty, it is very questionable whether the floating voters are.

There’s a reason why Vote Leave campaigned on immigration so hard last time. Even Theresa May’s deal would deliver control over immigration from the EU. Those Leave voters who were convinced by that last time round have seen no great reason to change their minds.  

In that time, public debate has deteriorated further. In the last referendum campaign, Vote Leave discreetly played to anti-Muslim sentiment by falsely claiming that Turkey (population 76 million) was joining the EU. Since then, UKIP has transposed to a much more strident anti-Muslim agenda.

In the last referendum, Leave.EU made the commentariat blench with its Breaking Point poster. Since then it has been pushing conspiracy theories. If you were appalled at the anti-immigration message last time round, expect the Leave campaign to be worse; much worse.

Remain supporters have an additional handicap. There is a fairly sizeable cohort of voters who opted for Remain last time round who may well abstain or vote Leave this time round, regardless of what they think about the wisdom of the original decision. Whether because they see it as a matter of democracy or regard the damage of choosing Leave to have been done already or simply have voter fatigue, they will not be voting the same way again.

Leave have a new string to their bow. A substantial part of their campaign will be based around “which part of no didn’t they understand?” A fresh referendum would have come about because the politicians have collectively failed to deliver on the last mandate. Leave supporters would argue that voting Remain would be rewarding failure. It’s a powerful argument and one which Remain supporters have not addressed at all yet.  

So if Remain supporters think that all they need to do is turn up, they are in for a nasty shock. They are going to be facing opponents who are going to be furious that the question is even asked, who will be demanding the People don’t let the elite hornswoggle them out of their Will, who will be launching an anti-immigration campaign of such causticity that it will peel the paint from the walls.  That’s going to get a lot of traction. It’s also going to make the political divide still worse.

It is certainly true that No Deal looks unattractive, and Project Fear will look both more terrifying and more credible than last time, with a far wider range of experts to make voters’ flesh creep. It’s one thing worrying about economists warning you about 8% lower growth by 2030. It’s another thing entirely worrying about running out of bog roll by 1 April.

That might well be enough to get Remain over the line and Remain probably would start as favourites. It would by no means be a done deal and all the reasons why Remain lost last time would still be there: indeed, many would have been intensified. Victory for Remain is far from assured.

That leads on to my last point.  Let’s assume that Remain does win, say by 52% to 48%.  It then has the job of uniting the nation. What is its plan to address the concerns of Leavers?  Leave advocates have comprehensively failed to offer any means of uniting behind Brexit and that is probably its single greatest failure.

Remain advocates should be thinking right now what they would do to meet the concerns of Leavers, especially on immigration. If they don’t try, any hypothetical success in a hypothetical fresh referendum might easily be overturned again at some point in the fairly near future. Indeed, if they don’t try, that hypothetical success might prove very hypothetical indeed.

Alastair Meeks