By Caroline Lucas
In early June 2016, a few weeks before the EU referendum, the board members of the Stronger In campaign sat around a table to discuss how the campaign was going. As usual we were presented with evidence from polling and focus groups showing that 'swing voters' would respond to warnings about the financial impact of Brexit on their lives. On polling day, people wouldn’t vote against their own self-interest, we were assured.
But they did.
As the post-referendum months roll by, and the stark reality of what Brexit means becomes increasingly clear, we're given almost daily reminders of the profound failure of the Remain campaign to tell a story convincing enough to persuade people to vote against economic disaster. The Brexit vote has already cost the UK economy £300m a week. Food prices are growing at their fastest rate in four years. Inflation is over three per cent for the first time in nearly six years. Applications from EU nurses to work in the UK have fallen by 89% since the referendum.
If this were any other government policy we would have seen a screeching U-turn already. And it isn't just a financial hit we're facing – something bigger is at stake too, especially for young people. Leaving the EU puts at risk our small country's ability to think big – and to be connected to our neighbours by more than just the Channel Tunnel. It means an end to our ability to freely live, work and study abroad. It’s an act of intergenerational betrayal.
Britain's fortunes are now in the grip of a feeble government being held to ransom by hardline backbenchers. Our current trajectory is grim – with the chance of a no-deal Brexit still looming over us, and the best case scenario trade deal set to be a significant downgrade from our current position.
The time couldn't be more ripe for opposing this Tory Brexit, yet so far there are still too few signs that most Remainers truly understand the nature of the challenge we face -and the need to avoid the mistakes of the past. This couldn’t be better illustrated than by the phalanx of men who are fronting efforts to keep Britain in the EU. Though ex party leaders and their friends often offer interesting insights, they are simply the wrong people to be heading up a campaign that must gain people's trust, and change their minds too.
We should be in no doubt that the centrism of the past has been electorally slayed, and rejected, by young voters in particular. We need new voices in our campaign. We must not become a post-politics playscheme for rudderless grandees.
If we're serious about staying in the EU, we must stop repeating the mistakes of the referendum – and start thinking about why people voted to leave and how they might come to a different conclusion now.
Stage one should be a gear shift away from an elite-led campaign. At the Stronger In board meeting on 7th June 2016 I aimed my fire at the overuse of David Cameron in the campaign. For a man who had imposed crippling austerity on a country to then warn people of the personal financial risks of voting the wrong way was arrogant at best and reckless at worse.
Now think about someone like Blair, whose deceit is etched into our collective memory. Having him front a remain campaign just won't fly.
So for the next few months, at least, let's have a moratorium on male ex-politicians taking to the airwaves as leaders on this issue. The Remain campaign needs to find new faces. Even more urgent, we must begin organising in communities so that there is a dialogue with Leavers and Remainers, one that's concerned with healing the divisions that have emerged and with growing awareness of how to secure meaningful change for the better, not just kick against the establishment.
Stage two must be a commitment to seriously tackling the underlying issues which fuelled Brexit. We should not obsess over the technicalities of a ratification referendum, for example, at the expense of reflecting on the deep reasons for the result in 2016. This cannot be done by the liberal old guard either, because it means confronting the forces that have systematically marginalised people in the processes of neoliberal globalisation.
A successful campaign must show that international solidarity, not isolation, is the best way to curtail the power of the nefarious global elite. It will be the work of many years to turn round these impacts, and to challenge the years of scapegoating of immigrants, but we have to start now by finding genuine joint solutions about people’s very real worries about jobs, pay, schools and housing. Our campaign must also show that EU reform isn't just possible, but a top priority.
Stage three must mean building on the cross-party work against Brexit that's already taking place – and that means engaging the Labour leadership. We should be honest about the fact that Jeremy Corbyn could change everything. In 2016 Another Europe is Possible asked Corbyn to join a left-wing, anti-austerity, pro-EU platform alongside myself and colleagues from all of the progressive parties. He refused. But if he's serious about doing all he can to protect public services, about being in it for the many not the few, and about a better future for our young people, he should consider doing so now. Such a cross-party campaign should clearly come out in favour of a ratification referendum, a position which research by Queen Mary University shows 78% of Labour members support.
I understand why Corbyn has so far resisted efforts to reject Brexit – indeed his triangulation on the issue has been fairly successful in its own narrow terms. But as crunch time approaches the Labour party needs to take a side, and avoid being the unwitting handmaiden to a Tory Brexit. If joining the Tories in triggering Article 50 was a mistake by Labour, failing to make a stand now – with the full facts in front of them – would be nothing short of betrayal.
Rather than continuing to falsely assert that membership of the single market means remaining in the EU, the Labour leadership should be focusing on the very real risk of Britain jumping off the Brexit cliff edge. Labour recently launched a community campaign unit, so we know they have the infrastructure to mount an anti-Brexit campaign – they now just need the leadership.
The challenge to those of us who want to stand up to the Tories' disastrous Brexit goes beyond a ratification referendum and our daily resistance: it must mean imagining a better Britain that could function within a reformed EU. And it must bring together the right people, saying the right things at the right time. Ultimately it must culminate in a ratification referendum on the final deal, and a chance for people to have a final say on their future.
Nigel Farage's call for such a vote reflects his own bravado and desperation for publicity, but it should be a call to arms for those of us who believe that we still have a chance to stop this catastrophe.
This year will define Britain for many years to come – and history will not judge us kindly if we fail to have either the courage or the tactics to stop the Brexit disaster.
Caroline Lucas is co-leader of the Green party.
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