A People's Vote - a new direction
Last Sunday’s gathering at the Electric Ballroom in Camden Town for the launch of the campaign for a People’s vote on the final Brexit deal was, if not exactly an ‘I was there moment’, nonetheless significant. At last, the main pro-EU, anti-Brexit groups appear to have agreed to a joint campaign with an appealing message. However, the reality is that Open Britain is calling the tune; it organised Sunday’s event, and the four MP’s on the platform; from four different parties were all leading lights from Open Britain. Representatives from the European Movement were conspicuous by their absence, leaving open the question of whether the EM is really on board with the new direction.
The call for ‘a people’s vote’is presumably designed to re-galvanise a campaign which threatened to be stifled by the boredom voters feel over the minutiae of the Brexit negotiations. The demand is a simple one; lending itself to marches, banners, sound bites, and the opportunity to throw David Davis’s aphorism; ‘A democracy that cannot change its mind, is no longer a democracy’, back in his face. It’s an appropriate response to all those who say that the decision taken in June 2016 was the end of it.
However, I have two major concerns. First, if the demand for ‘a people’s vote’ becomes the central issue, the debate switches from the case against leaving the EU, to one about the nature of our democracy. Does sovereignty lie with Parliament or with the people? Having such a debate is as appealing to Nigel Farage and his allies, as to some fraction of the 48%. We will have lost the real plot.
My second concern is that while the call for a people’s vote has made fine headlines and given the Remain campaign fresh momentum, eventually questions will start to be asked about the practicalities. Should the vote to be held before or after Parliament votes on the terms? If before, would the result be binding on Parliament, if after, what would happen if the result differed from the vote in Parliament? What would be the question(s) be, and would they include an option to abandon Brexit altogether? If it did, what at that point does ‘Remain’actually mean? Such issues would overwhelm any sort of calm consideration of the terms themselves, though that is unlikely anyway in the febrile atmosphere that will have overtaken Westminster by November.
Fortunately, having a 'people’s vote' on the terms is almost certainly a fantasy. Following the debacle of the 2016 referendum, MPs are unlikely to again undermine the sovereignty of parliament in favour of a popular vote; particularly as the likelihood of a decisive result either way is vanishingly slim.