Why A People’s Vote Is The Democratic Option

An estimated 670,000 people attended the People’s Vote march in London on Saturday 20th October, demanding the public have a say on the final Brexit deal. MPs from across major political parties supported the march, including the Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable and Tory MPs Anna Soubry and Dr Sarah Wollaston.

The People’s Vote is campaigning for a second referendum because of  the lack of progress made towards a workable exit deal with the EU. Over two years have passed since a 51.89% majority voted in favour of leaving, but  little has been achieved. The former Brexit Secretary David Davis quit over Theresa May’s ‘soft Brexit’ approach, soon followed by the resignation of the then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. The brother of Boris Johnson, Conservative MP Jo Johnson, has also recently quit as Transport Minister because of the ‘incoherent’ Brexit deal. Davis’s replacement, Dominic Raab, a ‘staunch Brexiteer’ in favour of a ‘hard Brexit’ that would give EU nationals no right to remain in the UK, also resigned after being in the position for only a few months. In December, the Conservative Party unsuccessfully led a vote of no confidence against Theresa May over the Brexit deal. If the politicians negotiating Brexit cannot come to a consensus between themselves, how will they be able to reach an agreement with the EU leaders?

Pro-EU march from Hyde Park to Westminster in London on 25 March 2017
Pro-EU march from Hyde Park to Westminster in London on 25 March 2017

The People’s Vote march has received substantial criticism from Brexit supporters. On the same day as the march, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg expressed a view that is representative of many other Brexit supporters, when he tweeted: ‘We have already had a People’s vote. The People voted to Leave’. Yet such a stance suggests that since the ‘people’ (or rather, 51.89% of those eligible to vote) have voted for Brexit, then that is the final word on the matter and the result of the referendum must be followed.

 

In a democracy, however, people are allowed to change their minds. The UK typically has a general election every five years. When a party gets voted in and does not govern in the way the voter would like, they can change which party they vote for in the next election. Two years after the initial referendum, and with new information, voters do not necessarily want the same things they did two years ago. Indeed, according to a YouGov poll from September 2018, ‘public opinion has drifted slightly against Brexit’.

Rees-Mogg and other Brexiteers also ignore how the referendum was not legally binding. A core component of the UK constitutional system is Parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament has the absolute power to make or unmake any law; it does not have to follow the result of an advisory referendum, as the Miller judicial review case already confirmed.

The People’s Vote is not campaigning for the same referendum again but for a referendum on the final Brexit deal. When David Cameron first proposed the EU referendum, he stated that the vote would be between remaining or leaving on the terms he had negotiated with EU leaders. As the outcome of the negotiations is still unknown and voters in the first referendum were given no indication of how Brexit would take shape, a second referendum would act as a final check on the deal.

Bin Brexit March in Brum, which coincided with the Conservative Party conference being held in the city.
Bin Brexit in Brum, which coincided with the Conservative Party conference being held in the city.

It is not only people changing their minds that makes a second referendum necessary, but also because the Leave campaign illegally overspent, and fed lies and misinformation to the public. While white lies and exaggerations are common in politics, claiming that £350 million a week would go to the NHS on the side of a big red bus was grossly misleading. The  morning after the referendum, Nigel Farage backtracked on this claim, labelling it a ‘mistake’. How the Leave campaign was funded has also come under fire, with one of their primary donors, the businessman Aaron Banks, being accused of misleading Parliament over his insurance business’s involvement. This misleading of the public is a greater threat to democracy than holding a second vote.

Furthermore, those under eighteen at the time of the referendum were unable to vote, even though it will significantly affect their future. Around 1.4 million young people have become eligible to vote since 2016. Those unable to vote last time could now have their say with potentially significant consequences: around 75% of under-25s voted are estimated to have voted remain.

The enormity of the decision to leave the EU, the damage it could do to the UK’s economy, and how it risks peace around the proposed Irish border warrants a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal. If a second referendum were to take place, the Remain campaign would have to ensure that the same mistakes were not repeated a second time; voters would need to understand what leaving the EU would mean without being manipulated by wealthy donors and the lies of pro-Brexit figures. With evidence that some Leave voters have since changed their minds because of the lack of truth and transparency in the Brexit process, a People’s Vote is the democratic path to follow.