I hate Brexit as much as any other European teenager living in London. But at the end of the day, whether you like it or not, 52 per cent of those who voted in the Brexit referendum voted to leave the European Union.
Yes, of course the referendum was flawed, but the fact remains that the majority of people who voted voted to leave the EU community. Refusal to accept the legitimacy of the outcome denies that there could be any valid reason for sensible people to vote for Brexit, and so debases 17.4 million voters. Moreover, the result of the Brexit referendum should be respected by Parliament, not least because it is the right thing to do but also because an attempted reversal of the result would fundamentally undermine trust in British politics for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately, the European elections were treated as a proxy second referendum on Brexit. The winner? Unknown. Unsurprisingly, the Brexit Party won the European elections with 31.6 per cent of the vote. ‘Leavers’ have claimed that this conveys a mandate for the no-deal Brexit that Farage is pushing for so vehemently. Yet whilst the combined pro-hard Brexit vote (Brexit Party and UKIP together) added up to 34.9 per cent, the total unambiguous anti-Brexit vote (Lib Dems, Greens, SNP and Change UK) topped this at 39.7 per cent. ‘Remainers’ have claimed that this conveys a mandate for a second referendum or so-called ‘People’s Vote’. Both are wrong.
These European elections were not a second referendum, and they shouldn’t be interpreted as such. For starters, the Brexit Party and UKIP are not just advocating Brexit, they are advocating a no-deal Brexit. Of course, many voters supporting some kind of Brexit deal voted for alternative parties. Who’s to say, then, that Remain would definitely win a second referendum? And even if they did, the margin would likely not be decisive. Why not a third referendum then, hey?
The only thing we can be certain of presently, and all that the European election results prove, is that the UK is still as divided as it was in 2016. What is needed now is compromise on both sides of the Brexit debate, in order to reunite the nation. Theresa May tried to build up cross-party support for her Withdrawal Agreement Bill by building in Labour concessions such as environmental and worker protections, but it was too little too late. On the other hand, Labour has been widely derided by the media for its support of implementing a soft Brexit and refusal to back a second referendum under any circumstances. Yet the Labour position has always been one of pragmatism, recognising that Brexit needn’t be a binary choice.
Furthermore, it is not Labour which has prevented progression on the issue of Brexit. Many Remainers bemoan Corbyn for not unconditionally supporting a second referendum. However, alongside the customs union and ‘Common Market 2.0’ proposals, Corbyn whipped Labour MPs to vote for the ‘confirmatory vote’ amendment in both rounds of indicative votes. Despite this, it still failed by 12 votes in the second round. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems refused to whip for any options other than the revocation of Brexit and a ‘confirmatory vote’. The amendment which actually came closest to winning a majority through the indicative votes process was the proposal for a customs union with the EU, which was defeated by just 3 votes. Support for Brexit based around a customs union deal also has widespread backing from economic interests, as seemingly contradictory as the Trade Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry.
In this spirit of compromise, Corbyn laid out a bid for both Leavers and Remainers in the European election campaign, constituting an attempt to transcend the need to define people on how they voted in a referendum three years ago. Regrettably, this policy amounted to a kick in the teeth at the polls: 62 per cent of those who voted for Labour in 2017 abandoned the party in the European elections. Further, 13 per cent switched to the Brexit Party, and 39 per cent voted for the Lib Dems and Greens. Because of this, senior Labour figures such as Diane Abbot and John McDonnell have understandably given greater support to a second referendum. On the other hand, 53 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2017 voted for the Brexit Party. Thus, Theresa May’s successor, looking to be Boris Johnson at this point, will most likely have no qualms with supporting a no-deal exit on October 31.
This polarisation will further entrench the divisions in Parliament and across the country, and further frustrate the chances of any sensible Brexit deal from being passed. But a divisive Conservative leader may be enough for Corbyn to force a general election. If it gets into power, Labour cannot abandon the millions of people who voted to leave the European Union in 2016. Instead, the Labour leadership should maintain its policy of supporting a soft Brexit deal based around a customs union. For now, though, the option of another referendum should be kept on the table only as a last resort to prevent the kind of damaging Tory Brexit that Theresa May’s successor might want to inflict upon the country.