10 Resons why the People’s Vote movement failed

In many respects the People’s Vote movement was a remarkable achievement. The campaign in the UK to reverse Brexit through a second referendum became the biggest pro-European movement in any member state by a country mile. It mobilised a couple of million people on the streets of London over four demonstrations - without doubt among the largest ever seen, with millions more persuaded to back petitions or to send emails to MPs. Little before or since mobilised so many into political campaigning, it was mostly very pleasant too, yet in the end it failed.

Here are ten reasons why, stating with the three most important:

  1. Failing to recognise the result in 2016

Too many people were far too quick to call for a second vote after the 2016 debacle. In doing so they undermined their own ability to hold the promises of the leave campaign accountable and prepare the ground for the call to vote again.

  1. People just didn’t want another one

There is an inherent sense of fairness among many people in the UK. Part of that is the notion of accepting the result of the match, the race or the referee’s decision. Actually people who follow sport dispute the result all the time - but just know there is little that can be done about it. However it was more than that. The referendum had been rancorous and divisive, vitriolic and nasty. Many decent people, including many who voted to remain, just didn’t want all that again. Others, including key leading politicians, doubted the wisdom and consequences of a second vote. While many felt cheated by the 2016 vote, the peoples’ vote campaign failed to convince enough that it was worth going through it all again...

  1. Fear of the same result

... especially if the result may well be the same. And though the Peoples’ Vote tried to present itself as open minded, in reality was it was about stopping Brexit and everybody knew it. Though the polls showed a moderate but consistent shift toward a remain majority and the demographic trend had killed off the ‘leave’ majority by February 2018, there was just not enough evidence that the outcome would be different or sufficiently decisive to be worth taking the risk of backing another vote.

An inability to change minds

These are the three most important reasons, but why did the Peoples’ Vote fail to change minds in sufficient numbers? Four factors here:

  1. No leaders

Back when the ill-starred, badly branded, ineffectual, self-aggrandising ‘British Influence’ organisation was established to make the argument for EU membership, Ken Clarke and Peter Mandleson were wheeled out as front people. I observed in my newspaper column at the time that credible and committed to the cause though they were, Ken Clarke was even then very old and had failed more than once to become Conservative leader whilst Peter Mandleson (who I personally admire as a communicator) was a former EU Commissioner and never exactly Mr Popular with the wider public. Along came the remain campaign proper which opted for a businessman who rapidly disappeared in a cloud of mediocrity never to re-emerge. Nothing had been learned - no leader(s) meant no personality, no personality meant less media time, meant no leadership. Nothing to identify with. Certainly not for those for whom the charms of David Cameron remained a mystery.

  1. No recognisable strategy

Not only was it never clear who was in charge, it was entirely unclear where the campaign was going and by when it would do whatever might be next. Some of the campaign decisions were inexplicable and despite great success that got noticed there was a consistent failure to anticipate the approach of the Brexiteers and how their arguments might be countered. While we were arguing for the second referendum Farage and his friends were fighting it. There may have been a plan, but it wasn’t transparent and it certainly wasn’t clear how minds would be changed.

  1. Cranks and flags

In many ways the Peoples’ Vote movement was both pro-European and quinticentially English - eccentric and, well, harmless. However it all had the feeling of a very large choir preaching to itself. Having no especially defined imagery, the images of EU Flag waving, hat wearing, face painting were loved by the converted. These ‘remain ultras’ seemed to have no idea how the the symbolism of their European identity was regarded as foreign and threatening to many who see themselves as patriotic and proud to be British. To be fair, many running Peoples’ Vote and the other ‘remain’/second referendum campaigns would acknowledge this but had no idea how to brand it. It was symptomatic of twains not destined to meet and exactly what the Brexiteers wanted.

  1. Defending the EU Status Quo

The core of the Peoples’ Vote movement were ‘believers’ - people who felt the EU was of itself a ‘good thing’, rather than makers of a pragmatic, patriotic case for UK involvement to serve the best interests of UK people and to bring about change. Whatever the intent the movement came across, especially given the imagery, as defending the EU ‘warts and all’. Not only that, the EU was ‘better than Britain’. The need to re-butt lies and Eurosceptic propaganda kept pro-EU campaigns on the back foot. Again exactly what the Brexiteers wanted.

Politics as usual

But despite all this the People’s Vote movement came very close to achieving a Parliamentary majority for a second vote. By February 2019, the Government’s Brexit strategy was in tatters. Brinkmanship took the process close to the 29 March deadline and the largest demonstration took place in London. Then out politicians failed the movement:

  1. The EP elections

Nobody had expected the European Parliament elections to take place and nobody had prepared for them - except Nigel Farage. Elections have a way of shattering coalitions. The desire for party political advantage pulled apart the defacto remain alliance that had emerged. That division destroyed the potential to defeat Nigel Farage and thereby sealed the fate of the second referendum - despite results that told a different story.

  1. Labour

The failure to defeat the deeply unpopular Nigel Farage was ultimately Labour’s failure. I have written on this elsewhere. However this was not Labour’s only failure. Opposing HM Government’s flagship policy can only be carried out effectively by HM’s Loyal Opposition. Labour failed so frequently throughout the process that in the end it was not surprising that it missed the opportunity to get the nation, the political centre and its own leadership off the hook by backing the Kyle-Wilson amendment giving conditional approval to Mrs May’s Withdrawal agreement but making it subject to a second referendum. Labour was, as always, Labourist. Self-defeatingly tribal in its policy evolution and actions, deluding itself that the election of a Labour Government could somehow resolve Brexit around a less damaging deal despite all evidence to the contrary.

  1. Liberal Democrat’s (and the SNP)

The Liberal Democrats drove the final nails into the coffin. Peddling the dubious notion that a vote for them alone in the European Parliament elections could ‘stop Brexit’ when the decision resided as Westminster was fundamentally dishonest. Their successful use of the Peoples Vote machinery to make give partisan ‘tactical’ voting indications in a PR election guaranteed to unseat remain supporting Labour MEPs. This undermined the remain case within Labour and eliminated the chance of knocking Nigel Farage out of first place. It was a massive tactical error which in the end did the LibDems no good.

Even more baffling, having done rather well with a simple message, the LibDems moved to a complicated and implausible message around the democratically unsustainable policy of ‘revoke’. The approach lost support and undermined the notion of taking the issue back to the people.

However the ultimate crime perpetrated by the Liberal Democrats was gifting Boris Johnson the election he always wanted just on the point when the option of removing the Govenment had not been pursued. Their belief that they could win 100 seats was always a fantasy. It denied the logic of both first past the post and their history as a protest vote. At a European election ‘stop Breixt’ was a neat protest - at a general election it prompted the question ‘how’?

The SNP also deserves a mention. They too gifted Mr Johnson his election. They too put their party interest before the national interest. Though at least in their case it is not a nation they believe in and their expectation of gaining seats and votes turned out to be correct. It was pretty cynical stuff, but the clue is in the name - independence is the priority.

Heroic failure

Though politicians failed the people’s vote movement it isn’t the whole story. The movement failed to convince the public. MPs simply did not have the evidence that sufficient minds had changed to take the risk of backing another referendum. The judgement of MPs was in some cases flawed or gutless or both, but in others it was heroic. MPs who deserted their long-held pro-EU views to fit the pro-Brexit result in their constituency got no credit for it - in many cases they did less well than those who argued for what they believed in. Phil Wilson, Anna Turley and their like-minded colleagues left Westminster with their self-respect intact.