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How Remain can win a second referendum


Remainers are prepping for a second referendum on Brexit. Polls are being conducted, campaign volunteers trained. This is a long game. One plausible scenario is that days before the UK’s next deadline to leave the EU, October 31, a stuck parliament reluctantly opts for a referendum as the only way forward. Then Brussels grants another delay, allowing a referendum to be held this winter.

Remain could easily lose again. However, many Leavers are open to persuasion. Eloise Todd, chief executive of the anti-Brexit campaign group Best for Britain, says: “For normal people, who have more interesting things to do than hang on to every last word of what’s in the Cooper bill, the depth of feeling isn’t that strong.”

I asked several campaign-savvy Remainers how to win over Leavers — which also means working out how to fix the UK.

Say sorry. This time, Remainers mustn’t lecture Leavers about Brexit, says Ian Leslie, a communications consultant and author who is writing a book on productive disagreement: “Never in the history of the world has anyone said, ‘You’re completely wrong,’ and the other person replied, ‘You know what? I am wrong.’”

Remainers must also avoid talking about “Remainers” and “Leavers”, because that hardens people in identities that didn’t even exist before 2016.

Instead, Leslie says the Remain campaign should admit to having overlooked mass pain and resentment. It should tell Leave voters: “Your vote was basically right in 2016. You were right to kick the elite in the arse, to say the UK needs to change, that London ignores the rest.”

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Metropolitan Remainers must drop their presumption that Leavers are ignorant. Todd says, “Actually, Leavers know things that we don’t” — for instance, about malfunctioning hospitals in small towns. Only after finding common ground can Remainers broach the issue of disagreement: Europe.

Make the case that a second referendum is democratic. The government has tried everything to deliver Brexit. But its deal with Brussels is unpopular, and though many Leavers want a no-deal Brexit, others don’t, notes Femi Oluwole, who has travelled Britain for the young people’s pro-Europe group Our Future Our Choice.

Even most Leave voters believe Brexit has been botched. Cornel Sandvoss, professor of media and journalism at Huddersfield University, suggests a slogan for Remain: “Make It Stop”. If Brexit continues, the next stage is endless trade negotiations with the EU and umpteen other countries. Only voting Remain will end the stress and tedium (the national divide will remain whoever wins).

Make the campaign about people’s biggest grievances, not about the EU. Andrew Adonis, a Remainer peer who has addressed more than 150 meetings on Brexit, mostly in Leave-voting areas, says: “Those who want to go on about leaving the EU are a small group . . . For Leave voters, it’s mostly not about Europe.” Adonis finds greater concern about austerity, homelessness and rule from London.

He says that whereas Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own assemblies, England is “ruled like a colony” from Westminster and Whitehall: nobody in Hull, say, has much power to change Hull. “Massive devolution” is required, he adds.

Generally, Remain must campaign on improving Britain’s future, rather than on erasing the previous referendum. Remain could offer one flagship policy that symbolises the idea of transfer from London — for instance, a financial transaction tax with proceeds earmarked for Britain’s poorest regions. But Remain mustn’t drown in numbers. Hillary Clinton demonstrated that a campaign is not a school exam.

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Let ordinary people front the campaign. Doctors and nurses are the most trusted professions in Britain, says pollster Ipsos Mori. Plainly, they are the right spokespeople to explain the National Health Service’s reliance on European immigrants. (Remain needs to confront the topic of immigration, instead of avoiding it as David Cameron did in 2016, especially since anti-immigration sentiment has plummeted since 2011, according to Ipsos Mori.) Converts from Leave are good spokespeople too, and Remain’s base should be outside London, says Leslie.

Run different campaigns for different audiences. The UK now has probably the largest pro-European movement in the EU. An optimistic Europhile campaign could boost youth turnout in particular. By contrast, Cameron in 2016 tailored his appeal almost exclusively to Eurosceptic Tories: Peter Mandelson, Labour’s campaign director in 1997 and a largely ignored figure in Remain’s 2016 campaign, says the approach was “Hold your nose and vote for Europe.” But Europhilia won’t sway traditional Leavers. Remain needs to sound as patriotic as Leave. It must present the UK as a European power, not a sorry victim of Europe.

Run an insurgent campaign, says Mandelson. Any campaign fronted by a Tory PM and using the word “Remain” is doomed to represent the status quo. In a second referendum, Remainers can borrow the anti-elitist language of Leave to inveigh against privileged Brexiters.

Be fun. The Remain campaign must learn from Donald Trump, and from the young, pink-socked Operation Libero campaign that’s fighting populism in Switzerland.

Follow Simon on @KuperSimon or email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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