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Polls And Politics: There's No Mandate For A Hard Brexit

17/01/2017 13:07
POOL New / Reuters

During the referendum campaign I argued strongly that the European Union has fostered and supported democracy in our continent. I must admit that at the time I had in mind the transition from communism in Eastern Europe and fascism in Mediterranean Europe. But the disturbing reality is that we are witnessing how our own democracy has been weakened by our vote to leave.

Democracy relies on a shared vision of the future. Those who do not win an election still have a right to be respected and some of their wishes to be included in the political compromise. The Brexit chant: 'We won; you lost: shut up!' is not compatible with democracy.

But this appears to be the guiding principle for Theresa May's approach to the Brexit negotiations. The far right and the Conservatives are using the slim referendum majority to rush us towards a dystopian future that most people did not vote for. Her speech comes as the latest polling on Brexit shows people remain divided about which Brexit path the government will follow and which route they believe will be in the best interests of the country.

According to a new YouGov survey, 40% of those surveyed believe that the government is seeking a hard Brexit, with an almost identical percentage expressing a preference for such a scenario. Just 25% support some version of 'soft Brexit' such as remaining in the single market and accepting we won't have full control of our borders, or seeking some form of associate membership.

However, most significantly, almost an equal number of people (23%) want the UK to remain in the EU. It seems safe to assume that those who want the UK to continue to be a part of the EU will never support a hard Brexit. This means that combined - soft Brexiters and remainers - a majority (48% as opposed to 39%) do not want the sort of hard Brexit the government is leading us towards.

The polling shows that the government's internal divisions on Brexit have left the negotiating strategy in a shambles. But for Labour it is a total disaster: 42% of people said they weren't sure what kind of Brexit Labour wants - more than twice as many as for the government.

Ever since the vote to leave the EU, the government's red line on a Brexit deal has been the control of our borders. Yet a survey last year revealed 48% of voters would rather keep the UK in the single market, with only 37% saying capping immigration from Europe was more important.

Another survey released in the last few days, reveals more than half of all voters wouldn't be willing to lose any money at all to regain control of immigration. Immigration might be a red line for the government but for the majority of the public the red line seems based firmly in their wallets.

A further, and related, polling revelation relates to the impacts of Brexit on employment prospects. Polling evidence suggests the issue most likely to persuade Leave voters to change their mind and support the UK remaining in the EU, is if Brexit looked likely to lead to significant increases in unemployment. Given that the majority of those not in work voted Leave, and likely had expectations that clamping down on free movement would improve their job prospects, an increase in unemployment could persuade those people that they are better off, or at least no worse off, inside the EU.

Theresa May's announcement that the UK will leave the single market will inevitably mean every single family in the UK will face significant financial loss. Given the polling that suggests people are prepared to sacrifice almost nothing to regain the right to make our own laws, hard Brexit could quickly become one of the most destructive and unpopular decisions ever made by a British government.

And if the polling tells us that hard Brexit is not the favoured option of the British people, the politics reinforces that. We can be fairly confident that a 'progressive alliance of Leave voters'; those who were members of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru - making up between them 32% of the Leave vote - did not vote to leave the single market, witness a race to the bottom on corporate tax rates or see environmental legislation shredded. It therefore follows that the May government has no political, let alone popular mandate, for the hard Brexit she intends to pursue.

Ironically, my vision of democracy as compromise and cooperation is alive and well in the European Parliament where I sit, as well as in most other European democracies that enjoy proportional electoral systems. Our outdated electoral system has always meant that democracy in the UK is something of a winner takes all game. As the Tory right takes our country by the throat, cheered on by the more unsavoury forces of the far right, it is being torn apart. It is this, not the European Union, that is the real threat to our democracy.

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