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Remain would lose another People’s Vote in Wales: Here’s how we change that

08 Dec 2018 7 minute read
A Wales and Europe flag at a People’s Vote march. Picture by Ilovetheeu (CC 4.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

The 2016 Remain campaign in Wales was an unmitigated disaster.

Coming quickly on the heels of the 2016 Assembly election campaign, Welsh politicians had little time to come up with a Wales-focused campaign.

And the UK-wide Remain effort seemed to have little interest in Wales, thinking they could eke out a win by focusing on large cities such as London, Glasgow and Birmingham.

The campaign was also complacent. A Leave vote was so unthinkable that Remain supporters thought they had it in the bag.

I’d include myself there – I expected Remain would win by more than the polls predicted. I didn’t understand what motivated Leave campaigners and didn’t see the result coming.

The result as it was, was a double disaster for Wales. For one thing, it had voted for a result that would do massive damage to the jobs of a large part of its workforce.

And secondly, unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, it had voted the same way as England, giving it almost no leverage in the negotiations with Westminster over Brexit.

But Wales might get a second go at this.

If as looks likely Theresa May loses a vote on her Brexit deal this week then it could set the UK on course for a second referendum, or ‘People’s Vote’.

This time we can show no complacency.

Unfortunately, there is nothing, so far, to suggest that Remain has learned the lessons of what went wrong in 2016.


So far, Remain have simply doubled down on the strategy that lost us the 2016 vote: emphasise the economic carnage and dysfunction that would follow Brexit as much as possible.

This is understandable because it would be significant and damaging for everyone.

But it shows a failure to understand what drove the 2016 vote. The Remain campaign, which has kept going as the campaign for a People’s Vote, is still built around things that worry Remainers.

Running the same campaign and expecting a different result would, as Albert Einstein said, be the definition of insanity.

Another Remain campaign in Wales would have to engage directly with what motivated people to vote Leave in 2016 and show why it wasn’t the best course of action.

And it would have to be a Welsh Remain campaign, fronted by Welsh politicians, and focused on the unique ways leaving the EU will hit Wales.

The London-based media will make people like Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell the faces of the Remain campaign, who will focus on dry, transactional and technocratic debate over border controls.

If we think they’re going to win people in Wales’ working-class post-industrial communities, and socially conservative rural areas over, we have a collective screw loose somewhere.

So, let’s look at a few of the things that motivated Leave voters and how those concerns might be addressed in Wales:

1.) Brexit voters were concerned about being governed by a distant and unaccountable EU run by a plutocratic elite.

I sympathise a lot with this concern. But the answer to this is that leaving the EU actually exacerbates this problem.

The UK will still be at the EU’s mercy if we leave the organisation – the difference will be that the UK will have absolutely no power to control what goes on there.

To adopt the war imagery so beloved of British nationalists, Brexit would be like leaving the field of battle and letting France and Germany run Europe.

It will make the UK weaker, not stronger, in the world. Rather than electing politicians to fight the UK’s corner in the EU we will just be giving up and handing control of Europe to others.

Theresa May’s Brexit plan would, in particular, actually mean a massive loss of UK sovereignty to the EU.

2.) Brexit voters want to reassert British identity over the rapid ethnic change they believe has happened as a result of the EU’s open borders.

The UK’s population is rapidly ageing as the baby boomers who voted Brexit simply didn’t have as many children as their own parents did.

If we want to be kept in the manner to which we are accustomed – with a functioning NHS, and council services  – we need a younger generation to maintain it with their tax money.

That means an unavoidable need for immigration. All leaving the EU will do is change the kind of immigration.

There will be less from EU countries and more from Commonwealth countries such as Pakistan and India. But the overall need for immigration will stay the same.

The alternative is years of grinding austerity.

It also needs to be pointed out that there has been almost no major immigration into Wales. And without more immigration, our population is actually predicted to fall.

3.) Brexit voters feel that their group is being left behind economically, socially and culturally by both immigrants and a liberal, urban elite.

This was probably a central concern in Wales, in particular, where many communities are post-industrial and working class.

It’s not just poverty that’s a factor here – although there is plenty of that – but the feeling that there is no chance of things getting better and that others have more opportunity than them and their children.

This is one reason why Welsh politicians, rooted in their communities, would be essential to winning a second referendum for Remain here.

People need to feel that their concerns are being listened to and that they haven’t simply been thrown on the scrapheap of life.

4.) The UK gives the EU more money than it gets back from the EU. This money could be spend on services like the NHS.

This isn’t true about Wales. Unlike Westminster the EU operates a needs-based not population-based formula, and because Wales is one of the poorest areas in western Europe we’re a net beneficiary.

We get £245 million more from the European Union than we pay in.

And if you think Westminster will give us the same amount after Brexit, you haven’t been paying attention.


Speaking of Westminster, a Wales-based Remain campaign could also argue the central point that most of the criticisms of the EU voiced by the Leave campaign are in truth criticism of Westminster politics.

It is run by an out-of-touch urban elite. Even the so-called populists, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, have made their millions from transnational companies.

The EU is portrayed as being undemocratic but the truth is that Westminster is even less democratic. We do not elect our Head of State, Prime Minister or entire Upper Chamber, the House of Lords.

And it is Westminster that has left Wales behind.

While London throws billions at huge engineering projects like HS2 and Crossrail, soon to be followed by Crossrail 2, our modest projects such as electrifying the line between Cardiff and Swansea and the Swanea Tidal Barrage are scrapped.

A Wales-focused Remain campaign could point out to people that they’re taking their frustrations out on the wrong target.

Popular will

There is a danger that some people think that we only need to win a People’s Vote and that we’re saying in the EU. The people will have seen the error of their ways!

Such an approach would be patronising and would lead to a second, terminal defeat.

A People’s Vote would actually add fuel to the fire of some of the concerns that gave rise to Brexit in the first place – particularly that politicians have become detached from ordinary people and that the ‘popular will’ isn’t being heard.

Winning a People’s Vote would be very difficult and the alternative at that point might be a cataclysmic Hard Brexit.

We Remain supporters in Wales, in particular, would need to be at the top of our game to win it.

We need our own unique Remain campaign, that does not only challenge the Leave campaign but the out-of-touch narrative of the UK-wide Remain campaign.

And the time for us in Wales to start preparing for such a campaign is now.

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