by Steve Beasant on 17 September, 2017
Liberal Democrats are united on Europe. We strongly believe that Britain is better off as a full member of the European Union. I am proud of this stance, and continue to argue for an ‘exit from Brexit’. The European Union has been a project of huge economic and social success, fostering prosperity and maintaining peace on a continent historically ravaged by division and war. I want Britain to remain. The Liberal Democrats are the party of Remain.
Meanwhile, even the spectre of leaving is doing great damage. Parliament has been asked to confer huge new power on Government – far from ‘taking back control’ as the country was promised. Already our economy is being jeopardised by the huge devaluation in the pound, which is pushing up prices and leaving British companies vulnerable to takeovers. An exodus of highly skilled European workers puts public services at risk too.
As a party, we acknowledge the result of the 2016 referendum, which gave the Government a mandate to start negotiations to leave. Yet it becomes clearer by the day that we were absolutely right to argue the negotiations would never deliver the promises of the Leave campaign. When the true scale of that failure is known, the public must get a first referendum on the facts. I believe they will demand it. And there will be no deal on offer which is better than staying in the European Union.
Our voice is being heard and listened to on this. The debate is shifting in our direction with key Labour figures like Sadiq Khan and David Miliband now signing up to our view. But to continue setting the agenda, we must not walk into a trap laid by our opponents. If our argument for a democratic exit from Brexit is drowned out by a chorus of “democracy deniers” we will get nowhere.
As your new Leader, I am keen that we learn the lessons of the election – but I hope we learn the right ones. Our message on Europe was strong, but we must be about more than Europe. Our manifesto was widely praised as credible, costed and progressive. Yet our excellent policies on health, education and the environment were obscured by a sense that the European Union was all we cared about. We need only look at how such a strategy affected the Conservative Party at elections in the late 90s to know that a mirror image of it is unlikely to be a shortcut to success for us now.
To amplify our voice in Parliament and at every level of government in the UK, we need to reconnect with voters, reaching out to both Remain and Leave supporters. We must show that we are the party with a grown-up approach to the economy, a commitment to good public services, and the ideas to meet the big challenges of the 21st century – housing supply, a changing labour market and excessive corporate power. As the Brexit negotiations falter, we can assemble a majority who will want to see an exit from Brexit, but only if we also understand what voters on both sides of the divide want from their government.
The Government is taking the 2016 referendum as carte blanche to pursue an extreme form of Brexit. It is undemocratic, it is dangerous for the economy and damaging for our society. Our party will fight them every step of the way. We have not yet left the European Union, and I believe it is possible to stop it: we are ready to lead the shift in public opinion. So as we debate this weekend let’s stick to our guns, make the weather and ask the Brexiteers – if they’re so confident in their deal – why are they so scared of the people?
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