Expecting the electorate to vote on a Brexit deal they haven’t read is the type of blind faith and naïvety which was easily exploited in 2016.
Most of the general public didn’t look at this week’s draft withdrawal agreement in full. A total of 585 pages in length, it fell on journalists and politicians, each with their own conscious or unconscious bias, to summarise the entire document and inform the British people. The same will happen with the final deal, and if a People’s Vote is granted, it’ll be yet another referendum led by soundbites and manipulation.
It is this, alongside the fact that the vote will most definitely include a ‘remain’ option, which allows for the ‘final say’ project to be easily dismissed as a “loser’s vote” or a re-run of the first referendum. If it does indeed come to fruition, it would not only be met with contempt by Brexiteers, but it would further fuel disillusionment and a hatred of the establishment and public institutions. Misinformation’s revival would put fake news and manipulation back on the agenda, and the tireless work of journalists using investigative reporting to win back public trust in a post-truth climate will be undone.
This wouldn’t be the only detrimental backtrack to occur if a people’s vote was granted. It would also involve significant u-turns from the Conservative government – both on its stance on a people’s vote and going back to the public for a second time. The first decision will damage the party’s reputation amongst Brexiteers, whilst the second will most likely infuriate some SNP politicians who have consistently faced opposition to calls for a second independence referendum in Scotland. Such a decision would be unlikely for a unionist party, and would only lead to an increase in support for the ‘Yes’ campaign.
Not only that, but the Tories’ decision to allow the public to have the final say would also come with a sense of concession from Theresa May (if indeed, she is still negotiating in this hypothetical scenario) that her deal may not be the best option. Whether such a sentiment is explicitly stated, or simply implied, it’s a decision which would harm the case for the public to vote for her deal should that be on the ballot paper. As such, even if there were three choices on the ballot (a ‘no deal Brexit’, May’s deal, or remain), it could still appear to be a remain-leave referendum if it’s deemed that May no longer has confidence in her own deal by calling a people’s vote.
I do, however, think that this would be unlikely, and the government would still urge the public to back her arrangements. In which case, consider this: what’s not to say that they might send out leaflets to households similar to the ones they sent in 2016? Granted, this may be where the Electoral Commission steps in, but could UK households receive a summary of the deal from the Prime Minister, and if so, what would the implications of this be?
While all of this is, of course, hypothetical, if the People’s Vote campaign wishes to win over more leavers and remainers, it must be seen as offering the single, logical solution which is optimistic and would not create further division. This would also involve setting down the foundations for a fair and honest referendum, free from sensationalist language and misleading information.
Unfortunately, those behind the campaign are yet to acknowledge the full scale of misinformation and post-truth in our political processes. In their report, A Roadmap to a People’s Vote, the group say “there is a strong democratic case for much better regulation and transparency in political advertising on the internet, or even going further”, calling for social media companies to be “challenged to show that they are taking all actions within their power to prevent abuse” with the threat of tough new legislation if they don’t. It’s a promising step, but one which completely ignores the other, wider issues which tie into the misinformation machine. If a referendum on the final deal were to see the creation of official campaigns, their activities must be closely monitored for accuracy and fairness.
Yet, in amongst all of this, they recognise that “there may not be time for legislation” around online political advertising. When one considers the fact that there wouldn’t be enough time to call another referendum before the Brexit deadline of 29 March next year, both the plausibility of a people’s vote and its repercussions are called into question.
To truly learn from the lessons of 2016, adequate safeguards and provisions preventing the revival of misinformation in our political discourse must be put in place during a people’s vote. Without these assurances, the campaign will continue to be branded a re-run of the first referendum, and will fail to win over the support from Brexiteers which it so desperately needs.
Liam O’Dell is a freelance journalist and blogger.