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Why Owen Jones is wrong about Brexit

Summary:
Owen has written a very clear accountof why he supports the referendum result, even though he campaigned against it. He is, to use one terminology, a ‘re-leaver’, and as he points out there are many like him. He is quite right that those advocating overturning the referendum result have devoted insufficient attention to this group. However I think in key respects his argument is wrong. I think it is helpful, as I have done before, to set this debate in the context of future decisions that may realistically face MPs. I can see four:Having left in 2019, we are likely to remain in the Single Market and customs union while we negotiate some kind of trade agreement to allow us to leave one or both. The first decision, which could face an incoming Labour government, is should those

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Owen has written a very clear accountof why he supports the referendum result, even though he campaigned against it. He is, to use one terminology, a ‘re-leaver’, and as he points out there are many like him. He is quite right that those advocating overturning the referendum result have devoted insufficient attention to this group. However I think in key respects his argument is wrong.

I think it is helpful, as I have done before, to set this debate in the context of future decisions that may realistically face MPs. I can see four:
  1. Having left in 2019, we are likely to remain in the Single Market and customs union while we negotiate some kind of trade agreement to allow us to leave one or both. The first decision, which could face an incoming Labour government, is should those negotiations continue or be abandoned.
Owen does not explicitly address the Single Market, which is surprising. In my view leaving the EU but staying in the Single Market (the ‘Norway option’) is what Labour should choose to do if it gains power. That is fully consistent with respecting the referendum result. Those who say that the referendum was about immigration and therefore we have to end freedom of movement commit a simple logical error. A majority (those who voted Leave because of immigration) of a majority (52%) is not necessarily a majority. There is no mandate of any kind for leaving the Single Market.
  1. During the vote on whether to leave in 2019, there is a vote to hold a second referendum where the choice is to accept the deal or remain in the EU.
Again he does not directly address a second referendum, but some of his arguments are relevant to it.  You could argue that holding a second referendum would disrespect the first. If the Brexit decision was changed as a result, then Owen’s arguments about a large section of the population losing faith in democracy would perhaps still apply. However it seems to me the rationale for holding a second referendum is overwhelming. In the first referendum, what leaving would entail was very unclear. In particular, we did not know what the divorce bill would be, and what the economic implications would be. Information is crucialin voting decisions. We now know much more, and therefore it seems only right that people should be allowed to change their minds. We are familiar with the idea of requiring new information to reopen issues in other contexts, so why not for a referendum.

To argue that the 1975 referendum over joining was a once in a generation event is irrelevant, because by then the nature of the deal was clear. Why should the fact that Cameron or anyone else said this would be a once in a generation vote bind parliament? The bottom line has to be that if Leave cannot win two votes just a few years apart then we should not be leaving. Remember the first referendum had an electorate chosen to keep the Brexiteers happy, and likewise it had no super majority. To argue that we have to respect the first referendum to uphold faith in democracy and at the same time argue that to hold a second referendum would be undemocratic seems a bizarre, and very worrying, notion of democracy.
  1. During the vote on whether to leave in 2019, there is a vote to remain in the EU without a second referendum
Here the referendum would have been overruled by parliament. Owen has two, related arguments why this would be wrong. First, both government and opposition said that they would be bound by the referendum result. Second, the people will have been overruled by parliament. On the first, I agree that any MP that said their vote would be bound by the referendum and then went against that has some explaining to do. But an explanation along the lines of ‘I had no idea how bad Brexit was going to be’ sounds reasonable to me. MPs, like people, are allowed to change their minds.

I also cannot see why pledges by the government and opposition have to bind MPs who did not so pledge. This gets back to the nature of our representative democracy. Although Owen does not think much of people, like me, who keep noting that the referendum is advisory, this does express the fact that parliament is sovereign. We live in a representative democracy. People may be upset to learn that, but it is true. Ed Miliband was right to rule out holding a referendum. Just because Cameron chose to hold one to appease his right wing should not bind the actions of MPs.

The fact that the referendum result was achieved as the result of a completely inadequate campaign matters. The Remain side (and the media) failed to adequately put across their case, because the positive case for immigration was not made. The Leave side lied their socks off. To equate the dishonesty on the Remain side with that of the Leave campaign, as Owen does, is quite wrong. Two central planks of the Leave case, that the NHS would have more money and that Turkey was about to join the EU, were complete lies. The main plank of the Remain campaign that Brexit would reduce the real income of UK citizens has been shown to be true. Information matters.

If such a vote was almost certain to fail because it lacked the backing of enough Conservative MPs, then there might be a tactical reason for not supporting it for reasons I outlined here. But this is not the case that Owen makes. Barry Gardiner has also departed radically from this script. As I said in that post I did not know if Labour's Brexit position was strategic or just confused and conflicted, and Owen's piece together with these recent developments reinforce such doubts.  
  1. The government fails to negotiate a deal but wants us to leave despite this. There is a vote in parliament to revoke Article 50 and not leave the EU.
If you remain unconvinced by the above, consider this outcome. No deal would be a disaster, and bring immediate chaos. But all of Owen’s arguments for respecting the referendum would still apply! Would Owen really argue that Labour should not support such a vote for the sake of Leave voters’ faith in democracy? If it did that it would be complicit in the chaos that followed. 

Owen keeps coming back to the impact of any decision on how those who voted Brexit would feel. In this sense he is in the same spirit as John Harris’s article that I discussed here. It is an utterly defeatist argument: we must let people harm themselves because only then might they learn that they were mistaken in what they wanted. A much more progressive policy is to persuade people they are wrong.

If Labour did form the next government, as I very much hope it would, the consequences of leaving the Single Market would be on its watch. Would those who voted Leave forgive slow growth in their living standards as their own fault for wanting Brexit? Would they accept the implications of low immigration for the public finances as a price worth paying to control immigration. Of course not. Much of the media would argue that these problems were all down to the Labour government, not Brexit. A Labour government that presides over leaving the Single Market could be a one term government.

In an earlier post I talked about the logic of a triangulation strategy for Labour, but I said at the outset that I did not know if this what they were doing. As a result, there is currently a serious danger that Labour would squash any attempt from the Tory backbenches to hold a second referendum, or if they won the next election that they would leave the Single Market. Although everyone focuses on Corbyn, this is as much a problem with many Labour MPs in Leave voting areas. It is an area where we need the membership to influence Labour policy, as both Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Jones have always suggested they should.

Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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