Are Liberal Democrats getting the messaging wrong over Brexit?

Recently, an active and experienced Liberal Democrat campaigner challenged me over the party’s messaging on Brexit. He suggested that this was coming across as confused. My first instinct was to defend what we have been doing, but on reflection, I think he has a point. The aim of this article is to ask the question a little more widely.

Liberal Democrats: proudly European

From the inside

My impression is that the Liberal Democrat parliamentarians and media office have been doing an outstanding job in trying to hold the government to account in the mess over Brexit, and of making people aware of this. I was in the debate at Conference which affirmed the Liberal Democrat policy of seeking a referendum on the deal, and can see the wisdom of this, but can also see that it can need explaining — which is a hostage to fortune.

From the outside

But, I’ve had people on street stalls ask me what our position is before signing a petition for a people’s vote on the final deal. I’ve had people read that text and still want to check that this means they are signing something against Brexit. That comes across as a measure of the anxiety and paralysis Brexit is inducing.

I wonder what proportion of the British population could give a meaningful account of the differences between “the single market”, “the customs union”, “a customs union”, “the widest and deepest possible trade deal” and “a deal with the exact same benefits we now have”.

I recently saw a leaflet appealing for us to stay in the Single Market. That is clearly better than a hard Brexit, but during the referendum campaign, we were right to point out the absurdity of being in the single market but not the EU when the likes of Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannan suggested this.

I’m hearing people (mis)quote the story of two referenda in Ireland on the constitutional change needed to ratify the Lisbon treaty in terms of a fear “the establishment” will want repeated referenda until “they get the right result”. We’re not suggesting that, but the stories around Aggregate IQ / Cambridge Analytica and rumours of rule-bending by the Leave campaign are fueling the sense that there was cheating in the referendum. It’s hard for that not to lead to anxiety about a future referendum. Talking now of a “people’s vote” on the deal will help defuse this, but we are in danger of being mis-heard.

Bewildering unreality

People would normally look to government for wisdom and stability. Instead Andrew Adonis speaks of a Brexit “causing a nervous breakdown across Whitehall”. Parliament was seeming to be dysfunctional, even before Theresa May’s attempt to sideline it to join Trump in attacking Syria, and the shameful chaos around Windrush, and the unfolding farce around the EU Withdrawl Bill.

In this chaos, I could understand a lot of people being both worried about Brexit, and sick of a debate that does nothing to allay those fears.

Local elections are not national

A big part of me agrees with encouraging people to vote for anti-Brexit parties in the local elections, and brutal reality is that the Brexit would have a devastating effect on local communities up and down the country. But the danger in over-stating this is that we could be heard as saying that potholes, transport, education, planning applications (etc) have ceased to matter. There is already a message about the damage Brexit is doing in terms of staff shortages in hospitals, hostility to immigrants and slower economic growth and the weak pound making life difficult.

A possible solution

This seems the moment for brevity. The hash tag might need to be #ExitFromBrexit, backed up with visual images that give a sense of a vision of the UK as a country that is open, inclusive and engaged with the rest of Europe.

I am increasingly meeting people who are worried by Brexit. This seems the moment to say “so are we” rather than “it’s complicated”, and to speak with a clarity missing in the Brexit chaos of the Conservatives and Labour.

This is not to back away from policies like supporting a People’s vote on the deal, or the best-possible relationship with the EU27, or emphasising Liberal Democrat European values. All of these things matter in the follow-up conversation, but I am now thinking to revise the artwork for banners at street stalls (and the like) to an un-wordy #ExitFromBrexit. Is this fitting with others’ experience?

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