The most virulent abuse I have received in the last few months has come from remainers, even though I campaigned strongly for remain. I was also one of the first MPs to acknowledge the arguments for another referendum, have – unlike Chuka Umunna – been consistent in defending freedom of movement, was one of the first to consider the extension of article 50 and have regularly highlighted what is lost by leaving. But I have also said, repeatedly, that those who voted for Brexit won the right to be heard, that the referendum result was a result and that the motion passed at the Labour party conference in September was the best plan to keep the party and the country together. That put me beyond the pale for some.
Now that Labour is moving towards supporting a public vote, I am worried that those who have been campaigning for it for so long could lose it. If the people’s vote movement could alienate me, how will it make leave voters feel? I know that some pin their hopes on leavers dying in sufficient numbers, but I believe any approach to a further vote must be based on attracting people to it, to win in a manner that gives legitimacy, and which opens the way to a shared, prosperous future.
I would therefore like to offer some words of advice for remain campaigners. First, do not, either explicitly or implicitly, tell people they are stupid for believing Brexiteer lies, stupid not to see the fabulous advantages of the European Union, stupid to think that their votes would count or stupid to vote to upset the applecart. Yes, people were lied to in the referendum, but they were specific lies, which can and should be cited, such as the £350m returned to the NHS, or that being outside the customs union would not impact Northern Ireland, or that Turkey was joining the EU.
Remainers should acknowledge the EU’s faults: great, big, ugly faults that need to be addressed. The EU never seemed to be the voice of the people. It did a lot of good – from workers’ rights to mobile phone roaming – but it felt imposed from above, not won from below. Europe’s socialists now recognise that, and have pledged to “radically rewrite Europe’s social contract”.
Remainers also need to recognise that the referendum shone a light on some urgent problems. We now see that the three-decade absence of any explicit industrial strategy meant the centrifugal forces of the market brought prosperity to London and, to a lesser extent, our other cities, while towns, rural areas and our industrial heartlands languished. Many in these areas voted to leave. Any campaign to remain must welcome with humility those who change their minds. This is important. Remain campaigners must accept that they have no entitlement to win, that the majority may vote, again, to leave, and that is their right – yes, even if it means being poorer.
Remainers must not blame the north – the Brexit campaign was led by a Home Counties stockbroker and a former mayor of London. They must talk instead about the benefits immigration brings, and the challenges when public services are starved of investment and agencies and gangmasters are left to profiteer. If Labour had won the 2017 general election, the likelihood is that we would now be moving towards an orderly Brexit based on Labour’s five demands. The Tory Brexiteers’ failure to deliver on their victory in a way that brought people with them led to the parliamentary gridlock which has now opened the possibility of another vote. Above all, those campaigning to remain must offer a vision of the UK’s future that delivers prosperity for all and which shares it with everyone, rather than the Tory race to the bottom. That is why, with others from the Labour movement, I have supported the Love Socialism, Hate Brexit group, setting out our future for a Europe transformed. And that is why I would vote to remain, but then I did before. It is not my vote that will change the outcome.
My final piece of advice: be nicer to each other. There are no traitors, no scabs. We are doing this in the country’s interest. It is in the country’s interest that we like each other.
• Chi Onwurah is Labour MP for Newcastle Central and shadow minister for industrial strategy, science and innovation