The Great Northern Stop Brexit Conference
The Met Hotel, Leeds, 8 September 2018
- Conference Reports and Videos -

Welcome & Opening Remarks

Richard Wilson, Chair, Leeds for Europe

If there is a Peoples' Vote – a referendum on the Brexit deal – we need to win convincingly, and that must involve having a positive programme for change.

There is a danger that we have to deal with voters where their response is “heart over head”.   It is not sufficient to articulate technical, factual arguments.  We need our own version of “Take Back Control” - a strap-line that can evoke an emotional response.  The potential exists:  

  • peace in Europe for over 70 years
  • freedom and the spreading of democracy
  • the scope to live, work and study in 27 other countries

We have to create a vision of a new Britain without Brexit.  We can still have change and we do have positive ideas as to what has to be done.
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​​What Is Wrong With Britain? –
Identifying the main drivers of the vote for Brexit

Will Hutton, Journalist, The Observer

(Will Hutton and Andrew Adonis have recently published a book “Saving Britain – and How We Must Change to Prosper in Europe”.  Several examples given in the conference speech can be found in Chapter 1 of this book)

The next ten weeks are the most important in our lives as British citizens.  The status quo is insupportable and a programme of reform within the UK has to sit alongside any vote.

Will Hutton (WH) compared the Brexit Tories with the various other nationalist right wing parties emerging in other continental countries.  They are part of a European phenomenon.  Hence we all need to talk in inspiring language about Europe to avoid the outcome where the UK becomes a right wing island off the coast of the continent.

WH pointed up the high level of social distress in the UK, dubbed “Shit Life Syndrome”.  In the last two decades  - especially since 2010  - life has got worse for “the left-behind”.  The prescribing of anti-depressants has rocketed.  Life expectancy for some social groups is now actually going backwards.  Because some of the poor feel they cannot afford to go to the dentist, self-medication for tooth ailments has increased markedly.  Old people are dying unnoticed due to the weakening of community bonds and the reduced tendency to “look out for each other”.

There is often a contrast between cities (especially those with an established university) and outlying towns.  Social mobility in the latter is much reduced (“social mobility cold spots”).  Whilst the city might have  voted “Remain”  the outlying towns tended to vote “Leave” as a vote against the status quo.

The social contract that used to exist between the government and its citizens is perceived as having broken down.  Under these circumstances we have an inspiring mission to reinvent our country.

WH pointed to the failure of the current UK neo-liberal model of capitalism with its excessive short-termism, over-emphasis on markets and its acceptance of gross inequality.   WH pointed to the extent to which  the ratio of chief executive pay to median pay in large companies  has risen significantly in recent decades.   In response to this there needs to be a Marshall Plan to educate and train our workforce better (which would  increase productivity and employment potential, giving social mobility).

WH pointed to the need to reinvent working class institutions  - not just trade unions but also the social institutions enjoyed by previous working class generations.

Company law needs to be overhauled to require firms to have a more ethical and socially responsible purpose.

WH listed a series of items for which the Leave campaign might seek to blame the EU but which are not the fault of the EU.  These included the fall in life expectancy in Yorkshire for working class males (the government had the opportunity to set some control on freedom of movement of EU workers coming to the UK but chose not to exercise it).  The right wing press has misrepresented situations and blamed the EU (see “Daily Mail”).  There has been a huge media focus on Boston in Lincolnshire where Boston is atypical.  Yet it has been put forward as the poster boy  - the norm.  In reality there is a whole stack of hard evidence to show that immigration has a net positive effect - immigrants tend to be young, economically active and paying tax but tending not to make demands on the NHS and other social infrastructure.

We need to remake our democracy that is in a parlous state - it is currently dysfunctional.  Mrs May seeks to resist totally a second referendum, but was not above seeking an unnecessary second general election in 2017 when she thought it would benefit her.  Inconsistent?   Democracy is an ongoing conversation  - see the David Davis quote.

The United Kingdom is more centralised than almost any other country claiming to be a democracy. Part of remaking our democracy might be to locate any second chamber of our legislature to the North of England.  This would create a new centre of gravity in the North.  Along with this there needs to be much greater devolution from central government to local (or regional) government.  Subsidiarity is the route to overcoming excessive centralisation.  We need to re-empower local communities when they say “we can do this ourselves”.

On trade patterns, WH derided the attempt to boost Britain's trade by leaving  the EU and seeking free trade agreements beyond Europe.  The opportunities further afield “would go nowhere towards replacing EU membership”.   Hence Brexit is “a self-defeating exercise”.

On the setting of standards for internationally traded products  the UK has been a world leader and has set 90% of the standards.   These have been adopted first by the EU and also by the rest of the world.  (I think WH is implying here that it is NOT the case that the UK is “done to” by the EU)

For WH Europe is a noble project.  The UK has for centuries had strong cultural affinities and connections with Europe.  Queen Elizabeth I was fluent in five continental languages.  The plays of Shakespeare frequently have continental settings and contained continental allusions.  There has always been an internationalism about culture in the UK.

The British Isles might be islands but they have always been closely affected by continental events and developments.  As Winston Churchill remarked “Europe is where the weather comes from”.

WH held up the French President, Macron,  as an example of what a pro-EU statesman might look like.  We should seek to stand alongside him in promoting the common values of European civilisation, the rule of law, democracy etc.

WH finished with a personal anecdote about his father who had seen service in the Second World War including dealing with young German prisoners.   WH had been impressed by the civilised attitude his father took to these prisoners and also towards Germans whom the Hutton family met in later life.

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The Northern Power Failure - how do we bridge the north-south divide?

CHAIR: Eloise Todd, CEO, Best for Britain

Alex Sobel, Labour MP, Leeds North West
Julie Ward, Labour MEP, North West England
Diana Wallis, former MEP/Vice President of European Parliament; now Yorkshire Party
Paul Salveson, the Hannah Mitchell Foundation

This is not just a North/South divide but a generational divide – or even “London versus the Rest”.

Diana Wallis thought “Maybe the tide is beginning to turn” as regards popular opinion.  She gave the example of Riga as a city on the Baltic.  She had visited Riga in 1992 and found it a sad, downbeat place (recently ex-communist).   A more recent visit found Riga young, vibrant and upbeat (implying  membership of the EU had been very beneficial).  Old buildings had been restored and new ones built.

Diana made the case for devolved regions with power, so that control (for the people) is nearer at hand.  In the UK people feel powerless: “It's London that's the problem”.  It is notable that Scotland and other regions of the UK that had devolved governments felt more comfortable voting “Remain”.

HS3 rail development that connects across the North is more needed than HS2.  There is a danger that the latter will suck life and activity out of the North.

According to Ms Wallis the local authorities in the North are increasingly getting together and embracing the idea of a “Europe of the Regions”. 

VIDEO

The People’s Vote: Doing It Properly
Designing a genuinely democratic referendum

CHAIR: Michael Meadowcroft, former Liberal MP

Jessica Simor QC, Lawyer, Matrix Chambers
Professor AC Grayling, Philosopher & Author
Lord Paul Tyler, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Constitutional & Political Reform

Lord Tyler began by quoting Lord Lisvane, who had spoken in the Upper House in January 2018.

Generally Lord Lisvane (a former Clerk to the House of Commons who sits as a cross-bencher) was expressing concern that proposed government legislation would significantly increase the power of the executive vis a vis the legislature.  However, a section of the Lisvane speech dealt with the desirability or otherwise of having a People's Vote.  It is copied below:

'In a parliamentary system of government, I am no friend of referendums, and I recall Attlee’s excoriating criticism of them, which was quoted by Margaret Thatcher........

….... I have sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, ​in not understanding why, when it is all right to ask the people once, it is not all right to ask them again — not the same question, of course, but to see whether they are content with what has been achieved in their name.

Indulge me for a moment, my Lords.  It is as though I have three elderly and extremely nervous aunts of whom I am very fond.  I decide to give them a treat and ask them to discuss what they would like to do.  They have a discussion and arrive at a democratic solution, which is that they would like to go to the cinema tomorrow.  I look in the local paper and discover that the only films on offer are “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.  What am I going to say to my highly nervous — indeed, squeamish — but much-loved aunts: “You must stick with your democratic decision”?  Or do I say: “Now you know what’s on offer, what do you think?”?  (End of quote from Hansard)'

Paul Tyler had thought that the chances of getting a second referendum were only 10%  but in recent months his optimism had grown and he now considers it 50:50.

In any second vote the rules need to be tightened significantly.  The spending limits need to be more precisely defined and enforced, especially as regards electronic communications and things like Facebook.  Traditional election leaflets have to have an imprint but currently no imprint is required on electronic communications.  The latter leaves scope for misleading the electorate – or at least being less than 100% transparent.  Both sides in s referendum spent heavily on social media, indicating that they believe it to be effective.  Hence it needs to be controlled.

There is a contrast here with the Scottish referendum (I think implying that control of social media was tighter?).  There is also concern regarding the scope for foreign (Russian?) interference and influence.  This needs to be filtered out.

Lord Tyler did not see it so much as a question of being fair to both sides as the higher priority of being fair to the electorate.   The media, especially the BBC, is inclined to have a false sense of balance.  (If 19 economists are against Brexit  and one in favour the BBC's idea of balance is to have one from each side.  This gives the public a false sense of what the actual balance is).

In the Scottish referendum the franchise was wider, including, inter alia, 16 and 17 year-olds.  The Lords attempted to insert these and others in the EU Referendum Bill as amendments but the amendments were stripped out by the Commons.  Lord Tyler proposed seeking to get the wider franchise established in the 2nd referendum bill from the start.  Jessica Simor QC spoke on the same point and strongly urged the inclusion of EU residents in the UK and UK citizens abroad in the wider franchise.

In general Jessica Simor was upbeat as to how things were developing (on our side !) and was clearly willing to put her expertise and energy to the fight.

Prof. AC Grayling believes that parliament - the legislature – has the competence (presuming it has the will) to change things.  The 17.4 million who voted for Leave constituted only 37% of those entitled to vote.  For a union to trigger a strike there must be support of 40% or more of those entitled to vote for the action to be valid.  To over-ride the Parliament Act (that stipulates a 5 year parliament) requires a 66.7% majority.  (John Cole adds – to amend the Conservative Party constitution requires both a 67% vote in favour in the Party's Constitutional Convention and support of 50% of those entitled to vote).  All this adds up to 37% being inadequate to bring about  a major constitutional change.  

Prof. Grayling (and others) strongly advocated constituents getting their MPs to go and engage with major firms in the constituency - especially if the firm is engaged in trade with the R27.

Prof Grayling was very sceptical that “No Deal” would be a final outcome.

VIDEO

​​ Unite To Win –
How can the disparate Remain groups work effectively together when the referendum comes?

CHAIR: Richard Sadler, Chair, North Yorkshire for Europe

Richard Corbett, Labour MEP, Yorkshire & The Humber
Eloise Todd, CEO, Best for Britain
Mike Galsworthy, Campaigner; Founder, Scientists for EU

Richard Sadler began by relating a recent visit to an agricultural market in North Yorkshire.  Whereas many farmers had voted to Leave in 2016 (against the advice of the NFU!) they were now far less confident about Brexit and indeed are worried.

Richard Corbett MEP began by quoting David Davis:

“If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy."

“We are here to win”.  We might be asked to unite to win but diversity brings strength.  Different groups bring different attributes to the struggle.  What has been notable since 2016 is the springing up of grass roots anti-Brexit movements.  There might have been an expectation that the electorate would unite behind the referendum decision and the policy that flowed from that – an acceptance that one side had “won”.  But that has not been the case.  The activity and life has been on the Remain side (see this conference).  Opinion is going steadily the other way.

Richard Corbett examined one by one the litany of lies of the Leave side – the false promises.  For example, rather than making new deals we are losing existing ones – a net loss.  The promises of the Brexiters are “turning to dust”.  Increasingly those who voted “Leave” are saying: “That's not what I voted for”.

Eloise Todd, CEO of Best for Britain began with a big smile whilst asserting “This is the most unbelievable event I have been in during my eighteen months in post.”  Eloise is not interested in mitigating Brexit but frankly stopping it.  She urged all present to put pressure on their MPs to get them to support a second vote.  We have to normalise the idea that staying in is a real possibility.  (In too much of the media there is an assumption that Brexit is inevitable and this is how reporting is framed.  That has to be challenged and, as stated above, the idea of remaining has to be normalised).  However, we have to do more than that – we have to change the UK.  (In short, Eloise buys in to the Hutton-Adonis thesis that fundamental changes within the country have to take place if we reverse the original referendum vote) .

“Best for Britain” gives away 25% of its income to support small groups - that is regarded as an investment.  Other money is spent on research and the activity of Best for Britain is very much research-led (see “Observer” report of 12 August 2018 where detailed polling paid for by Best for Britain showed that over 100 seats that voted “Leave” have now switched to “ Remain”).  It is clear that some former “Leave” voters have now shifted to “Remain”, but the general public might not be aware of the shift.  Our reality might be better than the general perception.  We need to put an end to defeatist talk and over-pessimistic perceptions.  “It is possible to stop Brexit.  We must let people know that it is not inevitable.  Our job is also to listen more”.

Dr Mike Galsworthy, campaigner and founder of "Scientists for EU" was greatly enthused by “the community we have created”.  There had been a proliferation of local community groups springing up.  Our side was active whilst the Leave side “was running out of chat”.  The variety of local communities gave a collective richness and a local rootedness that we did not have in June 2016.  (Whilst the title of the session was “Unite to Win” most speakers did not see as a priority the  creation of a monolithic whole, but saw value in a diversity of organisations working in the same direction).  Dr Galsworthy saw it as important that the national large campaigns did not asphyxiate the smaller local units.  The latter had led to a blossoming of spokespeople (contrast 2016 where Cameron and Osborne were leading on Remain).

We had to encourage the “people can do“ spirit, be welcoming, visible and empowering.  We had to  reassure the public that they hold the power and continue to generate the grassroots action that was missing two years ago.  “We are in a race” to get a second vote before time runs out.

In comments from the floor the following points emerged:

  • An early focus needs to be on MPs – we must put pressure on them to see things our way since they have the power to act.

  • Research how Brexit is likely to affect a large firm or a large hospital in your constituency and then get your MP invited along to hear what is being said.  This was seen as an important way forward.

  • Nigel Farage should have been an active member of the Fishing Regulation Working Party in Brussels but had attended one out of a possible forty two meetings  (he turns up once per month to justify drawing his MEP allowance).

  • Activists were encouraged to take part in marches at the Labour and Conservative Party Conferences in September.

  • Within the Labour Party the membership is now clearly in favour of Remain and pressure needs to be put on the Party leadership.  This would involve having some influence on the conference agenda.

  • When criticism was voiced of the BBC and how it presented the Brexit issue there was a wellspring of support in the audience for the criticism expressed.

VIDEO

​​ Remaking The Case For Europe –
Re-learning why the EU has been a force for good

CHAIR: Patrick Lohlein, Conservatives for a People’s Vote

Richard Corbett, Labour MEP, Yorkshire & The Humber
Jessica Simor QC, Lawyer, Matrix Chambers
Professor AC Grayling, Philosopher & Author
Madeleina Kay, Campaigner; Young European of the Year

Richard Corbett began by paying tribute to the pro-EU Conservatives who were clearly fighting in difficult circumstances.  Richard felt that the case for EU membership could be argued on (i) moral grounds (ii) pragmatic grounds and (iii) grounds of self-interest.

(i) The raison d'etre of the EU was peace in Europe and this had been achieved.  To this might be added the stability of a number of decades.

(ii) The 28 together form a group of small and medium size countries where it makes pragmatic common sense to act together on a number of issues –  e.g. dealing with pollution and climate change.

(iii) The UK benefits enormously from the Single Market and how it enables frictionless international trade.

If there is a People's Vote / 2nd referendum the emphasis needs to be on the positive – see above – and less of the “Project Fear”.  Less emphasis on the economic costs of leaving and more on what might be termed the moral case.

Pragmatically, we benefit from the European Medicines Agency and the common testing of medicines.  Simple things like Pet Passports make movement easier within the 28 nations of the EU.

Madeliena Kay spoke only briefly but had brought with her copies of her booklet “#24 Reasons to Remain”.  This is an excellent compilation of positives about the work of the EU and is properly researched and referenced.  Copies of the booklet were available free of charge.  Your attention is drawn to Madeleina's web address: www.albawhitewolf.com.

Madeleina was very critical of the state of our politics in the UK (a common  theme in the conference.  Indeed, at one point the question was asked whether the UK could still be classed as a democracy).  Madeleina stressed the need to help educate people.

Jessica Simor QC stated that the Brexiteers want to destroy the social contract between the government and its citizens.  She quoted Article 3 from the founding document of the EU and clearly supports the ideal of a social contract and hence the Social Chapter of the EU.  Of large economies, only the USA and Canada have less-regulated labour markets than the UK.  The Brexiters' ambition is to turn the UK into a European version of Singapore, with the forfeiting not just of workers' rights but also consumer rights.  Out of the EU there would be no freedom of movement of labour and a whole swathe of environmental protections (air quality, safe beaches  etc.) would be at risk.  Also it was noted that the EU is the world's second largest economy – after China.

Prof. AC Grayling advised people to go on to Youtube and pick up the history of Europe in the inter-war years and the UK in the 1970s.  So much has improved since then (implying “Do we want to go back to that?”)

Challenging the untruths of the “Leave” side, Prof. Grayling pointed out that 88% of laws made in this country are exclusively ours with only 12% being made  in conjunction with the other 27 countries.  The UK government has control of 98% of government spending in the UK, whilst EU membership does not detract from national control of our borders.  These are all myths.

Other points expressed:

  • “Brexit is in a mess”  - perhaps all conference attendees might have endorsed that statement

  • In the Commons, if the government loses a vote it can call a vote of confidence that will often retrieve the situation.   If that forms a justification for a second vote, why should there not be  a People's Vote?

  • Concern was expressed re. the print media two thirds of which was vehemently (and frequently falsely) anti-EU.  This was in line with the feebleness of the BBC and the latter's tendency to false impartiality (see above) .

VIDEO