The mismanagement of the Brexit process has hugely damaged trust in politics. It's time we give the public their say in a Citizens' Assembly, argues Rosie Carter.

Rosie Carter is senior policy officer for HOPE not hate and co-author of the report DEEPENING DIVIDES: How To Resolve Brexit Deadlock


It’s hardly breaking news to say that Brexit has divided us as a nation.

The Referendum itself was contentious, and witnessed the murder of a Labour MP on the streets of her constituency. The aftermath of the Referendum also saw a spike in hate crimes aimed at Europeans and ethnic minorities, while our research has revealed astonishing levels of vitriol coming from Remain voters towards those who voted Leave.

Since the referendum, polls have emerged, seemingly weekly, showing a chasm between Leave and Remain voters; a chasm that continues to grow. The streets of Westminster have become more densely lined with EU flags on one side of the street and ‘Leave means Leave’ placards on the other, while figures from the far right have emerged seeking to weaponise Brexit.

Read our new Brexit report: DEEPENING DIVIDES

What has been less high profile is the extent to which the mismanagement of the Brexit process itself has damaged trust in politics. The Prime Minister has failed to even try and reach consensus over how the UK would leave the EU. Parliament is in chaos. There are now no options on the table for a solution that will please all sides of June 2016’s simplistic referendum question.

Hate & Division

HOPE not hate works in communities which are vulnerable to messages of hate and division. We have been conducting research on attitudes to Brexit throughout the fallout to better understand what Brexit means to people, what people want, and ultimately to find a solution that is going to be the least harmful for our communities, and limit a far right backlash.

We have polled tens of thousands of people and sat through dozens of hours of focus groups. We have listened as voters on both sides of the divide seek to explain their frustrations with the status quo, how their communities are changing, and their anger at how the Brexit process has unfolded.

We find that divisions have deepened, and that mistrust in the political system has swelled. Not only do people feel alienated by the language and process of Brexit, but they also feel that politicians are keeping them in the dark over exactly what is happening, acting instead to further their own careers and interests.

The Guardian coverage of our ‘Fear, Hope & Loss’ report

In just six months, our polling shows that the proportion of people who feel that any of the main political parties reflect what they think has fallen, with just 32% of people saying that they feel represented by any of the main political parties. A staggering 68% of people now feel that none of the main political parties speak for them. We are facing a crisis of growing political mistrust across all sections of the population, with no figure able to galvanise the support they need to overcome this disconnect.

Weaponising Brexit

In the months leading up to 29 March we have seen an increasing number of far-right figures attempting to capitalise on the anger many feel about Brexit for their own gain.

Activists from across the UK far right held a ‘Brexit Betrayal’ demonstration in December, and the appalling abuse faced by Anna Soubry MP, Sky News presenter Kay Burley and campaigning journalist Owen Jones are among a set of incidents in a growing list of far-right actions across the UK, as part of an attempt to hijack Brexit to spread hate and division. It’s important to know that these are being orchestrated by a tiny, but organised, minority who don’t represent most Leave voters.

The ‘Brexit Betrayal’ march in December 2018

However, growing mistrust in political representatives adds potency to a mix of unmet expectations, broken promises, further decline and anger that will accompany an economic downfall, if economic predictions come to fruition. The ground for a far right surge is fertile.

We have stood against a hard Brexit which will further damage our social fabric and would create the economic conditions in which the far right would thrive. We believe the best approach to Brexit is one that better understands the long-term impacts, and makes every effort to start rebuilding trust in the political system.

Brexit has already been a frustrating process for many, but we’re only approaching the end of the very beginning of this process. We still have years of negotiations with the EU to go, and divisions over the type of relationship we have with Europe are set to be just as polarising as the current debate. To add to this, the predicted, damaging, social and economic impacts of Brexit have not yet begun to hit, meaning instability, anger and resentment is likely to grow, not decline. Without a dramatic change of approach to the process, Britain is heading for ever-deepening divisions.

Dialogue

We believe it is time for dialogue. With so much at stake for the future of our country, it is a scandal that politicians are scrambling around trying to deliver a deal at the eleventh hour. The Government’s strategy of taking us to the edge in the hope that opponents of its deal will blink first, might, inadvertently, see us fall over the cliff – with all the terrifying predictions that incurs. It is time for a fundamentally different approach.

HOPE not hate is now backing calls for the establishment of Citizens’ Assemblies to spark discussion among our communities and those with divergent opinions, and explore the possibility of consensus over Brexit. While some argue that this is a distraction or an attempt to subvert democracy, we say the very opposite. Citizens’ Assemblies will actually enhance democracy, allow ordinary people to have their voices heard and develop consensus.

Citizens’ Assemblies could help break the Brexit deadlock

Moreover, the British public is less resistant to pausing Article 50 than one might think. Our latest polling suggests that 42% of people think that it would be sensible to delay leaving the EU by a few months so we can agree a better deal with the EU and/or hold a new referendum, while 38% think this would be a betrayal of the 2016 Referendum result.

The reality is that the 2016 Referendum opened up a can of worms that cannot now be closed. There is no Brexit outcome that will please everyone in Britain. What we need is a solution that can begin the process of healing our divided nation, that can start to rebuild public trust and that can tackle some of the root causes of resentment and hate. We cannot afford to fudge together an outcome from Brexit that will eventually rupture society even further.

Citizens’ Assemblies will allow the public to be involved in an informed debate, encourage Remainers and Leavers to talk together to hopefully agree a consensus that can be supported by the majority of British people. What can be more democratic than that.