We need to do more than just stop using the labels 'Remainer' and 'Leaver'

We need to do more than just stop using the labels 'Remainer' and 'Leaver'

Catherine Neilan

15:40 2nd January 2021

With the transition period over and the UK having fully left the EU, politicians have called for an end to the Brexit-era labels that divided the country for so many years.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has been saying it for months, but in recent weeks it has been picked up by shadow team members including Lisa Nandy and Rachel Reeves. This week, while wrapping up the debate on the Brexit trade bill, we even heard Michael Gove telling MPs "we should all now come together and recognise that there are no such things anymore as Remainers or Leavers."

And yesterday, outspoken shadow minister Jess Phillips set out her argument for why we should "stop the endless and wrongful categorisation of people based on their views of the referendum".

Writing for the Independent, the MP noted that while she voted Remain, her constituency was Leave-voting - but that in the real world beyond Westminster, those two labels have been long forgotten.

"Most people care significantly more about pretty much anything else and don't want to be defined in this binary way," she wrote."It is something that happened in the past and people are far more worried about their future."

That is undeniably true - but only to an extent. The pandemic has focused minds and for many the self-induced wars over sovereignty, fish and borders feels remote and unnecessary. With cases rising and more restrictions being imposed, coronavirus remains the biggest concern for most people. The chaos we saw at the borders was not Brexit-induced but France's arguably heavy-handed reaction to the new Covid variant.

But that doesn't mean that people will stop identifying with the labels of four-and-a-half years ago. As polling guru John Curtice wrote back in 2018, many "voters now think of themselves as a 'Remainer' or 'Leaver', in much the same way that somebody might think of themselves as, say, a 'Manchester United fan' or a 'Manchester City supporter'."

He added: "Being a 'Remainer' or a 'Leaver' has become part of their self-identity, and a label to which they feel an emotional bond and which serves to underpin and reinforce their support for staying in or leaving the EU irrespective of the arguments and counter-arguments about what Brexit will or will not bring."

Indeed, the reaction to Phillips' article underscored the residual strength of feeling: Sorry, Jess trended throughout most of New Year's Day and beyond.

Of course, as we cannot say enough, Twitter is not the real world and social media will always encourage more extreme views - in some cases, regardless of whether the person might hold a more moderate position when removed from their screen.

Some of her stance - and that of her colleagues - is a way of reconciling the fact that they voted for the bill, paving the way for Brexit to happen. Labour's official position was understandable - they were only given the option to vote for this deal or no deal, and could not risk the damage that might cause to the country, regardless of their thoughts on the matter as a whole. For a one-time Remainer to enable the very thing they have spent years fighting against, the cognitive dissonance would be too much to bear.

However for die hard Remainers that argument won't wash. The reaction, both in Westminster and online, has been emphatic: those who voted to Leave will be held responsible for the results.

The problem is that just as for those who derided the dire warnings of economic calamity Brexit would cause as Project Fear, there are others who will see it as the root of all evil. Remainers might claim that their position is grounded in facts, but given how unknowable the impact is, both sides have always been led by their hearts.

Then of course there is the fact that Brexit appears to have been just one - long and bruising - battle in the culture war. In September, research by the think tank Demos suggested that the divisions sparked by Covid, over lockdowns and face masks and so on, were in some cases running deeper than they had over Brexit.

All this is not to say that the two sides can't be brought together and find a way through, but it will not be as easy as saying people should drop the labels they have used and heard constantly for the last few years.

People must learn to re-engage with those they disagree with on a fundamental basis. That starts by having a healthier dialogue, one in which people are respectful to each other, and one in which we don't always talk to people who see the world as we do.

That means giving people the benefit of the doubt and only call them out when absolutely necessary. It means not being so quick to judge or point out their failings: that gets people's backs up, and makes them dig in their heels.

It means listening to what people are saying and not what you think they are saying. Ask questions rather than making statements.

Eventually, through better engagement, people will stop using the labels because they will become meaningless. This person might have voted differently to you in 2016 (and 2017, and 2019, and, and, and...) but they are so much more than that - as are we all.

It is time to move on from the referendum rhetoric but something has to replace it, and it is only through better dialogue that we have a chance of taking a step in a positive direction.

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