Rob Davidson

Brexit is finally upon us, what next for Remainers?

It’s been said before but now, surely and finally, we are only days away from Brexit. The UK ended its EU membership at the start of 2020, but within the next 4 weeks it will have left the building at last. So, what next for the army of ‘Remainers’ that mobilised in unprecedented numbers to oppose the Conservative Party’s defining, winning yet destructive policy?

Negotiations are on-going but the outcome is far from certain - and whatever is agreed is guaranteed to fall short of what was promised. Regardless, Brexit will be 'completed' within the month - whether we like it or not.

Of course, the deal (if it materialises) is expected to be very ‘thin’ - therefore, updated negotiations might continue to try to fill in gaps or renegotiate parts as the years roll on (like the UK wants to have for fishing quotas). Regulatory agreements like financial services “equivalence” could be added or removed at any time. So, it’s not a certain or final outcome by any stretch of the imagination but: it’s happening, get over it… to coin a phrase.

So what about the million Remainers that marched on London and the 1.3 million voters that flocked to the Lib Dems “Bollocks to Brexit” slogan during General Election 2019: they have lost a battle, but will they wage a war?

It’s not been a great start. The People’s Vote campaign that had served to unite a fractured post-referendum ecosystem fell apart with some very public factionalism, even while the fight was still going on. Its successor brand, Democracy Unleashed, took months to reform and has seemed decidedly ‘part-time’ since.

The other ‘big beast’ of post-referendum campaigns, Best for Britain, has been far more active. It has solidified a decent team and is running continuous email campaigns, petitions, and the occasional data-driven report. But they had never developed the branch network of other campaigns during the main fight - and today, some of the petition campaigns sound a little hollow. It’s hard to feel motivated by the recent email subject line: “Urgent: Labour must abstain.”

European Movement runs the main Remainer branch network. This 70-year-old organisation takes its roots back to Winston Churchill, but was largely absent during the EU referendum campaign period. Post-referendum it focused on growing activist branches and at one point could claim around 200 – even if some were “one man and a dog.” Since Brexit day in January, the organisation has added a considerable digital campaign strategy to its playbook with at least one petition achieving more than 100,000 signatures. Similarly, it’s had some decent crowd funding success – raising £159,000 a month ago. Perhaps, when Coronavirus has been defeated, we will see more from this group’s activists - but there is always the fear that the network (and its infamously unwieldy and anachronistic organisational structures) will return to its referendum-period obscurity.

While Johnson’s “stonking majority” has certainly put out the fire of what was once called the largest pro-EU movement in Europe, there may be some hot embers in the ashes.

But then, we’ve been here before.

Back in 2011, the Liberal Democrats conducted an election review covering the AV referendum. The campaign had been an abject disaster, but in the review a small positive was seen:

“the AV campaign did generate some positives. It established a genuine grassroots movement for electoral reform, with 150 to 180 groups around the UK set up to campaign for reform.”

I think it’s fair to say that no one knows what happened to that ‘genuine grassroots movement for electoral reform’ or its 150+ activist branches. Will this quiet demise also happen for the 120-ish remaining branches of the Remain community?

Today's pro-EU movement, perhaps, has the potential to be different. It has some large, on-going campaign organisations to rally around and keep the homefires burning - but the story in this first year has been very mixed. If the Unionists want to stage a comeback then it will require a new message, a clear ‘theory of change’ - and gargantuan, persistent effort to maintain, motivate or even grow the movement when Brexit has finally happened.

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