We speak to the co-founder of Our Future, Our Choice – a campaign by young activists pushing for a People’s Vote on Brexit
If you feel like you’re drowning in the maelstrom that is Brexit, you’re not alone. Over the last year, the government has become a weird pantomime, full of inexplicable dancing, poor attempts at being normal, and, of course, memes. Brexit has turned parliament into a slapstick comedy; a place where someone grabbing a big golden stick results in absolute uproar.
Although the UK voted to leave the EU way back in June 2016, the true extent of that decision has dramatically been coming to light over the past few months. With Theresa May’s proposed deal now voted down twice, and MPs also voting against a no-deal Brexit and for an extension to Article 50, it seems parliament is at an impasse. It’s against this backdrop that I spoke to 22-year-old Lara Spirit, co-founder of Our Future, Our Choice (OFOC), a group of young activists campaigning for a People’s Vote.
With their rallying cry, “we didn’t vote for this mess”, OFOC – pronounced ‘oh fuck’ – aims to give a voice to the young people who overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU. According to statistics, 73 per cent of people aged 24 and under voted Remain, while 60 per cent of over 65s voted Leave. Given that we’re the ones who have to live with the consequences, it’s vital that young people not only have their say on Brexit, but that the government actually listens.
As a second referendum is looking more likely by the day, I spoke to Lara Spirit about OFOC, what a People’s Vote would mean for democracy, and why a lot of young people think it’s the only way forward.
YOUNG PEOPLE OVERWHELMINGLY VOTED REMAIN
There is a massive generation gap in the UK, with baby boomers blaming young people for everything. Can’t afford a house? You spent too much on brunches. You know, very cool, very normal logic. So, given the disparity in attitudes between older and younger people, it’s no surprise the Brexit result was so divided. Young people’s voices were silenced by an older generation, many of whom won’t even live to experience the full effects of their decision.
This feeling of being ignored played a big part in founding OFOC in October 2017, as Spirit explains: “We were all appalled by the fact there were no youth groups or movements opposing Brexit. We sensed there was an appetite for change and were disgusted by the way politicians had handled the Brexit process, shutting out the voices and issues that young people care about.” A politics student, Spirit had always had an interest in the subject but hadn’t explicitly been involved in activism before OFOC. But, as she says: “The response of disgust and anger (to Brexit), and a need to express how you feel is so natural that it doesn’t feel like activism.”
“The response of disgust and anger (to Brexit), and a need to express how you feel is so natural that it doesn’t feel like activism” – Lara Spirit
Since launching, OFOC has set up groups in over 40 universities across the country, and held over 200 events, including university panels and getting MPs to talk in schools. The campaign also has a battle bus, reclaiming the bad name Vote Leave gave to buses. “It has a note to MPs on the side,” Spirit explains, “which says ‘77 per cent of young people don’t want Brexit’, and we take that across the country and get young people to sign the bus – there’s no space left now for anyone else to sign!”
IT’S THE ONLY DEMOCRATIC SOLUTION
Critics of a second referendum argue that it goes against democracy, blasting the People’s Vote as an elitist assumption that pro-Leavers didn’t know what they were voting for. Spirit wholeheartedly disagrees: “A People’s Vote is entirely democratic because I don’t see why, as a democracy, we have to put up and shut up with a deal that’s so far away from what we were promised in 2016. It’s not democratic to make the people accept a deal which makes them poorer and less secure as a nation; I think it’s far more democratic to go back to the public and ask them for their informed consent on what to do about this.”
Spirit also slams those who suggest the People’s Vote campaign is elitist, explaining that the label is “utterly unfounded”. Given that almost a third of MPs went to private school – which rises to 48 per cent when it comes to the Tories – it’s rich (no pun intended) to try and call out the public for elitism. “These people are the real elite,” Spirit continues, “and it’s infuriating for people in our movement to be called the elite when we’re getting hundreds of thousands of normal people campaigning for a People’s Vote. And when you think about the fact that Brexit hits the poorest of our country first and worst, the idea that campaigning against that is elitist… I just can’t get my head around it.”
TO GIVE NEW VOTERS A VOICE
In a survey carried out with another anti-Brexit youth group, For Our Future’s Sake, OFOC found that 74 per cent of people who have reached voting age since 2016 would back Remain in a second referendum. “They feel like politicians are deciding their futures in an old stuffy room without their consent,” Spirit tells me, “The whole process has been abysmal for making young people feel any faith in the representatives speaking for them.”
A People’s Vote would give these young people a chance to finally have their voices heard, something Spirit regards as incredibly important when it comes to Brexit because it’s “an issue that is set to disproportionately affect them for years to come”. It’s depressingly common for young people to be vilified, mocked, and patronised when they partake in activism or publicly discuss politics, making it hard to be taken seriously. “We’ve had to fight hard to be considered a serious player in the movement,” Spirit explains, “and have had to really demonstrate persistently that we understand the debate in a way that other groups aren’t required to do.”
Although she acknowledges the unfair hurdles, Spirit is optimistic that young people are being heard more today than ever before. “I think throughout this process we’ve shown that young people do understand issues just as well, if not better, than many of their older contemporaries,” Spirit tells me. “I think direct action has become such an important player in making change because it’s a way to get your voices heard outside the traditional mainstream channels.”
TO ESCAPE ECHO CHAMBERS
The timing of the 2016 referendum meant that 175,000 people – primarily pro-Remainers – were at Glastonbury on the day of the vote, myself included. Never have I felt more trapped in a bubble than that day; waking up surrounded by people just as confused and devastated by the result as I was, finding it hard to fathom how Leave had so many supporters when I’d never really met any. “Everybody is in an echo chamber of some sort,” Spirit tells me, “and I think it’s important to break that and talk to people who have completely different views to you.”
By travelling around the country with OFOC, Spirit is determined to engage with both Leavers and Remainers; the group’s upcoming trip sees them visit 100 universities, schools, and colleges in 100 days. “Over the last year I’ve gone to so many new places that I’d never been to before,” Spirit reveals, “and I’ve spoken to people of all parties and learned about what Brexit means to them, and what they think should happen now. The level of understanding I have now about opinions of the country is so different to what I knew before the referendum.”
“The whole process has been abysmal for making young people feel any faith in the representatives speaking for them” – Lara Spirit
In this sense it’s also important to ensure MPs break out of their echo chamber, and listen to what the public want; Spirit thinks a key way to do this is by getting young people to write to their MPs. “There are particular target MPs who we need to back a People’s Vote if we’re to be successful,” Spirit tells me. “I think young people are less likely to get directly in touch with their MP, not because they care less, but because it’s seen as a more conventional thing to do for older generations, but this form of action is a really important and valuable way of getting through to your representative to tell them what your concerns are.”
BECAUSE A GENERAL ELECTION WOULDN’T SOLVE BREXIT
Given Theresa May self-destructively lost her majority at the last general election, and Jeremy Corbyn sparked a ‘youthquake’ which saw over a million under 25s register to vote, an election is probably the Tories’ nightmare. But, if May’s deal is voted down a third time this week, then a general election could become a viable option.
For Spirit, however, a general election isn’t the way to fix Brexit; she explains: “If you have a People’s Vote, you directly ask everybody whether they want to leave or remain, and each of their votes counts for exactly the same – that’s not the case in a first past the post electoral system under a general election. Even though Brexit is the consuming crisis at the moment, there would inevitably be other issues come into play in an election, and I don’t think that would give a clear mandate about what to do next in regards to Brexit.”
IT’S MORE LIKELY THE PUBLIC WOULD VOTE REMAIN
Spirit feels hopeful that the confusion surrounding Brexit – combined with two million people hitting voting age, and older pro-Leave voters dying since the first referendum in 2016 – could lead to a Remain victory if the public had another vote. “I think Brexit has gone from being an abstraction to a reality,” Spirit reasons, “with the British public now knowing what specific Brexit trade offs means for our country, I think they would choose to remain.”
Although, Spirit isn’t allowing herself to be complacent: “I’m not certain – that’s an important thing to say – and we’d accept if the people voted to leave again, of course we would. There would be renewed public mandate for whatever was decided in a second referendum, and it’s the only option if we’re ever going to get over Brexit and start talking about other issues that matter. But a People’s Vote is definitely worth fighting for because it’s the most important issue our generation faces right now. We need to be front and centre, tirelessly campaigning for the option we believe in.”
In a starkly divided Britain, there’s no way to know what would happen if a second referendum was put to the public. If the country votes to leave again, we could be back at square one, with even deeper divisions than before. Without sounding too despondent, at this point it’s hard to see any safe options for the UK. One thing that’s clear is that young people deserve a say in their future, and OFOC wants to give them that.