Inside London’s Millbank Tower, once the campaign headquarters for Britain’s establishment Conservative and Labor parties, one finds the hub of a months-old movement seeking a second public vote on “Brexit.”
A team of about 30 people at the skyscraper represent what they call the “People’s Vote,” a campaign for a referendum described as a sort of vital follow-up to the nation’s 2016 decision to exit the 28-nation European Union.
The campaign, which organizers say is backed by more than 100 grassroots groups, essentially aims to generate enthusiasm for a second vote, this time on whether to stay in or leave the EU based on the government’s still pending exit deal with the bloc of nations.
The Britain-EU split is supposed to occur in March, but negotiations in search of a friendly agreement have not generated a deal so far. The possibility of a no-deal exit from the bloc has raised concerns about economic fallout and confusion at the borders.
“It’s about giving people a choice,” said Adrian McMenamin, deputy director of communications for the People’s Vote campaign. “Brexit has been a divisive issue in British society. Having a people’s vote is not going to make that any worse, but it has the opportunity to decide the issue and maybe bring it to a close.”
The contentious 2016 referendum saw 52% vote in favor of leaving the EU and 48% in support of staying.
But controversy surrounding the vote was immediate, and the opposition Labor Party recently announced it expected to reject Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposal for an exit deal because her Conservative government was offering choices of “really bad and even worse.”
Among the concerns are access to European markets, worker rights protections and border checks between Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain, and Ireland, which is a member of the EU.
British and European parliaments must approve any proposed deal between the U.K. and the EU.
The People’s Vote campaign believes that once the terms of the exit agreement are known, it should be up to the British electorate to decide whether to accept it. If the answer is no, the group says, the option to remain part of the EU should still be on the table.
Since launching in April, the campaign has gained considerable traction and financial support. Last month, the campaign organized a march that drew an estimated 700,000 people to the streets of London to demand a vote on Brexit.
Crowds flooded the capital’s main thoroughfares in the largest show of public opposition to government policy since an anti-Iraq war protest rally in 2003 attracted more than 1 million people, according to estimates.
Many people in the crowd recently were too young to be eligible to vote when the 2016 referendum took place but felt upset that a decision that would so greatly affect their future was being made without their say.
“Now, two years later, I’m 18 and I just feel like if all the people I know had a chance to have their say, we would have done something very different. Instead, the future has been chosen for us,” said student Elen Lloyd Owen, who was at the London march holding aloft a sign that read: “It’s no joke, I had no vote.”
On Sunday, more than 70 business leaders published an open letter to the government demanding a second referendum.They argued the deal being negotiated by May’s government and EU officials — or the idea that the two sides split without any deal — would leave their industries worse off than the status quo.
“We are now facing either a blindfold or a destructive hard Brexit,” the letter states. “Both these options will further depress investment. They will be bad for business and bad for working people … we believe the ultimate choice should be handed back to the public.”
On Monday, more than 1,500 British lawyers sent a letter to the prime minister also demanding a vote on the outcome of the talks.
“Voters are entitled to know what they are voting for,” they wrote.
But there are many who see the campaign as an attempt to overturn the 2016 vote because of bitterness that the referendum didn’t go in their favor.
“We had a vote, we voted to leave,” British entrepreneur Richard Tice, cofounder of the Leave Means Leave campaign, said in a recent interview. “The idea that you should have a second referendum would be incredibly damaging, most of all to the trust in democracy from people up and down this country.”
May, who will put a proposed deal before Parliament for approval, has rejected any idea of a second referendum as a “gross betrayal” of democracy.
High-level meetings are taking place this week aimed at breaking the key deadlock in negotiations: how to guarantee there will not be new checks on goods at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
The People’s Vote campaign acknowledges its bid for a second referendum will require winning over a significant number of lawmakers in the 650-member House of Commons.
“We don’t claim a majority of [members of Parliament] now are supporters,” McMenamin said.
Anand Menon, director of the think tank UK in a Changing Europe, said the campaign faces an uphill battle in garnering support from Parliament for a referendum.
“Just because 700,000 people happened to get out in London on the day, great, yes, it’s an impressive show of support,” Menon said. “But ultimately it depends on Parliament and getting enough MPs to say, ‘Yes, we need a second referendum.’”
“Any outcome is possible at the moment — there is a load of uncertainty,” Menon said. “I think we will only know which way things will go if we end up with a deal being rejected by Parliament.”
Boyle is a special correspondent.