A flawed second referendum could break our democracy

To suggest a course of action many voters believe is illegitimate is like walking into a room full of explosives with a lit match
Pro-Brexit activists
???There is a better way through. Democracy is not a tug-of-war but a process of dialogue and negotiation.??? Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

We???ve been locked in a tug-of-war for years that has effectively shut down government, and produced drift, anxiety and anger. Today a group of MPs will push for a second referendum to break the deadlock. In Westminster, their voices have dominated the Brexit debate and at times made a second vote seem inevitable. But when I go home to Wigan, for the most part it seems absurd.

I???ve never been a fan of binary choices. I dislike the divisive nature of our first-past-the-post electoral system and argued against a simple remain-leave referendum on the EU, which forced people to take sides on an issue that for most inspires mixed feelings. I am even less convinced by the case for a second referendum in the terms proposed.

Campaigners want to put a 585-page withdrawal agreement to the public that covers data sharing, security protocols and the Northern Ireland backstop. Unlike the Good Friday agreement, which is often used as a parallel, it tells us virtually nothing about the deep and fundamental issues at stake ??? the sort of jobs, wages or environment we???ll have after we leave the EU ??? because after three years those negotiations haven???t even started.

More troubling is the proposal to rig the result by posing a straight choice between Theresa May???s deal and remaining in the EU, with no-deal left off the ballot. Most Labour MPs ??? myself included ??? believe no deal would be a nightmare, tearing up the Good Friday agreement, lowering rights, wages and consumer protection and likely to trigger job losses and disrupt access to medicine. But offering a ???choice??? between an unpopular half-formed deal and a remain option that many already rejected is disrespectful, undemocratic and dishonest.

Leaving with no deal is the single most popular option, and supported by a quarter of the public. Leaving that option off the ballot would be seen by many voters as an establishment stitch-up and they would be right. In the referendum many leave voters repeatedly said they were prepared to put up with economic loss in return for more power, agency and control. The People???s Vote campaign???s slogan, ???Nobody voted to make themselves poorer???, indicates just how little this has been understood. As Jon Cruddas and Nick Lowles argued in the Guardian last week: ???If anything would create a rightwing backlash, this specific approach to a second referendum would be it.???

It is playing with fire to suggest we can settle the defining question of our age, affecting every aspect of our lives, communities and the future of the planet, through a referendum that large numbers passionately believe is illegitimate. In May there will be elections to a new European parliament and if we choose to pursue a referendum Britain will have to take part. The last referendum was ugly and divisive with claims on both sides that were untrue. The debate has since worsened. Cries of traitor which used to echo around far-right rallies are routinely heard in Westminster. To re-elect MEPs to a parliament we promised to leave months earlier, while also seeking a referendum in terms that are not considered legitimate by many, is like walking into a room full of explosives with a lit match. We are breaking our democracy.

Theresa May says clear majority against no-deal Brexit ??? video

People have the right to change their minds, but on both sides attitudes have hardened. In the middle are people who daily voice their frustration that this issue is unresolved because of an inability to compromise. They see, like me, jobs disappearing because companies do not know if they can bid for contracts beyond the end of the month. One constituent has a child waiting for a potentially life-saving clinical trial that depends on a conversation with the EU that hasn???t yet started. Most MPs haven???t slept for months but it is nothing compared with the anxiety of people whose jobs and access to medical treatment have hung in the balance for three years and do still.

The tug-of-war is killing us. Parliament is divided because the people are divided and flipping the decision to the public does nothing to alter it. There is a better way through. Democracy is not a tug-of-war but an ongoing process of dialogue and negotiation.

Forty MPs from across the divide pressed for a citizen???s assembly seeking progress through dialogue and the search for common ground. It was greeted with enthusiasm in the country while in Westminster it hit the brick wall that surrounds an institution hostile to reform and change. I have been clear with the prime minister that if she guarantees parliament a role and a vote in the next stages of the negotiations I will support this agreement and we will find a way through, but she resists because that would require compromise, which she will not consider.

Three years ago most MPs supported a referendum without thinking through the consequences or considering the detail. At every stage in the past three years it has become apparent that we are able to take a complete mess of a situation and still manage to make it worse. Why aren???t we learning? Not listening to what people are trying to tell us or thinking through our choices is what got us here. It cannot provide a route out.

The drift, anxiety and anger will not be resolved without a deeper understanding of democracy and a willingness to do the messy, hard business of dialogue, compromise and hard choices. It is politics not protest that is needed. Despite all options supposedly being on the table, that is the one that still seems to be missing.

??? Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan