INTERVIEW: Baroness Ludford, Lib Dem Brexit spokesperson
With the European Elections taking place today, we spoke to Baroness Ludford, a former MEP for London and the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Exiting the European Union.
Following their success in the local elections earlier this month, the Liberal Democrats have re-emerged from their time at the sideline of British politics, a period Ludford refers to as the “wilderness”, and into the foreground. This success has bolstered their hopes for today’s elections. Describing the “very encouraging” polls and campaign feedback, Ludford attributed their growing popularity to their clarity: “I think people are appreciating our very clear 'stop Brexit' message. We have the clarity and indeed we have had the consistency of message that other parties, notably Labour, lack.”
Referencing then leader Tim Farron’s statement shortly after the referendum result that the final deal should be put to the people, Ludford underscored the “pro-European” nature of the Liberal Democrats. She said: “This didn’t start in 2016 and it didn’t stop in 2016 either. For 18 months we were a voice in the wilderness but now people are starting to support a 'People’s Vote'. I think people are seeing us as having been consistent, coherent, reliable and clear."
I think people are seeing us as having been consistent, coherent, reliable and clear.
A major criticism of the possibility of a second referendum is exactly what would be written on the ballot paper. For Ludford, the choice is clear: “We want a 'People’s Vote' for the people to compare the reality of Brexit to the reality of what we have at the moment.” Ludford’s preference for a choice between any deal passed by the Commons and remain is reflected in her view of the 2016 Leave campaign: “You can't ask people to vote for something that cannot be described. That was the weakness in 2016 of the Leave campaign, who couldn’t agree on exactly what they were offering, and so promised all kinds of fantasies and unicorns.”
A crucial thread running through Ludford’s argument, and indeed the argument of the Liberal Democrats, is that if the people were given the opportunity to voice their opinion at the outset, they should choose the final reality: “What started with the people must end with the people.”
The Brexit Party have campaigned on a clear Leave strategy: leave the EU as soon as possible on WTO terms. Much like her criticism of the promise of “fantasies and unicorns”, Ludford criticised the lack of clarity of what this would entail: “It would be up to them [those advocating WTO] to say exactly what that entails. Trade experts have demolished this idea.” A particular criticism of WTO terms was the lack of provision for services, 79 per cent of the UK’s total economic output. Ludford stated: “The government has given so little thought to services and there is nothing in WTO that assists services.” Instead, Ludford advocated the tangible reality of staying within in the EU: “We believe we should support something which is at least able to be described. No deal is empty rhetoric, something we have seen all too much of in the last few years.”
What started with the people must end with the people.
Another criticism of a second referendum is that it would simply stir up and exacerbate divisions. Ludford dismissed this idea: “Like everyone else, I regret the divisions that have been shown up by the whole Brexit process but I don’t believe you should therefore reject democracy. I don’t think there is any reason to think a properly conducted 'People’s Vote' campaign would do the same. People say you’re betraying democracy [by having a second referendum]; how can you betray democracy by having a democratic vote.”
Beyond the European Elections, the emergence of new centre ground parties such as Change UK have changed the landscape of British politics. On Monday, Heidi Allen, the leader of Change UK, predicted a “modern world of coalition". When pressed on whether the Lib Dems would join such a coalition, Ludford said: “They took their particular journey and chose not to join the Lib Dems – that’s fine. The case of political and constitutional reform will be enhanced by the experience of the last few years. We welcome allies, whether they share the progressive centre ground with us or in other parties.”
As Ludford remarked about the result of the elections, and their aftermath, “only time will tell.”