Following the pop-up ‘General Election Now’ campaigns in other Devon towns, Devon for Europe returned to the county’s capital with its first “proper” street stall to find out how the city’s Saturday shoppers are feeling about the present state of political affairs. Six years ago, Exeter voted to remain in the EU at the 2016 referendum, perhaps unsurprisingly as it was the UK’s most EU trade-dependent city with 70 per cent of its exports headed for Europe.
The two ‘democracymeters’ tell a clear and pretty one-sided story. Exeter is not happy with the current government, the direction of travel and the outcome of Brexit. However, perhaps the most worrying response was the proportion of people unaware that the law will in future require them to present appropriate photo ID in order to cast their vote.
Most of those expressing a preference against an immediate general election wanted to give the stability of Sunak and Hunt a chance. Stability is a plausible argument, particularly after the Truss-induced market shock and slump. There is indeed a school of thought that the City would prefer there not to be a general election for now. However, looking at the government’s legislative programme, we must question what stability they are offering. The proposed repeal of EU legislation is a brutal clear-out of standards on ideological grounds. While we may not have not have full-fat free marketeer gamblers running fiscal policy, removing regulations and safeguards is not going to contribute to a more stable trading framework.
Recent polling showed a clear shift with a 14-point preference towards re-joining the EU. But public opinion is only one part of the battle. What do we do to capitalise on this changing sentiment? The political will doesn’t seem to be there to address the elephant in the room. Ministers fall back on the same tropes – “I’m not going to relitigate 2016” and “historic vote” etc. Meanwhile, Labour continues to be goaded by interviewers into making evermore vociferous statements against re-joining in an effort to look Red-Wall-friendly. It is therefore incumbent on us – the people – not to sit and suffer or wait and see. We need to be visible and make our voices heard. We need to write to our MPs and make them fully aware that we can see Brexit is not “done”. It’s a live issue and it’s like mould, rotting the country while we hope it’ll just sort itself out given a warm, dry spell.
Back to the Exeter street stall: the reception was very positive, with numerous passers-by stopping to say how glad they were to see us out campaigning. There was some great engagement with youngsters who were not eligible to vote in 2016 on a matter so critical to their futures and also some wretched stories of businesses struggling to continue trading with EU clients now they are hampered by post-Brexit red tape.
So much has changed since the 2019 election and it’s negatively affecting the people we talked to. It’s time for a refresh, a new set of manifestos that treat Brexit seriously as something more than a slogan and a line to be gotten across. We need a general election now!