The party leadership should come out for a second referendumby Peter Kellner / September 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Labour’s policy towards a people’s vote on Brexit is evolving; and it matters. A full-blown political crisis at Westminster this autumn is very possible, arguably likely—either because the negotiations in Brussels break down, or because a deal is done but parliament rejects it. At that point, the best way to resolve the crisis could well be to let the public decide whether to crash out of the European Union without a deal, or not leave at all.
Would MPs then vote to hold a new referendum? The parliamentary arithmetic is tight. If Labour backs one, it will become a real possibility. If Labour doesn’t, it won’t.
So: where will Labour end up?
Until recently, Labour’s formal position has been to oppose a referendum. Just a few weeks ago, Barry Gardiner, Labour Shadow Trade Secretary said it would undermine “the whole principle of democracy in this country” and warned that it would lead to “civil disobedience.” Then, on Sunday, he backed off. Sky News’ Sophy Ridge asked him whether a public vote was still off the table. His reply was simple: “no.”
Gardiner has caught up with a change in Labour stance already mooted by Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary. In July, when I interviewed him for the Labour Business group, Starmer told me that a referendum is on the table; and if one were held, it would have to offer the choice of remaining in the EU (ie, not be a choice between a compromise deal and leaving without a deal).
Last week, The Trades Union Congress went further. It passed a resolution explicitly approving the option of a people’s vote. Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, told Andrew Marr on the BBC that if the government failed to get a deal that was “good for working people,” and “if there isn’t going to be an early general election,” then the TUC would “throw its weight behind” a campaign for a people’s vote. The big unions are onside—either explicitly wanting a referendum (like GMB and TSSA) or saying the option must be kept open (such as Unite and CWU). The RMT union is one of the few unions that opposes a referendum outright.
Next week, the issue is almost certain to be debated at Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool. Last year, Jeremy Corbyn’s…