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 allies managed to prevent discussion of Brexit. This year, out of 272 motions submitted for debate, 151 concern Brexit, many of them demanding a new referendum. And with unions warming to the idea, and Sadiq Khan, London’s Mayor, now calling for a referendum, not to allow any debate would look ridiculous.
I would be surprised if the conference overturned the leadership’s preference for a general election. Any opposition party, facing a minority government at a time of national crisis, would seize any opportunity to have a crack at replacing it.
However, there are two problems with the leadership’s approach.
The first is that an election is highly unlikely. Since 2010, there have been only two ways to cut short the life of a five-year parliament. Either two-thirds of MPs must vote for this outcome, or the government must be brought down by a vote of no confidence. Last year’s election was held because Theresa May wanted one and Labour and Conservative MPs joined together to vote for it. This time, unless the Conservative Party at Westminster disintegrates completely, its MPs would do all they could to avoid the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government. As long as they stick together on this point (if nothing else), both routes to a general election are blocked.
This means that, while a demand for an early election is politically attractive, Labour also needs a Plan B. In practice this means either allowing a bad, and possibly no-deal, Brexit to go ahead, or a people’s vote to stop it.
Labour’s second problem is that, even if by some chance it does get a general election, it would then have to decide what to say in its manifesto. Assuming that it doesn’t completely dump the policy it put forward last year, it would promise fresh negotiations with Brussels, with the aim of securing a Brexit deal in which the UK retained all the benefits of the single market, customs union and membership of agencies such as Euratom and Europol.
It’s hard to see the EU signing up to this unless the UK agrees to make a large, continuing annual payment to the EU (as Norway and Switzerland currently do). In any event, critics of Labour’s policy would say, with some reason, that the UK would become a vassal state, agreeing to all the EU’s rules, today and in the future, without any say in those rules.
Given all that, a manifesto promise of a fresh referendum at the end of the new negotiations makes sense. It would be a rational way to resolve the issue in due course—and also a means of deflecting the “vassal state” argument in the election campaign. Labour could position itself as the party that can both secure British prosperity and ensure that the people have the final say.
Next week’s conference is unlikely to end up with anything as definite as a clear strategy that embraces all these points. But in some months’ time, we may look back and see it as a staging post towards full Labour backing for the people having the final say on whether we leave the EU or not.