Tuesday 25 September 2018

Labour inches towards another referendum

Political predictions are always foolish, especially when they concern Brexit so I take a little bit of credit for the prediction I’ve made since at least July that this autumn Labour would come out in favour of another referendum having been proved half true.

Only half true, because there is still some ambiguity about under exactly what circumstances Labour would support one, and what question they would push for. As for the circumstances, for now this would only be if a General Election does not occur. So the scenario envisaged seems to be Labour voting against any Withdrawal Agreement deal the government come back with – if they come back with anything at all – if it fails Labour’s six tests, which seems all but certain. If enough Tory MPs, on whichever side of the party depending what the deal is, join them, then the deal is voted down. If May then refuses to hold an election, Labour would push for a referendum. (Presumably, also, they would do so if she did get the deal through, although with little chance of success in those circumstances).

Ambiguities and uncertainties

So far, so clear. What remains unclear is whether they would push for a referendum with ‘remain in the EU’ as an option. Keir Starmer said today that such an option was not ruled out. But John McDonnell said yesterday that this option should not be available (as did the influential trade union leader Len McCluskey), but instead the vote should be on the deal (i.e. the putative deal negotiated by the government). The conference motion itself says nothing about what the ballot question would be.

Initial reports of McDonnell’s comments suggested, incorrectly it turned out, this meant voting for ‘this deal’ or ‘no deal’ – a nonsensical proposition (it would mean Labour campaigning for ‘no deal’). Later it became clear that he meant it would be on ‘this deal’ or ‘another deal, to be negotiated’. But this is scarcely less absurd – how could people know what that hypothetical deal would be? And if the vote was in favour of that option, it would surely be inevitable that there would need to be another referendum as and when that deal was done (which would be ‘new deal’ versus ‘remain’, presumably, since it must be inconceivable that anyone would suggest going back for another renegotiation). To say nothing of the imponderables of how long an extension period would be needed, and whether it would be agreed with the EU.

What is also unclear is what happens under this new policy if there is a General Election. Does Labour then adopt a manifesto commitment to holding an immediate referendum (and with what options?), or simply to re-negotiating another deal, or re-negotiating another deal and then holding a referendum on it, and if so with what options? It certainly won’t be possible for Labour to go into such an election – which will be entirely dominated by Brexit – with the same ambiguity as in 2017, and the implication of each commitment is very different. In particular, with a ‘re-negotiation but no referendum’ policy it would mean both main parties offering voters no choice other than Brexit in some form.

Labour’s Brexit dilemmas

I haven't written much about Labour's stance on this blog, and it’s worth reflecting on some of the reasons why Brexit is almost as tortured an issue for them as it is for the Conservatives, even though the vast majority of Labour members and MPs*, and the majority of Labour voters, are opposed to Brexit.

One is ideological principle. For Jeremy Corbyn and some of his allies, the case against the EU remains that of the Labour Eurosceptics of the 1970s, most notably Tony Benn. In present day parlance, the critique would be that the EU is a neo-liberal institution. I’m not sure how much traction that has, though, in that despite Corbyn’s long record on this it’s not clear Brexit is a burning passion for him in the way it is for the Tory Ultras.

After all, although he was criticised for campaigning half-heartedly to remain, the fact is that he did campaign for it, giving EU membership a “7 or 7 and a half out of 10”. It’s hard to imagine a Rees-Mogg or a Farage – not to mention a Hoey – saying the same. Contrast that with his inability to even pretend that he would be willing to use nuclear weapons and it suggests that Brexit isn’t a fundamental matter for him. My impression, for what little it is worth, is that he isn’t that much interested in it, compared with his wider domestic and foreign policy objectives. If so, it’s by no means the case that any likely Labour policy would be incompatible with EU membership. On the other hand, the economic damage of Brexit would certainly make such policies difficult to pursue.

The second reason is electoral: the concern that many traditionally Labour constituencies, especially in the Midlands and North of England, voted leave. Against that, though, it’s clearly not the case that all, or even most, of those who voted leave in such constituencies were, or are ever likely to be, Labour voters. And many who are have since changed their minds. Moreover, even for those who are actual or potential Labour voters, and who still support Brexit, it does not follow that it is anything like the most important issue to them at least to the extent that even the prospect of another vote – for this wouldn’t be a policy of Labour revoking Brexit, just holding another vote – would be anathema to them. It is probably only amongst the most hardline Brexiters that it is considered an affront to democracy to hold a vote!

A third, and of course related, reason is simply tactical – the fear that unambiguous support for another Referendum with an option to remain would hand the Tories the ‘betraying the will of the people’ stick to beat them with. But today’s limited shift has already provoked that, so Labour might as well go the whole hog. Rather as with May’s Chequers Proposal, there’s not much point in taking the pain of being attacked without the gain of developing a clear policy. By contrast, providing such clarity would offer a net gain of about 1.5 million votes according to a recent opinion poll.

If this analysis is right, then it seems highly likely that the Labour position will continue to evolve – quickly, given the press of events - toward supporting a referendum in any circumstances, General Election or no, and if so with remain on the ballot paper. As Simon Wren-Lewis cogently argues in his latest blog, this is really the only option that makes sense. Brendan Donnelly, in an equally cogent piece this week, suggests that the fall out from Salzburg makes a referendum (rather than, in his view, an election) more likely and also thinks it unlikely that remain would not be an option.

However, even if Labour supports such a referendum it does not follow that it will be held and, if it is held, it does not follow that remain will win. And whoever wins it certainly does not follow that that the issues and divisions exposed and exacerbated by Brexit will go away.
*Although for some exceptions, see this montage of quotes and images from a meeting of pro-Brexit members and delegates at the party conference, some of which suggest that it is not just amongst the Tory Ultras that some fairly extreme views are to be found e.g. that people campaigning for another referendum should be put on trial for attempting to overthrow a democratic vote!

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