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Is December too late?
01 Sep, 2018

Corbyn & Starmer must act straight after Conference

The chances of resolving the Brexit agreement in the October EU Council seem slim. A special meeting in December looks more likely. That reduces the time for a referendum. Labour party activists are trying to change party policy to support a People’s Vote. If defeated by the membership, pro-Brexit Jeremy Corbyn may wish to delay action until Brexit is inevitable. So campaigners need to ensure that Corbyn is mandated to act immediately and enforce that. London4Europe committee member Michael Romberg writes.

The Government’s stance

The July Chequers plan was not by any means for a soft Brexit. Its aim was to lower the cost of a hard Brexit.

We know it called for a hard Brexit, realising what Theresa May and some of the hard Brexiters believe might be the big prize of Brexit: lower immigration. The agreement would mean no widespread political co-operation, no freedom of movement, no to measures bringing people together, no to acceptance of the trust-building shared jurisdiction of the ECJ.

But it would keep the UK more or less in the single market and customs union for traded goods. So we should see the negotiating position as the government’s recognition that Brexit is costly and an attempt to minimise the cost.

As usual with the British Brexit debate it was as though only British views mattered. The government had forgotten that it was negotiating with the EU.

The EU’s response

Michel Barnier’s 20 July response to the white paper was achingly polite. But it was nonetheless a rejection, confirmed later in July. The white paper would unpick the linkage of the four freedoms of the single market and rely on magical customs technology. The amendments forced on the Government by the Brexiter ultras with the help of Labour Leavers made EU rejection more likely.

Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom insisted that if the EU did not accept the proposal then the blame for the collapse of the talks would rest with them. That is to make the absurd claim that the EU has to change its nature to please a departing member.

Where next in the negotiations

The Government is no further forward in facing up to the reality of its red lines. There are only three settlements available, just as there always have been:

  • Norway/EEA + Customs Union;
  • Canada FTA (with Irish backstop);
  • No-deal/ WTO/ crash out

Over two years after the referendum result the country is still not able to confront that reality. Theresa May and Phillip Hammond have probably got it even if they dare not communicate the choice. (The Chequers plan is Canada +++++++.)

But the Brexit ultras have not understood either the choice or the consequences of their choice. Boris’ resignation speech did not grapple with the problems but wished them away. Rees-Mogg blames the EU for the creation of the Irish border problem. Jeremy Corbyn continues to promise have-your-cake-and-eat-it Brexit. No wonder we cannot have an honest debate.

It is hard to believe that the short period of negotiations left until the October EU Ministerial Council will allow enough time for the fantasies of Conservative and Labour Brexiters to evaporate in the face of the immovable reality of what the EU is.

A decision at a special EU Council in December seems more likely than one in October. Even that comes with no guarantee of an agreement. But it seems likely that December/ January would trigger the political crisis when anything might happen, including legislation to set up a people’s vote.

Enough time for a referendum?

Not really. It would require a great deal of good will from the EU. It is not just that there would need to be unanimous agreement to extend the Article 50 deadline to allow a referendum on the terms to take place. We should assume that will happen – the prize of the UK changing its mind and supporting the European Project is so great.

But a referendum in the spring would seriously mess up the time-table for the European Parliament elections and the plans to reduce the number of seats. It could put the process in breach of the treaties. The EU is putting contingency plans in place. But it would no doubt prefer clarity earlier.

So the sooner a referendum on the terms is on the statute book the better.

Labour Party Conference (23-26 September 2018)

A number of local Labour party constituency associations have put forward resolutions calling for a people’s vote. Even parts of Momentum are backing the idea. This time Jeremy Corbyn might not succeed in blocking the debate.

Jeremy Corbyn is a supporter of a hard Brexit. He will presumably try to oppose the calls for a referendum, or water the resolutions down into meaninglessness, or ignore them until it is too late.

One way he could make a resolution ineffectual would be to have it call for either a general election or a referendum. But a general election cannot resolve Brexit. Elections are not fought on single policies but to choose a government. With both main party leaders advocating hard Brexit first-past-the-post means the electorate would have no real choice. But Labour’s communication strategy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ might again succeed in deceiving some that it was a party of Remain.

He could support a referendum but make the choice “Brexit or Brexit”? It will be important that activists ensure that Remain is an option.

Another way of neutering the resolution would be if the resolution allowed the leadership latitude on when to implement it. For example it would sound reasonable to wait until the terms had been negotiated and then apply Keir Starmer’s six tests. But that might not be until February 2019. And it is not as though there is a real prospect that the Brexiters’ promises will be delivered. There is no information for which to wait.

What is needed

In order to have a people’s vote, Labour Party activists need to ensure that Corbyn and Starmer go back to Parliament straight after the Conference and immediately seek to obtain a People’s Vote.

That requires not just resolution wording to that effect as well as Conference speeches that make the meaning clear. But it also requires members to organise to keep up the pressure on Corbyn and Starmer after the Conference.

It is time for Labour to stop equivocating and - in the words of Willy Brandt, the great German Social Democrat Chancellor - to dare to have more democracy.




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