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Jeremy Corbyn and the lessons from 1975
16 Sep, 2018

Party unity points to a pre-Brexit referendum

In the hope of obtaining Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn might use misleading promises about a pre-Brexit referendum to woo voters and then not deliver, or offer a post-Brexit referendum which may sound good but would be too late. Labour Party members need to ensure that the Leader sincerely and effectually promises a pre-Brexit referendum. That is important for party unity as Labour is more divided over Brexit than other parties, and in a different way from that commonly understood. London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg writes.

The 1975 story

In 1975, Harold Wilson used a referendum as a device to keep a divided Labour Party together. You can read more about that in a blog here. Wilson’s other objectives were to bring or keep the UK in the European Economic Community (EEC - as it then was) and to obtain a Labour government.

Key dates:

  • January 1973 Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath negotiates UK entry into the EEC
  • 1974 Labour leader Harold Wilson negotiates minor changes to the terms of entry
  • 1975 referendum votes 67R:33L on a turnout of 65%.

The 1975 referendum campaign reflected a deeply divided Labour Party. The party itself did not take sides. Individual Labour figures and entities were free to campaign for either side. After the referendum the party came back together. However, Europe was one of the issues that led to the 1981 formation of the Social Democrat Party after Labour’s reaction to its 1979 defeat.

The lesson I want Jeremy Corbyn to draw

I – and other commentators – urge parallels with 1975 because the central lesson is that a referendum is the tool to keep a deeply divided party together.

But Jeremy Corbyn might draw a different lesson

Jeremy Corbyn wants Brexit. He seems to think that once Brexit has happened any defects in the Conservative’s Brexit can be put right by a Labour government. With the ticking clock of the Article 50 mechanism the country will leave the EU somehow just by Labour doing nothing. Watching the Conservatives implode must be fun. So he can gain his objective by doing nothing and saying just enough to keep Labour Remainers onside – “strategic ambiguity”, which is a polite phrase for deception.

A post-Brexit referendum is pointless for Remainers. Even if the UK is in a no-change transition, re-entry would be under the full accession provisions. The opt-outs and rebate would have to be renegotiated. Moreover, the public mood would be fundamentally changed by the fact of Brexit. Many people would be excited by Brexit as a national project and even ex-Remainers would wish to give it a decent go. The sense of national humiliation of going straight back in would be too large. Re-entry to the EU would be off the menu for decades.

So the risk is that pre-Brexit Jeremy Corbyn wins support by offering a referendum that does not take place until after Brexit. He could do so by:

  • promising a post-Brexit referendum, perhaps, emulating Harold Wilson, after a token renegotiation
  • making or permitting ambiguous statements about not ruling out a pre-Brexit referendum that succeed in misleading voters as to his intentions
  • promising a pre-Brexit referendum but in circumstances that are obviously or that turn out to be undeliverable, for example at the end of a long drawn out renegotiation that assumes that the EU will extend the Article 50 period by two years say
  • promising a pre-Brexit referendum and then not acting to ensure that it is held.

Labour division on Brexit is different from how it is perceived

Visibly, the Labour leadership is for a hard Brexit while Labour’s membership and voters are for Remain.

While most of its MPs represent constituencies that voted Leave people miss that most of the Labour voters there voted Remain. So the Labour base is relatively united behind Remain.

But the divisions between Labour Remainers and Labour Leavers run deeper than in the Conservative party. New research by UCL academics Pagel & Cooper looks at the difference in Leave and Remain supporters by party. You can read a summary here and the full research here.

Labour’s Leave and Remain supporters disagree on many aspects of policy. Labour Leavers care about sovereignty and immigration, issues which Labour Remainers view with indifference. Labour Remainers care a lot about reducing inequality and improving public services, which do not make the top 6 of Labour Leavers’ views. This effect is to some extent obscured by a split within Labour Leavers between majority traditionalists who prioritise immigration and minority Lexiters who prioritise inequality (both prioritise sovereignty).

By contrast, Conservative Leavers and Remainers are generally in agreement with each other on most policy priorities. Further, Conservative and Labour Remainers have little in common with each other, while Labour and Liberal Democrat Remainers show considerable overlap in priorities.

So the risk of a break-up is larger for Labour than for the Conservatives. While it is possible to see a new centre party of ex-Labour and Liberal Democrats, it is harder to see many Conservatives joining them. Under first past the post, the united Conservatives might well have an easy time when facing opposition split between a new centre party and Leave-Labour.

Nor does standing on the sidelines while the Conservatives manage Brexit work because Labour Remainers see that as pro-Brexit and Labour Leavers do not see it as pro-Leave.

The referendum is the answer to unite the party.


Jeremy Corbyn faces the same party unity problem as Harold Wilson faced and the obvious solution is the same: a referendum on the terms of Brexit with the option to Remain – a people’s vote - with Labour party figures allowed to choose for which side to campaign.

However, while Harold Wilson wished to be in the EEC, Jeremy Corbyn wishes to Leave the EU. That could lead him to oppose a referendum. But there is also the risk that he makes misleading promises. It will be important for Labour Party members to ensure that promises for a pre-Brexit referendum are genuine, worth having, deliverable – and delivered.



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