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Labour: referendum - yes; Brexit - maybe
30 Sep, 2019

Chair's message to members - 30 September 2019


Dear Member or Supporter,

There is no point in the cheerleaders for Jeremy Corbyn complaining that the Remain movement is ungrateful to him now that he is backing the referendum that we had asked for. Gifts given grudgingly and three years late do not go down well. 

The great bulk of Labour voters, members and MPs back Remain. Our blog lists organisations that you can join that aim to persuade Labour to be more EU-friendly (we also list organisations that do the same for the Conservative Party).  Yet that is not the Party's official position.

There are only two reasons for Labour keeping open the possibility of backing Brexit. First, it is a straightforward piece of electoral positioning to ensure that the party does not frighten off Leave voters. Second, the Leader and his inner circle believe that Brexit is best.

Let's look at the implications for Remainers of Labour's Brexit policy following the Conference.


A referendum on Boris Johnson's Brexit

Labour has called for a referendum on Boris Johnson's Brexit. It would campaign for Remain against either "a Tory deal that does not protect the economy and jobs." or no-deal.

However, when announcing that policy Jeremy Corbyn made clear that his first choice would be his own Brexit: "We continue to believe this is a sensible alternative that could bring the country together.". So he would not campaign for Remain as such, only against the Brexits on offer - even though his Brexit was little different from Theresa May's and is unlikely to much different from a Brexit deal negotiated by Boris Johnson.

That means that he would not be taking part in a positive hopeful campaign for EU membership, just a grudging campaign because some details of the Brexit on offer are not to his liking. So, whatever the enthusiasm that most Labour supporters would bring to the Remain campaign, official Labour would not be a real asset; rather setting the scene for re-opening the Brexit debate if Remain win.


Which comes first: general election or referendum?

Labour wants a general election; fine, oppositions always do. 

However, a general election would not resolve Brexit. People vote to elect a government not to decide on a single issue. First Past the Post distorts the results. Moreover, what the Government's job is will depend fundamentally on whether the UK launches on Brexit or stays in the EU. Voters should choose a government for the task in hand.

The recent Corbyn/ Watson disagreement was on just this question of the order of votes. Jeremy Corbyn's conference speech said "That election needs to take place as soon as this government’s threat of a disastrous No Deal is taken off the table." 

The right answer for Remain is to prioritise the referendum. After Brexit has been settled, that is the time to choose a new government to implement the policy the people have decided. 


A referendum after a general election win

The Labour Party conference has determined (link here to the NEC statement and the two resolutions that were debated - motion 13 rejected (in rather unclear circumstances), motion 14 carried) that Labour would go into the general election with a policy of:

  • negotiating within three months its own "sensible" Brexit deal; 
  • setting up a referendum to take place within six months of the election to enable the country to choose between Labour's negotiated Brexit deal and Remain; 
  • holding a special one-day party conference to decide the party's stance in the referendum; and
  • implementing whatever policy the electorate decides in the referendum.

The claim that Labour should negotiate its own Brexit as an insurance policy in case that is what the referendum decides does not hold water. The form of Brexit will be decided by the first post-Brexit government in a negotiation which may start from but will not be bound by the Political Declaration. So we could just as well have the referendum on Theresa May's deal.

Nor is the idea that Jeremy Corbyn's Brexit plan would unite the country plausible - have you met any Remainer who only really cares about being in a customs union? 

Jeremy Corbyn declined to answer whether he would favour his own deal over Remain. In his conference speech he did remind us that he has been advocating his Brexit for a long time. For those of us who cannot see any Brexit as sensible, just wishing to negotiate an unnecessary deal when one already exists that can be put to the electorate shows where Corbyn stands. His willingness to implement Brexit also shows his sympathy. Brexit is not some technical project. It would lead to a fundamental restructuring of the UK that can only really be envisioned and implemented by a believer. The idea that Labour could both implement the huge legislative programme that the conference desires and also implement Brexit if that is decided shows either a lack of thought about the scale of the Brexit project or un unwillingness to confront the electorate with the need to make a choice.

No decision has been made on whether individual Labour figures will be free as in 1975 to choose on which side to campaign. Given the importance of personal loyalty in the party, there must be a question whether the party's pro-Corbyn organisations will allow people to campaign against "Jeremy's better Brexit".

We can hope that the Conservatives will refuse to back a Brexit that has a Corbyn label on it even if it is pretty similar to their own. But they may take whatever Brexit they can get and adjust it afterwards to be more to their liking.

We would therefore probably be campaigning for Remain against not only the Conservatives and Farage but also at least elements of a Labour party that would see its own deal as the best way forward.  

Even if Labour came out for Remain, the long drawn-out debate in Labour will drain the Remain voice of its enthusiasm. 2016 showed that a campaign does not work if it is based on a fine judgement that a transactional analysis showed that on balance we would be better off inside.

After allowing time for negotiation and to hold the party conference there would be only two months or so to polling day. That is hardly the time to shift the nation from half and half to enough Euro-enthusiasm to settle the question.

Finally, a six month time-table for a referendum would be the minimum possible and not allow for steps to make it a good referendum process, like citizens' assemblies and the provision of high quality information.



We should be glad that Labour will back a referendum in any event.

Individual Labour figures and most members will campaign enthusiastically for Remain and be leading figures at all levels of the campaign. However, the continuing support for Brexit by the party's leader means that the official Labour party is unlikely to be a useful ally in the Remain campaign whichever side it comes down on. That effect would be more marked if the referendum is held on Labour's Brexit deal.

So, there are two consequences:






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Twitter: @London4Europe