John Mann recently wrote in a piece for LabourList that Labour MPs pledged at the last election to respect the referendum result. He quoted the 2017 manifesto, which said: “We will prioritise jobs and living standards, build a close new relationship with the EU, protect workers’ rights and environmental standards, and provide certainty to EU citizens.” Mann’s conclusion is that Labour MPs should vote for Theresa May’s deal, and that to do otherwise betrays the Labour voters who voted for Brexit.
This fails to recognise a number of key issues. First and foremost, people vote for Labour MPs to represent their interests and to make decisions in parliament that will result in a better and more secure future, not the opposite. Every Brexit impact report, including the government’s own, makes clear that any form of Brexit costs jobs, hits wages and harms public services. None of these outcomes were in the last Labour manifesto – indeed the quoted paragraph commits MPs to working for the exact opposite.
Second, May’s deal fails every test set by the Labour manifesto, and by the Labour leadership ever since. Her deal would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs – indeed it is already costing jobs as businesses like Honda make decisions based on the disaster they see coming. Far from building our relationship with the EU, May’s deal ruptures our economic, political and security relationships, uniting leaders from business, industry and defence services against it. A deal that would make us less safe, less prosperous and less able to partner with our allies against shared threats ought to be rejected by every Labour MP.
Third, May’s deal does nothing to protect workers’ rights and environmental protections. Her so-called ‘commitments’ on rights have been soundly rejected by trade unions. As Frances O’Grady said only last week: “The PM again claims that she’s got a plan to protect rights at work. That’s not true… She hasn’t seriously engaged with our concerns. Our hard-won rights are still under threat.” Why would a Labour MP ally him or herself with a Tory Prime Minister against the unions, whose role it is to protect and extend workers’ rights?
Mann goes on to say that two thirds of Labour-held seats voted to leave the EU in 2017. Like most statistics, this misrepresents a far more complex picture. Most of the Leave voters in Labour seats in 2016 weren’t our voters in the first place. Of Labour voters, the vast majority (around two thirds) voted Remain in 2016. As Brexit has unfolded, Labour voters are the group most likely to have shifted from Leave to Remain. Labour is a Remain party, with a Remain voter base. For the Leave voters we have left, polls show that Brexit is not a priority – their main goal is a Labour government.
Mann makes the case that supporting a second referendum could be to Labour what tuition fees were to the Liberal Democrats in 2016. The reality is that it’s entirely possible for Labour to have its own tuition fees moment over Brexit – not by supporting a second referendum, but by denying it. Polls over the last year have consistently shown that Labour picks up votes and seats if we back a public vote and remain, but if we support Brexit – any Brexit – we lose votes and seats. For example, an ICM poll of Labour’s 41 most marginal seats found that we keep every one if our policy is to support a second referendum and Remain. Conversely, we lose all but one if we support any kind of Brexit.
Voting for May’s deal won’t win Labour MPs many friends among Leave voters either. The Tory deal is far less popular than staying in the EU, and less popular than ‘no deal’. Labour MPs worried about losing their seats should be more concerned about their Remain voters – in every Labour seat, a majority of their voters – ditching them for the Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP or The Independent Group, than about Leave voters leaving them for the Tories or UKIP.
None of this means Mann is not right to say that the party needs to pay more attention to traditional Labour voters. This is essential, both to address the causes of the Leave vote and to ensure that the next Labour government prioritises the left behind from day one. But if helping the voters of Bassetlaw, harmed by years of austerity, increasing insecurity and patchwork social services is the goal, voting for May’s deal takes us no closer. Even Theresa May reportedly sees Brexit as damage limitation. At the next meaningful vote, Labour MPs must either reject her deal or support a compromise that involves abstaining on the deal subject to it being put to a public vote. Then the people of Bassetlaw can make their choice.