A public vote is on the table – now we need to pick it up

Anna McMorrin
© Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

Last week, I supported the letter signed by 82 fellow Labour MPs calling on our leadership to fully back a confirmatory referendum on any Brexit deal agreed in our talks with the Prime Minister. Keir Starmer has long been advocating this move and John McDonnell has used an appearance on ITV’s Peston programme to agree with us, saying he felt any deal, whether it meets our original six tests or not, should be put to the people in a referendum.

It’s now crucial we all move in behind this approach – because it offers the potential of uniting both the party and the country behind a solution to the Brexit crisis. Let’s be honest. Parliament is deadlocked, the general public bored, frustrated and bemused, and Brexit no closer to being resolved than it was when this great slow-motion car crash started in 2016.

Our entire political system has been paralysed by an issue that cuts across party lines in a way that nothing else has in our lifetimes. We have wrestled with the tortuous political balancing act of trying to appeal both to majority Leave-voting Labour constituencies in our northern heartlands and Remain supporters in the cities. But we can now be clear: the right-wing Brexit ideology is dead.

With the Prime Minister reaching out to Labour and Jeremy, and Keir in talks with the government about a potential deal, the time for facing both ways is coming to an end. We are going to have to either approve a deal for Brexit or walk away, and in making that choice, we potentially alienate a large number of Labour supporters.

There is another way. We can signal our respect for the 2016 vote by agreeing to support a deal put by the government in parliament but if, and only if, it is then subject to a final test of public support in a referendum. In doing so, we can start to reconnect ourselves and our politics with a frustrated nation.

We can then adopt the approach Harold Wilson used when Prime Minister in the 1975 referendum. As leader, he allowed his MPs and frontbench to fight on the side of the argument they felt most comfortable on. Colleagues with a clear Leave steer from their constituencies would be free to reflect that in the campaign.

It’s not ideal – the Labour Party is at its best when we are united, pulling in the same direction – but it would be an acknowledgement that party and country are divided. We need some way of resolving the matter.

Our frontbench must take up the cause of a final confirmatory public vote, not just as a threat to hold over the government in the hope that it will force them to adopt our brand of Brexit, but as a step we believe should be taken and will fight hard for. The polls suggest that we would be rewarded at the ballot box if we made this move and that the party membership would be largely delighted.

Far more importantly, we would be supporting the one way that could genuinely clear the political gridlock in parliament. It would be an act of democratic leadership and real courage and would give the country the chance to resolve this matter once and for all. We have kept a public vote on the negotiating table for long enough – now is the time to pick it up and run with it.

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