Labour’s public vote position is the only realistic option

Alex Sobel
© Jess Hurd/Another Europe is Possible

Labour’s endorsement of a public vote on any Brexit deal with a commitment to campaign to stay within the EU is hugely significant. It is time for Labour to show what a public vote would look like and how we build a broad coalition for both a referendum and Remain in the face of a Boris Johnson government. 

Labour’s commitment to campaign to stay in the EU has been very well received by those who, like me, wanted to see a realistic alternative to an increasingly depressing picture of post-Brexit Britain. With the looming premiership of Boris Johnson and the potential of a general election (if he can’t deliver his economically disastrous Brexit), we face a choice: a bleak Brexit Britain under the Conservatives or a UK with a transformative Labour government offering a real choice to people on the question of Europe and the chance to remain and lead the way in a reformed EU. 

This journey has not been easy and we should be honest about that. Any party serious about taking or influencing government must face the fact that we are a divided country and not mimic the small parties of protest who luxuriate in easy positioning.

It is not always easy to ask colleagues in strong Leave seats to go back to the people, though they know how damaging a Tory kamikaze Brexit will be. Which is why so many do now back this option. Nor is it easy to persuade those who voted to leave the EU, that their interests are best served by remaining, Labour’s future depends not just on obtaining a public vote, but in also persuading the country that it is the right thing to do.

There are, of course, some cynical voices. It serves the interest of parties of protest (who benefited greatly from Labour’s lack of message in the recent European elections) to imply that this move is a trick and that, come a general election, Labour would abandon its pledge of a public vote for a policy of a ‘Labour Brexit’. But all parties need to produce a manifesto. For those committed to a public vote, one option on the ballot is easy – staying in the EU – but on a confirmatory ballot you need to state clearly what you would confirm it against. 

Any incoming government with a commitment to a public vote would have three options: Remain versus no deal, Remain versus Theresa May’s deal; or Remain versus something else. Only Labour has faced this question realistically. We have a duty to consider the UK’s best interests and provide detail – not merely shout into the void or present fantasy options.

Option one would be terrifying. The idea that a Labour government – indeed any government – could offer the chaos of a no deal Brexit, spelling economic catastrophe and shortages of essentials, would be wholly irresponsible and dangerous. No deal is the antithesis of Labour values and we should never entertain it. 

Option two, whilst significantly better than offering no deal, is still fraught with problems. Putting forward a deal that has been rejected by parliament three times, by all sides of the debate, is fatally flawed. We are living in a post-Theresa May world and all parties need to face that reality.

This leaves us with a vacuum that must be filled. The public vote we have supported in parliament is a confirmatory referendum – not just for Remain voters, but to allow Leave voters a chance to confirm the deal negotiated between a UK government and the EU.

This is the only viable public vote. Realpolitik dictates that new negotiations must take place after any new government is formed, whether before or after a general election. Any deal agreed must go back to the people. This is the only realistic formula. This is Labour’s position.

We have to question whether other parties who claim they support a public vote are doing the same. In parliament, they have never spoken about this. They always talk about wanting to give the public a say and wanting to stay in the EU. I completely agree. But a ballot with Remain versus Remain isn’t a ballot at all.

The other parties need to get real and face this challenge now, not scramble for solutions later. I hope other parties supporting a public vote will engage with me, other Labour MPs and our shadow Brexit team on this issue. This tide will not turn. Labour’s commitment to a public vote means this is now a real possibility. We must engage seriously with it – and so must everyone who supports a public vote.

Love Socialism, Rebuild Britain, Transform Europe (formerly Love Socialism Hate Brexit) is a group of radical and socialist Labour MPs fighting to stop Brexit. We will be writing a column for LabourList every week until the Brexit crisis is over. You can find out more about us here, and follow us on Twitter here.

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