Why Labour can’t be ambiguous about the next EU referendum

Richard Corbett
© European Parliament

Labour’s position on Brexit is not as complicated as some of the media portray it. There is just one aspect of one scenario that is perceived as ambiguous. The current stance is essentially:

  • Labour supports having a referendum on any outcome (on no deal or on any deal that emerges).
  • Labour will campaign to Remain in any such referendum against a Tory deal or no deal.
  • However, if in government before the issue is settled, Labour would try to get the least damaging deal possible, to put to voters as the alternative to Remain. (You can’t have a referendum with only one option, so making the Leave option somewhat less damaging than what Boris Johnson and, previously, Theresa May, was offering makes sense.) In that scenario, the question has arisen, should Labour say now that it would campaign to Remain or should it only take a decision once the deal is negotiated?

Views differ on this final point. Many prominent shadow cabinet members, such as Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Keir Starmer, have publicly come out already for campaigning to Remain. Others have argued that Labour should formally keep it open, to give more leverage in the negotiations with the EU, or to give more flexibility in the forthcoming general election. There may even be one or two who think Labour may be able to get such a good deal that the party could recommend it to the country.

Would such ambiguity help in terms of leverage in negotiations with the EU? No. “Give us a better deal so we’d campaign to Leave” doesn’t sound like a line to convince the EU (any more than Johnson’s “give me what I want or I’ll shoot myself” threat of no deal). Labour would in any case be seeking a deal with a customs union, which would be a win-win for both sides compared to May’s deal.

Would it help Labour in a general election? Well, we had a trial run for that in the European election. Perceived ambiguity in Labour’s position led to a massive haemorrhage of votes from Labour to the Greens and Lib Dems, far more so than to any Brexit-supporting party. A repeat of that at the next general election would be a disaster for Labour.

Is there some residual support for proceeding with Brexit? If so, not much and seriously misguided. It is clearer by the day that Brexit is driven by the hard right seeking a deregulated economy aligned with Donald Trump’s America. It is clearer by the day that Brexit bears no resemblance to what was promised by the Leave campaign and by Tory ministers.

The numbers of Labour Leave supporters – always a minority of Labour supporters – has been shrinking. It would make no sense to maintain ambiguity in one scenario of Labour’s policy just in case it might help gain a bit of extra support from some previous Leave voters, if  at the same time it alienates far greater numbers from the larger and growing number of Remainers.

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