Why Labour is still arguing over its Brexit position

Sienna Rodgers
© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor
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Amid united outrage over Boris Johnson’s anti-democratic antics, Labour has had some respite from Brexit rows recently. But a public fare-up was due, and it has arrived. Labour’s current position was summed up by Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the TUC congress 2019 yesterday: “And in that election, we will commit to a public vote with a credible option to leave and the option to remain.” No more, no less. That is pretty straight-forward, but it does leave a couple of key questions unanswered. What is the credible Leave option? And would Labour back Remain in that referendum?

A “credible Leave option” means no deal wouldn’t be on the ballot paper. That in itself does attract some criticism, because it excludes a position held by a significant chunk of voters, and it has led a number of Labour MPs opposing a referendum. (They argue that a public vote could not include such a destructive option, but couldn’t be legitimate without it either.) On the whole, however, Labour is agreed on that front.

The debate that has sprung up recently is whether Labour would renegotiate and establish its own Leave option, or just stick Theresa May’s deal on the ballot paper – as some interpreted John McDonnell as saying last weekend. Those worried by criticism of Emily Thornberry’s explanation of the Labour position (i.e. ‘we’d renegotiate, then I’d campaign against that Labour deal’) reckon cutting out a prolonged negotiation would be easier to communicate to voters. But affiliated unions want a proper renegotiation because otherwise the Leave option isn’t very credible and it’d be trickier to campaign in favour of it. This seems reasonable: Labour has never really had a problem with May’s (binding) withdrawal agreement anyway, and only needs to rejig the (non-binding) political declaration.

On the second question regarding Labour’s referendum position, the unions are winning the argument so far. They want the official stance to be dependent on the quality of the deal negotiated, not confirmed before the election, as set out after a crunch meeting in July. McDonnell, Thornberry, Diane Abbott, Keir Starmer and other shadow cabinet members have pledged to campaign for Remain in the referendum, but as a whole Labour hasn’t nailed its colours to the mast. As yet, the ‘1975’ approach of allowing Labour figures to campaign as they wish hasn’t been ruled out either. This could all change at conference, however, when members may be able to force the leadership into unequivocally backing Remain – even against its own deal.

As if there wasn’t already enough to argue about, Tom Watson will make a dramatic intervention today with a speech announcing his view that Labour should back an election only after a referendum. Here is the full story. There is some logic to this idea: many believe Labour would be far more likely to win an election that wasn’t all about Brexit. But there is a lot that isn’t logical about the deputy leader’s stance.

The whole thing about this parliament is that it can’t make a positive decision on Brexit. Boris Johnson is right when he says it has only dithered and delayed. How does anyone actually propose to get a referendum through the Commons? Especially without extended rows over what to put on the ballot paper? Which brings us to another big, huge, gaping flaw in the referendum-then-election plan: this government with no working majority and a reckless Tory at the helm would have to preside over the whole thing and it would take several months. That means Labour would be telling the public, even more so than it already has over the last week: ‘Booting out a dangerous PM who is damaging this country on a daily basis? Nah, we’re alright thanks.’

Labour is still going ahead with its push for an early general election, only after which there would be another referendum (if Corbyn’s party wins). This was articulated by Richard Burgon at a TUC rally last night, and it is almost impossible to see that changing – even if many Labour MPs agree with Tom Watson and Tony Blair on their preferred order of priorities. As Jeremy Corbyn will emphasise on his visit to the Midlands today, the leadership’s focus is now on getting people to register to vote and kicking the Tories out – ASAP.

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