Labour members want a second referendum – so why doesn’t Jeremy Corbyn? Former Labour MP DICK LEONARD thinks pressure from within could still force the leader’s hand
Are you listening, Jeremy? Your party (our party) wants to have a referendum on the final Brexit terms, with an option to remain.
Yet you have turned a deaf ear and have even sacked your Northern Ireland spokesman, Owen Smith, for voicing this demand.
You have twice been elected with an impressive majority by Labour’s members and supporters, and you have repeatedly claimed that they, and not the party elite, should have the decisive voice in determining party policy. Not now, it seems.
What is my evidence for saying this? An ICM poll, with a large sample, of 5,000 voters.
This showed that 77% of Labour voters want a referendum on the exit terms, while 68 per cent said they would vote to remain.
In taking these positions, Labour voters, while being more decided, were not all that out-of-step with voters as a whole.
By a margin of 16%, these were in favour of a referendum, with a narrow majority saying they would vote remain.
Presumably, Jeremy and his right, or rather left-hand-man, John McDonnell, are aware of these facts, but stubbornly cling to their opposition to seeking a public consultation on Brexit, despite the private views of many of their leading collaborators.
Is this because they are viscerally opposed to the EU and its entire works? Not so, they claim, pointing to their, however lukewarm, support for Remain in the 2016 referendum. Rather, they claim that EU rules would stand in the way of Labour’s electoral pledges, notably to re-nationalise the railways and other public services.
This is arrant nonsense, as anybody who has travelled in a train in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland or Sweden, who have bought electricity from EDF, or used certain banks in several EU countries knows very well.
The only remotely plausible argument they have is that the 2016 referendum result should be regarded as the unalterable verdict of the British people. Despite the narrowness of the result, the gross lies of the Leave campaign, the undercover Russian intervention and the apparent overspend.
It is not, however, Corbyn, who determines party policy. That, in the last resort, is the annual party conference. Last year Corbyn’s supporters on the Conference Arrangement Committee, which sets the conference agenda, contrived to prevent any debate at all on Brexit.
This means that the decision made by the 2016 conference, meeting three months after the earlier referendum, remains in force unless it is countermanded by a future conference. The resolution unanimously agreed in 2016, reads:
‘Unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable, then the option of retaining EU membership must be retained. The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through Parliament and potentially through a general election or referendum.’
The way is now open to Labour Party members to commit the party unequivocally to holding a further referendum. This can be assured if every constituency Labour Party, and every affiliated trade union, whose members are in favour, submits a resolution to the conference. If sufficient numbers do so, it will hardly be possible to prevent the conference from debating, and voting on it.
In addition to backing resolutions from their CLPs and trade unions, I would urge individual party members to write to Jeremy Corbyn, at the House of Commons, London SW1A OAA, expressing their views. Whatever his convictions or prejudices, he cannot afford to ignore the opinions of so many of his supporters.
Why is it so important to have a public vote; can MPs not be relied upon to block the madness of a hard, or indeed any kind of Brexit?
It would be great if they did, but the indications are not good.
Even if all of Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green MPs vote against Brexit, it will still need a significant number of Tories (perhaps as many as 20) to join them in the division lobby. If they followed their convictions, many more than this would do so, but they are so scared of the risk of precipitating a general election that very many of them will be deterred.
They may perhaps be rather less reluctant to back a referendum, which would carry a lesser risk of provoking an election.
In any case, if the official Opposition, together with all the other non-governmental parties in the House, demanded a referendum it would be difficult for the government to resist such a demand.
Of course, one can’t be sure, either, of winning a referendum, even if one is held. It is certain that it would be fought bitterly and unscrupulously by the Brexiteers, with the full weight of the government machine behind them. And the argument that the whole issue had already been settled in the 2016 poll may have considerable resonance.
But there are grounds for optimism. There has been a consistent, if small, lead for Remainers in the polls, with more voters agreeing that the earlier decision to leave was a mistake.
And demographics, too, favour the remain side. Since 2016 some 1.2 million voters have been replaced on the election register by a similar number of young voters, who are much more likely to vote remain.
Any referendum is a gamble, as previous ones from all over Europe indicate only too well. But for Labour it’s a gamble worth taking. Probably the only chance of preventing disaster.
Dick Leonard joined Labour as a schoolboy in 1945, and in 1971 was one of the 69 Labour MPs who voted to join the EEC in defiance of a three-line whip. He is a journalist, and the author of some 20 books, including (with Robert Taylor) The Routledge Guide to the European Union