A vote among party members over Brexit would transform the debate and act as a trial run for the real thing, argues ANDREW ADONIS.
According to a famous American of whom no-one in England has heard, ‘the best cure for the ills of democracy is – more democracy.’ So it is with Brexit. The 2016 referendum, and its narrow result, has split asunder the body politic. The best way of putting it back together is a new referendum on the terms of the Farage/May Brexit deal or no deal, as against continued membership of the EU.
For this to happen, Labour needs to support such a referendum in the Commons and lead the charge against the Big Lie that we can be free, prosperous and ‘global’ by leaving an EU which is crucial to making us free, prosperous and global. If this turns into a referendum on Theresa May’s increasingly disastrous premiership, all the better. That film only has one ending, even with Farage as her body double.
The problem is, my friend Jeremy Corbyn is presently sitting firmly on the fence. He hasn’t got where he is without being the master of the long game. He evidently sees this as another long game where his best strategy is to sit tight, watch an unfolding government implosion, and exploit it to maximum effect at an opportune moment.
But we leave the EU in 13 months’ time and the key parliamentary votes will probably be taken in eight or nine months. So there aren’t many opportune moments left.
There is also the little local difficulty of some serious eurosceptics in his entourage, who would be quite happy for EU membership to be ‘timed out’, provided Labour is seen to be making a stand over a second order issue like a customs union, to give the party a mild pro-European edge over the Tories, while not actually doing anything which keeps us in the EU.
However, outside the Westminster bubble, there are 600,000 Labour members, the greatest mass membership party in Europe thanks to Jeremy and his inspirational qualities. This is far more even than Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, which gives its membership away for free but still boasts only about 400,000 ‘free’ members to Labour’s 600,000 ‘paying’ members. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that En Marche, for all its energy, is a benign autocracy: its policy, even its officeholders, are decided by Jupiter personally, in bolts of lightening emanating from the Elysee or Versailles.
Labour doesn’t work quite like that. It is famously, almost absurdly, democratic. Even the order of business at party conference is determined by a specially elected committee. Indeed, the Conference Arrangements Committee is one of the most bitterly contested in the party because of its control over a conference which can make and unmake the leader.
What is needed now is a further dose of democracy. Labour’s membership is overwhelmingly pro-European, including Jeremy’s Praetorian Guard of young, adoring Momentum activists. It is time for this pro-European majority to express itself. Since the point at issue is whether there should be a Brexit referendum in the country at large, it is doubly appropriate that there should be one in the party to prepare the way.
Jeremy is a true believer in party democracy. A dose of democracy on the biggest issue facing the party would be a great way of helping him make up his mind while listening to his own activists.
A Labour Brexit referendum would also generate serious popular excitement. It would be a trial run for the real thing. And since it would be likely to generate a 90-or-so percent vote for a national referendum to defeat Brexit, it would instil massive confidence into the anti-Brexit forces.
Until Christmas we were a motley crew of ‘remoaners’ who – in Nick Robinson’s graphic image – were like the Japanese soldiers in the jungle who emerged years after peace was declared, thinking the war was still on. Now it’s clear that the war is still on. A Labour Brexit referendum could be the next plan of engagement.