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JAMES BALL: Own goal for People’s Vote as it backs Labour

Former Speaker of the House of Commons Baroness Boothroyd speaks at a 'People's Vote' rally calling for another referendum. Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

JAMES BALL explains why the People’s Vote campaign was wrong to back Labour.

Sir Vince Cable speaks at the People’s Vote Rally. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA. – Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Let’s be blunt: readers of this newspaper are unlikely to enjoy next week. While no poll is over until its votes are cast and counted, predictions for the European elections – a process neither major party leader particularly wanted, but which they’re stuck with nonetheless – do not bode well for the main pro-EU groups.

There is opportunity for Remain behind the dismal headline figures, though – but it’s an opportunity that is being squandered, in such a way that could throw out the chance to stop Brexit.

Here’s how it breaks down: while we should remember the vote on Thursday is to elect MEPs, rather than a symbolic second referendum, that’s not how the campaign is being fought, and it’s not how the result will be assessed.

Given that assessment, the headline figures spell trouble for Remain. The parties committed to Leave – the Brexit Party, Conservatives, and UKIP – are collectively polling on 47%. The parties committed to Remain – Liberal Democrat, Green and Change UK – are polling together on 31%, though this would be slightly boosted by the SNP and Plaid Cymru, who aren’t broken out in UK-wide polling.

That is a heavy margin of defeat that tallies almost exactly with Labour’s latest vote share in YouGov’s polling: 16%. It’s clear in this symbolic vote – which need have no practical impact on Brexit whatsoever – that without Labour counting towards their vote tally, Remain is heading for defeat.

The People’s Vote campaign has decided to deal with this issue by wishing it away. The campaign has produced a ‘People’s Vote test’ which parties can pass or fail in order to be endorsed by the campaign.

The website declares that Labour passes the ‘People’s Vote test’, a threshold so low as to make it pointless – like an exam paper you pass if you spell your name correctly. Or even roughly correctly.

Labour’s policy is to try to leave the EU on its terms, in a ‘jobs-first Brexit’, which must include ending freedom of movement – the party actually struggles to articulate what it wants that’s different from Theresa May’s Brexit plan, as its customs union proposals are remarkably similar to the backstop.

If the party can’t get an exit deal on its own terms, it will seek a general election, and failing that it backs the ‘option’ (note that word) of a People’s Vote. Despite failing to get an early election or to pass its own proposal, the party is still not yet actually backing a People’s Vote.

This policy – trying to leave, trying to get an election so that the UK can leave, and then possibly maybe considering Remain – has been given a ‘pass’ on the People’s Vote test, which even describes Labour as “backing a People’s Vote on the government’s Brexit deal”.

This is a stupid and craven mistake on behalf of the People’s Vote campaign, and a dismal letdown of their supporters. Pretending Labour’s policy is what you want it to be is a bid to gaslight the electorate, something the campaign’s supporters have regularly slammed the Leave campaign for doing. They should be above doing it themselves.

One motivation for People’s Vote’s efforts to pretend Labour passes its test is to try to get the party’s vote total added to the Remain pile by pundits when the votes are counted – to try to get to (if the polling is accurate) 47% vs 47%, rather than 47% vs 31%, with Labour counted on the fence, at best.

Pundits will not do this just because People’s Vote try to say that’s how things are: political journalists know that Labour’s position going into this election isn’t pro-Remain, and pro-Leave campaigners won’t just sit back and let Labour be added to Remain’s total. Trying to count Labour votes in this way would just make Remain look desperate, mainly because it would be a public sign of desperation.

The move is also a major strategic error in a bid for one morning’s spin. Labour is polling at less than 20% for the EU elections, after securing more than 40% in the last general election. Even though the two are not directly comparable, that will be disturbing people at the top of the party.

By telling pro-Remain voters that it’s okay to vote Labour in the EU elections, People’s Vote is telling the top of the party that there is no risk from Remain. They can stick with their current policy, and People’s Vote won’t even try to punish them at the ballot box.

With that flank covered, Labour might even be tempted to move towards Leave, to grab some of the Brexit Party vote. The opportunity of Labour being worried by resurgent Liberal Democrats and Green votes would be lost, or at least muted.

Remain is right that its fate relies on Labour. It already has the support of a majority of the party’s MPs. But it does not have the backing of the leadership, and quiet persuasion hasn’t worked.

This largely symbolic vote would be the perfect chance for Remain to encourage Labour voters to send a message, to ‘lend’ their vote to an unambiguously pro-Remain party and try to show the leadership it can’t take them for granted.

That’s not what the People’s Vote have done. Whether to protect Labour – where many of the top of the campaign have their background – or for short-term tactical reasons, or just to avoid a fight, the campaign has wimped out.

If that’s what they’re doing now, their supporters could be forgiven for asking themselves: what are you even there for?

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