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Analysis

Here’s how to win Labour rebels round to a public vote

by Luke Lythgoe | 17.03.2019

Seventeen Labour MPs voted against a new referendum last week. If we are to get a public vote, we need to whittle down that number.

There may be another attempt to push for a referendum this week – a so-called “confirmatory” referendum that puts the prime minister’s deal to the people. But, as with last week’s “public vote” amendment, this is probably premature, as Hugo Dixon argued in the Independent.

The immediate priority is to stop any more Labour rebels backing the government’s deal if it is put to a vote this week.

The good news is that just three backed Theresa May in her “meaningful vote” on Tuesday. The only new rebel, who hadn’t supported the government back in January, was Caroline Flint. The prime minister’s tactics of bribing Labour MPs with money for left-behind towns and undeliverable promises on workers’ rights have not worked.

Labour votes table

* resigned from shadow front bench as result of rebellion

But we must not be complacent. The Tories will try to woo more Labour MPs to their ranks if they get a third, or even fourth attempt. There are several counter-arguments to deploy:

  • Jeremy Corbyn’s own form of Brexit hasn’t yet been fully explored. Why would Labour MPs want to jump ship when their party’s policy still has a chance?
  • If they were tempted to vote for May’s deal because they were frightened of crashing out of the EU with no deal, that’s no longer terribly likely. After all, MPs voted against “no deal” on Wednesday and in favour of asking the EU to delay Brexit on Thursday.
  • With the government incredibly unstable, there’s even a chance of a general election. So why would they want to bail the Tories out?

The hunt for a soft Brexit

If the prime minister fails to get her deal over the line, MPs will start exploring whether there is a soft Brexit that could command a majority in Parliament and be negotiated with the EU. Talks between Corbyn and leaders of other opposition parties in Parliament are likely to kick off on Monday to see if there is any common ground.

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This process is unlikely to result in agreement. Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Independent Group as well as soft Brexit Tories will struggle to find a single proposal they can rally behind. Even if they succeed, it is hard to see how the government could negotiate something it adamantly opposes and then implement it – something that could take years.

Not quite time for a public vote

Once Labour has explored these soft Brexit options thoroughly, potential rebels should find it easier to back a new referendum. The number refusing to toe the party line should then be fewer than the 17 who voted against a referendum on Thursday.

But there’s no reason for complacency here either. After all, last week Labour merely wanted its MPs to abstain on a public vote. When the crunch battle comes, they will need to vote in favour.

On the other hand, Labour’s whipping operation is getting better. Five shadow ministers* who stepped out of line last week were forced to resign – and party discipline was better than in previous key Brexit votes in January.

It is also important to keep making the positive case for staying in the EU – not least that we will have more money and time to fix the big problems affecting our country: such as healthcare, housing shortages and regeneration of local communities.

Meanwhile, Labour MPs should reflect that the party’s voters want a new referendum. This applies even in seats which voted Leave in 2016.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

2 Responses to “Here’s how to win Labour rebels round to a public vote”

  • It is difficult to see any moral or logical justification for opposing a democratic vote. Labour MPs who oppose it are probably just wanting to go along with popular prejudice in their constituencies, and some of them have been subject to personal threats, regrettably.

    But leavers should quit threatening and reflect that a second referendum gives them a chance to have two votes instead of one. They could double their voting power, 35 million votes could be theirs. They should jump at the chance

  • I strongly believe there should be another referendum now that people have more information to base their decision on.