Labour may be on brink of big shift towards new referendum

by Hugo Dixon | 22.02.2019

Jeremy Corbyn is likely to ask MPs to vote on his own Brexit plan next Wednesday. If they say “no”, as seems likely, Labour may then call for the people to have the final say on whether we should quit the EU at all.

It is sometimes hard to decipher what is going on inside the party’s high command. But the leader of the opposition may be on the brink of a big shift in policy. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, told the Evening Standard today that Labour is “moving towards” a new referendum.

The next step would be to put the party’s Brexit plan to a vote in the House of Commons. Corbyn said yesterday after talks in Brussels: “We will put a motion to Parliament.” This will be in the form of an amendment to the government’s own motion on February 27, according to the Guardian.

Labour’s plan includes a permanent customs union with the EU and a close relationship with its single market. Although this appeals to a few Tory MPs because it might protect the economy, it is anathema to most of them. Quite a lot of opposition MPs rightly don’t like the scheme either, because it would turn us into a rule-taker. So there’s little chance that the Commons will back the plan.

Nevertheless, putting it to the vote would be important. Labour’s conference in September mandated the leadership to explore all remaining alternatives including a public vote if it wasn’t able to force a general election. It failed to get an election last month. If the party’s own plan is now defeated, the only remaining option will be a new referendum.

Corbyn seems finally to be coming to this conclusion. This week’s defection of seven Labour MPs who support a People’s Vote – along with reports that dozens more could quit if he doesn’t back a referendum – may be concentrating his mind. So may the pressure from left-wing MPs in his party who have been operating under the banner, Love Socialism, Hate Brexit.

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A confirmatory referendum?

Whatever the reasons, the party leadership seems to be warming to the idea of a “confirmatory” referendum, according to the Guardian. McDonnell told the Standard this “could be a solution”. This proposal is modelled on how trade union negotiations work. The members first mandate the leadership to negotiate a deal; they are then consulted on whether it is good enough.

The proposal from two Labour MPs, Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, would put Theresa May’s deal to the people. If they like it, we would leave the EU on those terms. If they don’t, we would stay.

The Labour leadership is still considering whether to support this plan and some senior figures are not yet onside. But McDonnell was asked to discuss the exact wording with Kyle and Wilson – and told the Standard the backbenchers had been asked to make some changes.

Labour politicians rightly don’t want to be seen to be blessing the prime minister’s miserable deal. But it should be possible to say something like this:

“We wanted an election, but couldn’t force it. We tried our alternative plan, but the Tories rejected it. It’s not for us to cancel Brexit, as the people said they wanted it three years ago. But given that the government’s deal is so damaging and so different from what was promised, the people should have the final say.”

Labour probably won’t get all the way to this position next week. But a vote on its plan in the Commons on Wednesday would take it one step closer – freeing Corbyn to take the final step soon after.

This article was updated after McDonnell’s interview with the Standard

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

11 Responses to “Labour may be on brink of big shift towards new referendum”

  • ‘ But a vote on its plan in the Commons on Wednesday would take it one step closer – freeing Corbyn to take the final step soon after.’

    If it really is freeing rather than forcing (and he genuinely has been playing a ‘long game’ all this time) I take may hat off to him. He must have nerves of steel.

    I’ll also believe it when I see it.

  • As an increasingly angry Remainer, one expression which has frustrated me throughout nearly three years of debate, is: ‘The People’.
    27% of the the British people voted Leave….as we all know. We also know there were flawed and potentially illegal elements to the electoral process still under investigation by the Electoral Commission and the Police. We know that proganda by the gutter press was hugely biased towards the Leave campaign. So, Brexit was NOT the will of ‘The People’. It would help the Remain cause hugely if all of us Remainers banned this term from any written or spoken statements. Although it’s bit more long winded, let’s just call them ‘the 27%’. After all, when May expressed her views prior to the infamous Referendum, she stated that the People whose interests would be better served by remaining in the E.U. were the nation as a whole….not just the ones who could, or did vote. Rant over!

  • I like the concept of TM’s deal or stay, but it does not seem likely that Corbyn will want that .. if she wins, then it may prolong her government, but if she loses, then we stay in the EU? He doesn’t want that either, does he?
    But, as I imagine for most of us, trying to bring logic into what both major parties have done on Brexit is not necessarily the best way of assessing the future!

  • If we do get a second referendum, can you see Corbyn campaigning to remain in the EU? Neither can I. So what will the poor man do?

    Regarding the Kyle Wilson idea, this is gaining some traction. The idea is that Parliament approves the deal provided it is then put to the public vote.

    So parliament will effectively be saying that they know it’s a miserable deal, but if Joe Public can be persuaded to back it in another populist campaign, it’s alright by them. So much for representative democracy. The Brexiters of course would claim the deal was already backed by parliament and the public should rubber stamp it.

    Far better parliament rejects it honestly, and the public can take account of that when they decide how to vote in a referendum.

  • Roger, I agree. “27%” were a small minority of “The People”, although a majority of the electorate – at least, those that bothered to vote. I think many didn’t choose to vote because they thought it was a slam-dunk for remain; presumably they will now get off their fat behinds if there’s a second bite at the cherry. As far as JC is concerned, I think he’s luke-warm on the EU at best but not a fanatical leave supporter. He’ll go with the flow, so if the polls suggest a remain result, he’ll endorse it with a smile.

    However, it all depends on whether May can coax her reluctant MP’s to vote for a “new” deal. The next 10 days will be crucial.

  • How on earth can anyone possibly have another vote without massive repercussions .People will not stand for it in a country with a democratic tradition like the UK .The middle class vote is not the only one that holds value .You may pretend to have working class values and thing you speak for us you don’t .I voted remain yet after reading how stupid it was for anyone who dare to disagree will if asked march again and again if democracy is not carried out.

  • Another 2 weeks delay by May running down the clock to a meaningful vote. The PM is playing political games with peoples’ livelihoods and lives. Parliament have to put a stop to her reckless behaviour and take control of the process. Corbyn must, as leader of the largest opposition party, act in a decisive way to, in the first instance, help save us from a calamitous No Deal.
    He may hope that if May brings about a No Deal, he will be able to push responsibility onto her and the government, but actually, it will be just as much him to blame, if he fails to act decisively.
    There is a majority in Parliament who do not support a No deal Brexit. He would gain alot of credit if he is shown to be statesmanlike in acting in the national interest, unlike May.

  • You may not have picked up the news in the Webster vs. PM case on Thursday in the Appeal Court – the fact that the test of the “will of the people” (the 2016 referendum) has been accepted in court as being obtained through “corrupt and illegal practices” to a criminal standard of proof, that had the referendum been legally binding it would have been voided because of cheating. But it was only advisory, so has no legal standing but by the same argument nobody actually reliably knows what the “will of the people” actually was then either. So the use of the phrase “will of the people” is meaningless. There is no mandate legally or politically from the referendum.

    Sir James Eadie QC (counsel for the PM) stated in court:

    ‘’The true position is that the Prime Minister is entirely well aware of the notorious facts … the well publicised facts. The Electoral Commissions findings, the fact of an appeal, police investigations, ICO, the DCMS committees. All clear publicly done and properly done and it is perfectly obvious that the Prime Minister has decided to carry on and that Parliament is proceeding and everyone is proceeding on that basis”.

    The court conceded that the referendum process was unlawful but has also accepted that it was within the Prime Minister’s lawful powers to take this course of action after choosing to ignore the Electoral Commission’s findings because the referendum was only advisory. The Prime Minister alone took the decision.