Now Labour needs to think how we can win a People’s Vote

by Hugo Dixon | 29.11.2018

John McDonnell says it’s “inevitable” the Labour party will back a People’s Vote on Brexit if MPs vote down the government’s deal and it can’t then get an election. The shadow chancellor also told the BBC that forcing an election would be “very difficult”.

This shift in Labour’s position means the party has virtually lined itself up behind a new referendum – though it would be nice to hear the same words from Jeremy Corbyn just to make sure. It also means that we are now likely to get a People’s Vote.

After all, the government’s deal is likely to go down in flames when MPs vote on it on December 11. With the Conservative party split at least four ways – between hardline Brexiters, Theresa May loyalists, soft Brexiters and those supporting a People’s Vote – the position taken by the Labour front bench could be decisive.

That said, there’s no guarantee that the public would decide to stay in the EU in a new referendum, as McDonnell also said yesterday. Although there has been a significant shift against Brexit in the past two and a half years, it has not yet been a massive one.

But, here again, Labour has a huge role to play. One reason why public opinion hasn’t moved more is because the official opposition has, until recently, gone along with the narrative that the people voted for Brexit in 2016 so Parliament has no choice but to deliver it.

Even when the party adopted a policy opening the way to a People’s Vote at its conference in September, it shilly-shallied over whether the public should have the option to stay in the EU in such a vote. And Corbyn himself has a long history of euroscepticism.

Labour now has a chance to turn this reticence into an asset. It can credibly say that it gave the Brexiters every opportunity to come up with a good plan and they have failed miserably. Corbyn can also say he has been on a journey which has convinced him of the merits of staying in the EU. If he does so, he will carry a big chunk of public opinion in the Labour heartlands with him.

The party will, of course, first have to make clear that staying in the EU must be on the ballot paper – and that this is the option it will back. But what other alternative is there? Labour couldn’t seriously support the prime minister’s deal which it has so comprehensively rubbished. Nor could it advocate crashing out with no deal at all.

Assuming Labour takes these further steps, it will then be in a great position to make a positive case for staying in the EU – in sharp contrast to David Cameron’s negative campaign of 2016. It should stress the advantages of EU membership – for peace, power, prosperity and people. Even more important, it must show how we will be better able to address the deep problems that led many voters to back Brexit in the first place if we don’t quit the EU.

A status quo message was never going to appeal to people who rightly don’t like the way things are. To those living in communities with proud histories but blighted by deindustrialisation. To people who have had to live through years of austerity. To those who have seen bad employers exploit cheap labour from abroad, which then undercuts their own pay and working conditions.

But Brexit is not the answer to these problems. As the government’s own economic analysis shows, we will have less money to spend not more.

What’s more, the prime minister’s deal is half-baked. It will be years before the exact shape of our future relationship with the EU is fixed and, in the meantime, different factions of the Conservative party will be fighting over who should be in charge and where we should be heading. Nobody will have any time to push through the policies needed to heal our country.

If Labour gets on the front foot and makes such a positive case, it could help win a People’s Vote with a big majority. That should be Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s next mission.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

3 Responses to “Now Labour needs to think how we can win a People’s Vote”

  • Much is made of the left-behind communities who felt disenchanted with austerity, but a more important factor in my view was the skill of the right wing press in whipping up xenophobia. This was continued by May with her ruthless cruelty to the ‘citizens of nowhere’ building on her unscrupulous doctoring of home office figures to cast EU citizens in a bad light (not many people know this).

    The new Remain campaign should reverse these injustices with plenty of examples of how freedom of movement and immigration from the EU has benefited us, not just as a general proposition but with personal stories. And not forgetting those UK people who have made good in the EU, with mutual benefits

  • Labour has yet to show a clear path towatds a Brexit that achieves a customs union or a peoples vote with copper-fastened retention of the Goof Friday/Belfast Agreement; even if they have to piggyback on to Dominic Grieve’s amendment as a stepping stone to achieving Parliamentary hegemony,