Last week the much anticipated Unite vote on Brexit was revealed. The fairly weak statement by the conference delegates does not endorse a second referendum, which would put Theresa May’s Brexit deal to public vote. However, it does leave open the possibility that a ‘People’s Vote’ could be endorsed in the future “depending on circumstances”.
The Unite vote could potentially create a headache for Jeremy Corbyn, who has stated he will remain faithful to the “will of the people” who voted for Brexit. It may also cause problems for Unite’s General Secretary Len McClusky who pledged to campaign for a ‘People’s Vote’ despite his own Eurosceptic tendencies.
However, the Unite result does allow the Labour leadership to continue with its strategy of letting the Tories get consumed in internal strife until a general election becomes unavoidable.
Should Labour campaign for a People’s Vote?
After the Chequer’s meeting and the recent resignations of Tory Brexiters, it may be high time for Labour’s leadership to rethink and possibly start campaigning for a People’s Vote.
Putting the possibility of a snap general election aside for a moment, what if May’s government brings a Brexit deal to parliament sometime between October to December (when parliament’s vote will still be meaningful) and it is approved? Wouldn’t many argue that the deal will need authorisation of the people, through another referendum?
Taking in account Keir Starmer’s six point test (specifying that any proposed deal must have the same advantages as Britain enjoys now as a member of the Single Market and the Customs Union) and the current situation within the Tory party, parliamentary approval of the Brexit deal would be far from certain.
At that point, a general election could be called. Starmer’s test signals that the Labour leadership could at that point back a soft Brexit (especially since the majority of its voters are on the Remain side).
Until now, Labour has been reluctant to take on the role of the “Remain” party or the “soft Brexit” party, leaving the public discourse unaltered and divided between different Tory positions. At that point however, the Labour leadership would have to offer a principled narrative that will end the Brexit myth: for example, the victimization of migrants, and the idea that Britain has been obeying all these years the neoliberal EU (rather than shaping via successive Labour and Tory governments the politics of the EU).
The people speak again
Predictably, at that point some will accuse Labour for ignoring the democratic imperative of the referendum. “The people spoke”, they will say. The same people will see no contradiction in implying that the people should never speak again, at a referendum or any other forum related to Brexit.
I will bypass the lengthy debates on the consultative or binding nature of referenda. Instead, I will emphasise that the former position rests on a number of inherent problems: the oversimplification of policy questions, the impact of time and context on the outcome, their inconsistency on capturing the public support for a position as a one-off measurement, the difficulty for policy makers to interpreting the result; all the above and more would make referenda a questionable mode of delivering a democratic mandate.
I will iterate once more: a second referendum would not be a re-run of the “Remain or Leave” question, put forward in the hopes of reversing the Leave decision. It is a referendum on the terms of the potential deal that has been negotiated between the UK and the EU (rather than a UK proposal).
Britain may want to have its cake and eat it, or in Brexit terms, it may want to enjoy the same economic benefits as a member and control its own affairs ignoring common decisions and obligations. Unfortunately, this is not plausible.
Why a People’s Vote would help Labour
Even before an election, a People’s Vote should be one of Corbyn’s electoral commitments. And after a general election, a Corbyn-led government would need a strong mandate on Brexit. The only viable question for the Labour party would be a choice between soft Brexit and Remain. The dilemma would be between a soft Brexit which would deliver less control than Britain has now as a member of the union, or a Remain vote which would allow Corbyn to have a say in European affairs. A hard Brexit will compromise Labour’s pledge of putting working people first and making sure jobs are not lost.
I wish there was a third door and Labour could choose that. But there isn’t. Labour may very soon may have to face the EU negotiators, and It is better to do so with the people (and People’s Vote) on its side.
Marina Prentoulis is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Media, University of East Anglia, and spokesperson for Another Europe is Possible.
Image by Marcus Linder.