The Big Debate: Should Labour Now Promise a Second Brexit Referendum?

Mick Antoniw AM argues it’s essential that we now back People’s Vote, but Brendan Chilton argues it would be fatal for Labour’s chances.

Mick:

The European election results were a disaster, not just for Labour but for the country .

An unexpected battle which ended up being fought on two opposing but simple positions “Leave means Leave” and “A Peoples vote”. Labour’s stance of endeavouring to negotiate a Brexit deal with Theresa May which would protect jobs and investment by allowing a customs union, protect EU citizens and preserve workers’ rights failed abysmally. The continuation of negotiations whilst an election was underway was a recipe for confusion. The complex message which only allowed for a public vote if the negotiations failed (as they were bound to do so) was too complex and unclear. It was drowned out and outflanked by the calls to “leave” or “remain” neither of which could actually be delivered by the election. The inability of local and regional Labour Parties to organise locally with locally relevant material added to the chaos. However, none of this analysis is likely to really matter now, such is the growing polarisation of opinion in our society amongst those intending to vote.

The turnout was also disastrous. Just over one third of the population voted. For such a high profile and unique election, with so much at stake, it must be seriously concerning that nearly two thirds of the country chose not to or couldn’t be bothered to vote. It reflects the growing disenchantment with our political system and people’s frustration with a constitutionally and politically defunct Parliament’s inability to achieve a Brexit resolution. At the core of the problem is the Government’s lack of a majority and consequently any real legitimacy and its fear of going back to the people to seek a  fresh mandate in a general election. A deeper residual problem has been its failure to address the inherent weaknesses of an outdated UK constitutional structure through genuine engagement with Wales, Scotland and regional governments in England as a means of reaching agreement. That moment has for now been overtaken by events  but has not gone away and will need to be addressed if there is to be any future UK stability or indeed a future UK at all.

The real battle now lies ahead. As we approach the expiry of the Article 50 extension at the end of October, the choice is likely to be between leaving the EU with a catastrophic no deal or alternatively, Parliament voting to repeal Article 50. There is no viable compromise position nor is there any longer any such thing as a people’s vote, however that is defined. There is no deal to vote on, nor is there likely to be and even if there was it is now legally and constitutionally too late to hold such a vote legitimately. That campaign slogan has been surpassed by events.

The Prime Minister has fallen, the UK Government is in turmoil and there will be a new Conservative Prime Minister who will inherit all the existing dysfunctions parliament currently has to offer. The winner is likely to be a brexiteer and the front runner is likely to be Boris Johnson. The new Prime Minister will be in no stronger a position than Theresa May. Rather than face an article 50 revocation bill, it is most likely he or she will opt for a snap election riding on the back of a possible honeymoon period if there is one. A no deal brexiteer will have the support of Nigel Farage and his post Brexit momentum popularity. The Tories will go for it.

Labour’s position must be clear and unequivocal. We must call for a new referendum as the only way of resolving the Brexit crisis and avoiding no deal. Our manifesto must promise to legislate for a new in or out referendum with Leave or Stay on the ballot paper. There must also be a second question. If the referendum is lost and there is a majority vote is to leave, there must be a choice on the ballot paper of “no deal” or “customs union” options. This is probably the only basis that the EU would agree to another extension and which would provide the certainty of staying of leaving and if leaving, determining the basis on which we leave.

Labour must commit to campaigning to remain.

This is the battle to win the war. We must make it absolutely clear from the outset that only Labour can win the election. Voters who want a second referendum will not have the luxury of a protest vote. It will be a strict battle to the death. If Labour doesn’t win there will be no second referendum.

Mick Antoniw AM is the Labour and Co-operative Welsh Assembly Member for Pontypridd and a member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee

Brendan:

We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.” Those famous but simple words uttered by Aneurin Bevan, one of the great fathers of the British Labour Party are more relevant today in the wake of the European Elections that at any point in Labours recent history. Labour went down to a crushing defeat, coming third nationally, losing MEPs after nearly a decade of Tory rule. The Brexit Party triumphed hitting Labour hard in many of its traditional heartlands.

The Labour Party campaigned to remain in the 2016 EU Referendum. An overwhelming majority of its MPs and party members supported remain and still do. Despite this, 70% of Labour constituencies voted leave. But the country voted to leave and in the subsequent 2017 General Election Labour pledged to accept the outcome of the referendum, end freedom of movement and give renewed hope to those left behind communities who had overwhelmingly voted to leave the European Union.  Around five million of Labour’s 2017 vote supported leave. All these factors have placed the Labour Party in an impossible position.

The Labour Party sought to bring the country together, trying to appeal to those who supported remain and its core base who supported leave. Mindful of the fact that a majority of our most vulnerable seats voted leave and a majority of the seats we need to capture to form the next government, Labour has tried to tread a careful line of keeping hold of both leave and remain voters. This policy was decimated in the European Parliamentary elections and has demonstrated what many of us have advocated, albeit from different perspectives for some time. Labour must choose, leave or remain.

The electoral arithmetic speaks for itself. If Labour wishes to form a government it needs to win over leave constituencies and leave voters. These voters are concentrated in constituencies Labour cannot afford to lose and in crucial marginal seats such as Dudley and Ashfield. Therefore, the decision, this week, to support a second referendum will severely hinder Labour’s chances of forming the next government and holding onto those seats.

Many commentators and those within the Labour movement who have never accepted the outcome of the referendum point to the rise in the Green and Lib Dem vote in the European Elections. Under the Westminster first past the post system neither the Greens nor the Lib Dems will have a concentrated vote in seats to take them from Labour. Their vote is fairly evenly distributed across the UK. Many of those voters will return to Labour in the general election. In Scotland, a sizeable majority of the remain vote now support the SNP and in Wales the remain vote is fractured between Labour, Green, Lib Dem and Playd. Labour is now fighting with minority parties for a share of the 48%, leaving the Tories and the Brexit Party to hoover up the 52% majority.

The reality of last week’s referendum show, to coin a phrase, nothing has changed. The results shows that both leave and remain camps are still fairly entrenched. The country is still divided and we are no closer to solving the impasse in the House of Commons. One thing is certain, the political baselines are being redrawn and the fluidity amongst once solid voting communities is now changing and changing fast. In all this, the key element for Labour, is that a majority of our seats voted leave and still support leave. The leave vote outweighs the remain vote. Labour is no longer appealing to the leave constituency, and now 70% of Labour seats are at risk of falling to other parties, or, suffering massively reduced majorities.

Labour should not have supported a second referendum. There is no logical reason for doing so. If the country votes to leave again the problem is not solved. If the country votes remain, by a small margin, there will be demands for a third referendum. The issue here is not the merits of leave or remain, but the fact that Labour would seem so easily prepared to break a solemn promise to the British people, namely, that it accepted the outcome of the referendum. History shows that political parties who break solemn promises tend to suffer badly in future elections. We have seen what a total meltdown looks like when a proportion of your core vote abandons you. I have warned for many years of the risks of alienating our leave vote. The memory of Scotland in 2015 is still raw. We can only hope and pray that Labours abandonment of the core working class vote who supported leave does not lead to end of Labour in England.

Brendan Chilton is a Labour Councillor and General Secretary of Labour Leave