The Impasse: Labour’s Brexit Tragedy in Two Acts


By Mark Perryman

With a rising demand for Labour to adopt unequivocal support for a second referendum, and to campaign for Remain a Shadow Cabinet meeting is set to discuss the subject this week. What follows is a fictionalised account of what might, or might not, be the discussion…


Act One : The Shadow Cabinet

The Scene, an undisclosed location, a Labour seat where the Remain vs Leave vote in the 2016 Referendum was split 50:50. Chosen for both symbolic reasons and to concentrate minds.

Andrew Fisher, senior policy adviser to Jeremy Corbyn and widely credited as the author of the party’s 2017 General Election manifesto has placed on everybody’s seats a photocopy  of pages 24-27, the section’ Negotiating Brexit’  from the document. The opening sentence reads ‘ Labour accepts the referendum result  and a Labour government will put the national interest first.’ Emily Thornberry as she takes her seat looks at the photocopy and rolls her eyes.  Clive Lewis, mutters loudly ‘ the second part of that sentence contradicts the bloody first part.’  

Conscious things already aren’t going well Jeremy Corbyn  attempts to change the subject from the obvious mood of disquiet in the room.  ‘ Did anyone see Gary Younge’s article on Brexit the other week?’   A few nod, keen to get the room on his side Jeremy quotes from it, Gary had described the mission of those who oppose the Tory Brexit as turns ‘them’ and ‘us’ into ‘we’.  Jeremy suggests that this should be what his Shadow Cabinet focus on for the next few hours.

Most however aren’t convinced. They demand a greater sense of urgency. With around half the room arguing this means a second referendum and Labour coming out as a ‘Remain  Party’ and the other half arguing the complete opposite, that Labour must stick to a soft Brexit and respect the result of the referendum. Each side suggesting that the other is leading the party towards electoral disaster.

Andrew Fisher is asked to spell out the current situation. He outlines the likely consequence of Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservatives and PM, the Tories lose what remaining Remain voters they have to the Lib Dems while hope to hoover up the substantial support of The Brexit Party. Labous minus a full-blooded commitment to a second referendum continues to lose votes to the  to Lib Dems, SNP,  Plaid and Greens. But adopting  any such commitment will also see in other seats losses to the Brexit Party.

At this point Seumas Milne, Labour’s Director of Communications and Strategy intervenes.  Conscious of the rising mood of disagreement and dissatisfaction amongst a usually united Shadow Cabinet, he outlines what he describes as  two positive steps. Firstly, following the Gary Younge dictum ‘ not them vs us but we’ launch a campaign on that basis to carve out a more distinct position from both the Leave and the Remain crowd.  Secondly make a major priority a voter registration campaign aimed at each wave of first time voters between now and whenever a General Election come, those who were aged 14 or 15 in 2017.

Some in the room are pleased to hear at least something positive is on offer. Others remain unconvinced and dissatisfied. At this point there’s knock on the door.  It’s Tom Watson, hotfoot from the breakfast TV shows arguing his case for why today the Shadow Cabinet must back the second referendum. He’s not expecting a friendly reception so he is flabbergasted when Jeremy stands up applauds Tom and asks the room to join him in thanking him.  Tom smiles suspiciously.

 Tom, when you described the second referendum last week as the least-worst option, I couldn’t have been happier, I couldn’t have put it better myself. ‘ Jeremy explains,  Tom smiles weakly.   Others who share Jeremy’s suspicions of staking all on a second referendum chip in. Angela Rayner argues it’s a device that we might have to live with to get the country out of the mess we’ve found ourselves in  but it cannot be the be-all and end-all of Labour’s politics. As one of the party’s most effective campaigners against austerity and inequality Angela’s words carry considerable weight in the room.  Tom has now given up smiling,

Andrew now tries to bring the room back to addressing hard figures.  He has in his hands Mark Perryman’s book The Corbyn Effect (note : this is known in the trade as product placement) and refers to the list at the back of Labour’s 66 target seats it must win next time to achieve an overall majority and form a Labour government alongside the 19 defences, those with a Labour majority of under 100 the party is most vulnerable to losing.  Andrew argues these two lists more than anything else should be concentrating everybody’s minds.

In response there’s a flurry of various analyses circulated of how a pro- 2nd Referendum position will impact on Labour’s vote in these seats. Some contradict each other leaving the Shadow Cabinet unconvinced and not much the wiser.

Seumas tries to get, for a second time, the discussion back on track. The hard and actual data on how each constituency voted in the referendum is easily available and he’s been looking at that. But it’s only half the story, the key is how Labour voters voted in the referendum broken down by seat. This is only available via opinion polling,  Yougov have done that, overall 30% of Labour voters, according to Yougov, voted Leave but most usefully of all  a guy called Ian Warren who appears to work out of a garden shed has broken this down constituency-by constituency.  Take Bassetlaw. Seumas says, John Mann’s seat , 45`% of Labour voters voted Leave, 43% voted Remain, 12% didn’t vote. Or Crewe andNantwich, a Labour Defence, majority of just 48, Labour vote  was 56% remain , 44% leave in a seat that voted 60% Leave.

Around the room even those most convinced by their own position are looking confused and not a little anxious. Andrew tries once again to focus their minds. He has a powerpoint presentation on a range of variables to consider.  In particular, if The Brexit Party stand how will this split the Tory vote? And how sustainable is the Lib Dem, SNP, Plaid and Greens’ resurgence? The room is none the wiser on either but appreciate the questions.

Up to this point John McDonnell hasn’t spoken, he does now. He asks ‘ To what Extent is Labour already regarded by Leave voters as a Remain Party?’  He implies that any damage to the party amongst Labour leave voters has already been done. Andrew suggests a focus group, everybody agrees.  

John again, argues that a party membership which is overwhelmingly pro-Remain, if not our vote, don’t we risk demoralising our most precious campaigning resource the members on the doortstep, out canvassing? Owen Jones has written a memo for the meeting using his experience of ‘Unseat’ mass canvassing  days, arguing precisely this, John circulates it.

Jeremy is clearly appreciative of John’s, his most trusted ally’s, intervention but doesn’t look entirely convinced.  Instead he declares he has a ‘position paper’ prepared for today he wants the cabinet to consider.  Nobody is quite sure what it might contain, they forsake lunch to find out.  

Jeremy calls it ‘Some Home Truths ‘

First, Labour can promise a second referendum, just like the Lib Dems, but short of a General Election there is not the parliamentary arithmetic to get it through Parliament. The Lib Dems don’t care about that, they trade in promising what they can’t, or don’t, deliver, should Labour?

Second, to maximise support for a second referendum ‘No Deal’ must be on the  ballot paper, anything else is simply a case of we asked you the first time, you got it wrong, try again.    

Third, if the second referendum comes after a General Election Labour has won how does that work? Jeremy asks Keir Starmer at this point to describe the deal he would be over in Brussels negotiating . Most like the sound of it, until Jeremy points out the first task of Labour in government would be to organise a referendum on it versus ‘Remain’.

So, Jeremy asks, do we offer a referendum then campaign for Remain against our own deal Keir has negotiated? And if we do, no poll gives Remain a substantial lead, its going to be close and if it’s 51s% vs 49% for Remain this time where does that leave the country? Where does that leave them vs us?   

Rebecca Long-Bailey agrees with Jeremy’s outline, adding angrily that none of this bothers the Lib Dems, their slogan is ‘Bollow to Brexit’ telling you precisely what they think of the Leave voters in her constituency.

Jeremy nods, in his view Johnson will have something sorted by 31st October.  There’s Labour MPs, Caroline Flint amongst them who will vote for almost anything the Tories come up with, including No Deal, rather than oppose them. Laura Pidcock applauds at this point.   

Andrew again.  He urges Jeremy not to promise an early General Election and apologises for inserting that line into Jeremy’s 2018 Conference Speech.  Jeremy is a tad taken aback,  but Andrew is convinced it’s the wrong line.  ‘Its for a Socialist Worker headline, it’s not something we can make happen.’ Jeremy isn’t used to being spoken to quite like this but he does look thoughtful.  He responds.

“OK I think we can all agree it’s a mess. My question, is there an audience who are absolutely fed up with it all and can be mobilised via ending austerity, a sustainable economic strategy, sharing the wealth of society with us all?”

Laura puts her hand up, her answer is yes and borrows Andrew’s laptop to show one of the Labour Voices videos to convince her colleagues.

Tracy Brabin now joins in, MP for the murdered Jo Cox’s seat joins in, she wants to hear more of this politics that is about ‘we’, poignantly she quotes Jo ‘we have more in common than divides us.’

Jon Trickett, who hadn’t contributed so far but has been listening carefully gets quite excited by this. ‘What we need is a space in the party where this can be thrashed out as a conversation, difficult questions raised,  not binary motions, for or against.’

Clive suggests they ask Lisa Nandy and Stella Creasy who have been arguing for a Citizens Assenbly to find out what a members assembly might look like?

John McDonnell likes the sound of that, adding another question, is there a distinctive politics that doesn’t rule out a referendum (with No Deal) argues for taking back control by the people but the big message is not them vs us, but We.

Ian Lavery is still looking unconvinced but does like the sound of the latter part.  

John is aware of Ian and others’ reservations so he addresses them directly, when it comes to Europe, we’re nether leave or remain but Change, with no apologies to Chuka. Ian laughs at that.  

Then John brings everybody back to earth. Our best case scenario right now? Labour vote squeezed but doesn’t collapse, resurgent SNP, Lib-Dems, Plaid and Greens at the very least hold their seats, more likely gain some from both us and the Tories.  Tory vote split, Farage hurts them badly. As a result there’s a rising tide of populist racism rises, which John hastily points out is anything but a best case scenario.

Jeremy nods sadly, but knowingly in agreement, a Labour Prime Minister but a Coalition government, could be worse he says before asking, ‘ Anybody got Nicola Sturgeon’s number?’


Act Two: Woking CLP

In the 2017 General Election Woking recorded an impressive 4.89% swing from Conservative to Labour . But the Tory majority remains 16,000, Labour’s chances of winning the next General ELection won’t be decided here.  A young, female and dynamic trio of activists, Gaby, Gerry and Zara have been considering their campaign options to make maximum impact on helping Labour towards winning those target seats.

They’ve checked the list , Woking is exactly midway between Putney (target seat number 35, 1 hour 9 minutes away by the A3) and Crawley (target number 45, 1 hour 9 minutes away by the B2126)

Putney voted 72% remain, it’s a Tory majority of just 1554 and the sitting Tory MP Justine Greening is an out and out remainer. She might resign, defect to the Lib Dems even. That’s out of Labour’s hands, but in this seat anything less than a fully committed 2nd Referendum position and Labour will lose too many votes to the Lib Dems and Greens who finished a very distant 3rd and 4th in 2017. Tory hold Crawley was much more spilt, voted 58% leave, 42% Remain. No UKIP stood in 2017 here, no Green either, Lib Dems distant 3rd. It’s a seat ripe for the ‘Not them vs Us , but We’ argument from Labour.  An unequvicoal pro Remain position?  Tory hold.

At the pub after their CLP campaign strategy meeting Gaby, Gerry, Zara look at each other, the looks on their faces says its all,  it’s complicated.


Mark Perryman is a member of Lewes CLP and Momentum. He is the Editor of The Corbyn Effect, published by Lawrence and Wishart. Mark’s new book Corbynism from Below is due out in September.