Brexit: Why Labour should stick to its conference strategy

A second referendum is not a “trap” set by the far right or the centrist elite… it’s an opportunity to prevent economic, geopolitical and social disaster. But we’ve got to mobilise in the face of the reactionary backlash it will provoke.

Today (19/01/2018) something significant happened to Labour’s Brexit policy. Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister, clarified it into phases.

  1. We vote down Theresa May’s deal.

2. We fight for a general election. If we can’t achieve that…

3. We push, in Parliament, for Labour’s much softer version of Brexit during the next two weeks.

4. And if that fails we fight for a second referendum.

Starmer said: “Securing a general election is — and always will be — our priority as it’s the only way to deliver the radical change this country needs…but we are now at the third phase of our policy.”

I support this strategy. For the next two weeks, Labour in Parliament should try to build a majority around its own soft Brexit proposal — and mandate the Tory government to pursue it. But if that fails, we should try to trigger a second referendum.

Since just before Christmas there has been a push against this strategy from inside parts of the Labour left. The opponents of the above strategy say (variously):

  • A second referendum would provoke a backlash and fuel the far right
  • Leave would win and we would crash out of the EU on a hard Brexit
  • Remain would win, handing the liberal elite the uncritical return to EU neoliberalism
  • It’s all a distraction and we need an election instead
  • Brexit is positive for the left because it allows Labour to implement a socialist programme
  • I can’t support a Second Referendum because my seat voted to Leave

Because the strategy was agreed at a 300+ compositing meeting in September, lasting hours, and passed unanimously by conference, which gave Starmer a standing ovation, the opposition to it has taken two forms: (a) attempts to deny what was decided and (b) threats, reported in the Guardian, by a few people to resign shadow front bench positions if it’s implemented.

The denial goes like this: Labour decided to support “all other options on the table” and should now, like a stuck record, keep moving votes of no confidence and do nothing else. There is no specific commitment to the second referendum, say its critics.

But Starmer made clear today, apparently with the backing of Jeremy Corbyn, that Labour would not support any “other options” than its own Brexit plan and a second vote.

He made clear that — even as Labour continues to push more No Confidence votes, we have passed into phase three: for the next ten days at least we are fighting for Labour’s softer Brexit proposal in Parliament.

Here’s why even those of us who would rather Remain have to support this.

We are in the last stages of trying to honour the spirit of the June 2016 referendum.

The 2016 referendum advised Parliament to leave the EU. Parliament, with Labour whipping support for it, passed Article 50. Then a Supreme Court judgment confirmed that, in order to agree the form of Brexit, there would have to be a Meaningful Vote in parliament.

Theresa May sabotaged all attempts by Parliament to insert itself into the talks. Result? The talks produced a deal that cannot pass parliament.

For me that nullifies the moral force of the referendum. But I am prepared, in order to convince pro-Brexit voters, to make one last attempt at a Labour-designed Brexit plan. If that fails, we can say with honesty the mandate of the 2016 referendum has expired and we need a new one.

In the next two weeks various factions among MPs will attempt to get their own plans through: a Norway-plus deal, a “managed No Deal” and Labour’s plan; there will also be votes on changing procedure to take control of parliament away from the government. Theresa May could come back with a cobbled-together proposal but unless it is based on permanent membership of a Customs Union, it’s a non-starter.

If all the other plans fail, and Labour’s plan is defeated, then Parliament has run out of ways to enact the first referendum. Only a second referendum or an election could then save us from having to crash out without a deal.

In a second referendum, the Labour composite makes quite clear: the party would fight for Remain and Reform.

Let’s consider the merits of the arguments against this:

a) “There will be a backlash by the 30+ percent of voters who currently say they would prefer No Deal.” I think this is correct. And that backlash will split the Tory party. However, all forms of softer Brexit, including May’s deal, would provoke a backlash. The backlash is coming, the same as it will on the day Trump is impeached or loses power. Fighting the battle of the backlash will be a major task for the labour movement and the progressive left.

b) “It will fuel the far right.” Again correct. They are mobilising to harass and attack campaigners and have even threatened to disrupt any second referendum. The answer to this is an antifascist mobilisation and the enforcement of the rule of law by the state. The front line of this backlash will be in some specific working class areas held by Labour: they will need a lot of help and support. (Incidentally, both the right wing populsit back lash and the fascist revival will happen during a radical Labour government anyway; we can’t avoid it. This just brings it on sooner).

c) “Leave would win.” This is not a given and in fact unlikely. With proactive policing of dark money and electoral rules, and a different left-led Remain campaign, the progressive majority in society can be mobilised at the polls and the swing voters convinced. Opinion polls currently say 55% support Remain. I think that can be pushed to 60% once all the evidence is mobilised of the way Putin is using Brexit, and dark Russian money tried to fund it, to damage our national security.

In fact, though I think there should be a positive campaign to Remain/Reform and Rebuild Britain, I think a negative campaign on national security and geopolitical grounds is what could shatter the support for Leave in working class Tory marginals.

d) “Pro-market centrist Remainers would trumpet the victory of an unreformed Europe, using the left once again to do the dirty work of neoliberalism”. They probably will — but if there’s a left-led campaign for Remain, Reform and Restructure, it would put Labour in a position to lead the progressive majority in Britain to a strategic victory over the xenophobic freemarket nationalists. The left would have to try and control the strategy of the Remain campaign. The left’s slogan should be Stop Brexit: Rebuild Britain Instead.

e) “It’s all a distraction and we need a Labour government?” Yes, in an ideal world Brexit wouldn’t have happened. But Brexit is now a class struggle — between a hard right nationalist project and, on the other side, an alliance of liberal centrists, with working class socialists, Greens and the left-nationalists in Scotland and Wales. The Leave 2.0 campaign will be, in Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, an “alliance of the elite and the mob”. The Remain campaign should be an alliance of the working class and progressive middle class and any business leaders with the guts to join it — ie excaclty the kind of formation that the left used in the mid-1930s to fight the far right.

f) “Brexit can deliver a left-wing outcome, and the best thing to do is keep shtum, let May take us out of Europe, and then utilise the new freedoms to form a socialist government”. This is just bullshit: out of Europe on May’s terms keeps all the neoliberal parts of the EU rules and none of those which underpin workers’ rights, human rights and environmental rights.

The strongest argument against a second referendum is that, in some Leave voting areas, the small but vicious far right will stir things up, the tabloid press will blame and victimise Labour making its candidates pariahs, and Labour could lose seats, or not win enough to form a government.

But it doesn’t give you an answer as to how you are going to keep medicines in the local pharmacy and food in the supermarket in the case of a No Deal Brexit, which is the only alternative.

Before going any further, it’s worth noting that, if you accept that argument, you are also writing Scotland off forever as a Labour stronghold. You are saying because English leave seats are vulnerable to xenophobia, we have to abandon progressive, Remain-supporting Scottish working class to the SNP, who will back Remain 100%.

There is, in short, no evidence that “honouring the referendum result” is going to win Labour a single seat in the English midlands, Yorkshire and the East of England, which is where the hard Brexit demographic is strong.

Here’s what I would say on the doorstep in a Leave voting area — I exclusively campaigned in such places in 2017:

“You voted — narrowly — for Brexit. We’ve always tried to make it happen but Theresa May fucked it up. We tried, right until the last moment to do Brexit, in a more sensible form, but there was no majority in parliament. So we are putting it back to you. We’ll have more control if we stay in than with May’s deal, and no deal is going to create chaos.”

I don’t like the term populism, but if you want to use it, it’s a no brainer that both the Second Referendum and the election, in whatever order they come, will only be won by a “populist” progressive message that mobilises people on the values of solidarity and hope, against the despair and racism of the right.

To people who threatened to resign their posts if Labour goes for a Second Referendum, I would say: it’s understandable if, on principle, you want to show solidarity with the democratic wishes of your own electorate. But we’re a democratic party and the agreed line expresses the strategic interest of the people who form the bulk of the members: internationalist, socialist, progressive working class people.

The idea that “the working class wants Brexit” is only true if you define the working class as Tory voting white people. In fact however you define the working class — and above all the organised working class — it wants the opposite. And that’s who Labour represents: nurses, clearers, automobile factory workers, young people, minorities, migrant workers — and the progressive parts of the middle class.

So: much better than resigning as a junior minister or PPS would be to argue your case, again, at a special conference.

Unfortunately, the whole compositing process in September was arranged so that opponents of the current line did not have to suffer the embarrassment of being defeated in a vote. There were, despite this, strong arguments from the floor put against the Second Referendum, by respected union militants — let’s hear them again and vote again.

All the people going crazy at me on Twitter could present their evidence as to why the second referendum is a “trap”, “electoral suicide”, “neoliberal” etc. and I would urge my comrades to listen closely to them.

For those worried that the second referendum was always just a ruse by Chuka Umunna and Peter Mandelson to split Labour, that was a justified concern: but for now this has been staved off. Umunna has been denied control of the PV campaign. The best way of stopping a centrist split from Labour is to not purposely ignore the wishes of the members.

However, it is also possible for Labour MPs to defy the whip and vote against a Second Referendum. I have no problem with people who do that on principle, as long as they then suggest what the PLP should do next.

If a Second Referendum fails in parliament, most likely Theresa May will then call an election.

What we do in a snap election is a different debate. I have argued that, at this point, Labour’s mass membership simply will not turn out to campaign for a pro-Brexit position, and the party should return to its old position of Remain and Reform.

Fortunately we have a democratic process in the Clause V meeting through which to debate that issue out, should we come to it.



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Paul Mason

Paul Mason

Journalist, writer and film-maker. Former economics editor at BBC Newsnight/Channel 4 News. Author of How To Stop Fascism.