On Monday 25 February, the Labour Party leadership came out for a new public vote on Brexit. Shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry have said they would vote Remain in that referendum.
This is a great victory for the anti-Brexit left. We should clinch it: • By mobilising on the streets to add pressure on Parliament. Labour should sponsor a big bloc on the 23 March “People’s Vote” demonstration. Labour for a Socialist Europe, the anti-Brexit left group in Labour, has already started organising for that. • By making it clear that Labour will vote Remain in that new public vote. • By redoubling the call for a special conference in which the Labour Party sorts itself out.
On Monday 25th, “a Labour spokesman”, presumably from the Leader’s Office, was telling Reuters that “a referendum giving a choice between May’s deal and Remain would not be acceptable”. The Skwawkbox blog, known as an unofficial feed from the Leader’s Office, branded the story that Labour was backing a second Brexit referendum as “‘mainstream’ fake news”. Labour members have to guard against backsliding, and against the referendum call being reduced to a “designed-to-fail” parliamentary gesture. Brexit is in crisis. We can stop it.
After a week when nine Labour MPs split away, citing Labour incompetence on opposing Tory Brexit and/or a scourge of antisemitism in the Party, that Jeremy Corbyn has committed Labour to call for a second referendum on Brexit, with “Remain” as an option, against May’s deal, is good news for those of us who oppose Brexit and support recognition of Labour Party policy and the views of the majority of Labour members and voters. The shift may force a rethink among some Remain-supporting Labour activists who turned to supporting Brexit, not wishing to rock the Corbyn boat. What does the commitment mean?
First and foremost it is a late response to the threat of splits in Labour, an attempt to ward off further splits. Since the formation of the “Independent Group” (which plans to become a party “gradually”), there have been rumours of further Labour and Tory defections. Talk of twenty or more from Labour.
On Sunday 24 February, Deputy Leader Tom Watson, announced the formation of a new faction for Labour MPs, those from its “social democratic tradition” as he put it. His meaning was clear. This faction will organise MPs inside Labour. It also threatens to take the same group outside Labour, if Corbyn does not respond adequately. To underline the threat, Watson presented Corbyn with a dossier itemising some 50 claims of antisemitism inside Labour, saying Corbyn must take personal responsibility for these cases.
Having the party leader rather than the regular committees deal with the cases would be completely irregular and undemocratic, but such are the demagogic methods of Tom Watson. Responses to the split from within the Corbyn camp were mixed. John McDonnell talked about the “need to listen”. Emily Thornberry (at a rally in Soubry’s constituency of Broxtowe) talked (not unreasonably) about “traitors”. Momentum’s Jon Lansman spoke out usefully on the need to tackle a “widespread” problem of antisemitism in the Party. On the fringes, Chris Williamson MP, at a Momentum rally in Sheffield, said the opposite, claiming that Labour’s response to the anti-semitism row had been too apologetic.
The mix of responses is explained by a lack of coherence in the Corbyn camp. Corbyn’s office has been sealed off by his Stalinist advisors – Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray — in order to better control most of the day-to-day policy decisions and “spins” without much reference to other “leading lights” except a few chosen ones like Unite union leader Len McCluskey.
Unfortunately, therefore, Corbyn’s declaration of support for a second referendum is not a commitment to a full-throttle campaign for that. Rather it fits into the principle-free, flexible strategy which Stalinist intellectuals like Milne et al prefer,
Principled socialists should want Labour to clearly and unambiguously oppose Brexit and not to “triangulate”, in order to concede to institutional threats from Labour’s right wing. We want support for a campaign for a second referendum as part of our opposition to Brexit, because it is a right-wing and regressive set of changes, pointing towards even less social regulation, more inequality, and the buttressing of nationalist political answers to the problems of capitalism. Instead Labour’s second referendum support will become part of a sequence of Parliamentary events, which will look something like this.
On 27 February, Labour will focus on moving a Parliamentary amendment for its own version of a Brexit deal (with a customs union). The amendment is certain to be defeated. Labour will then support moves for a second referendum – via, for example, a modified version of an amendment from by Labour MPs Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, which in its present form, oddly, calls for Parliament to support May’s withdrawal agreement but make its implementation conditional on a referendum – later. Maybe at the next “Meaningful Vote”, not until 12 March.
Some commentators have said the effect of Labour support for a referendum may be to push Tory Hard Brexiteers into supporting May’s deal – a lesser evil for some than extending Article 50, which is also being currently pushed for. In truth, because the Labour Party has “run down the clock” on backing its conference policy for a second referendum.
As the proposal will not be debated in Parliament for another two weeks, there is a big question mark over whether Labour will meaningfully campaign for a second referendum at all. Yet, if it does not, it will face further fractures and splits which will cost Labour ultimately at the polls.
It is down to Labour activists who oppose Brexit on principled grounds to build the campaign, and the openings for us to do that have now been much increased. Come to the Labour for a Socialist Europe Conference on 9 March. Join the campaign and others on the “No Brexit, for a Socialist Europe” bloc on the People’s Vote march on 23 March.