Brexit, Labour & the Future

Recent developments on Brexit are marching Labour towards Brexit uncritically. Despite the policy of the 2016 conference for a  third referendum – 2016 was the second referendum as the first was the 1975 referendum – third vote is  falling off the agenda. For Labour, it is unlikely it can win the next General Election without a third vote.

Currently the Tories have the ball of their feet with their Deal or No Deal so-called ‘meaningful’ vote which is due in the Autumn.  With 15 Labour MPs voting with the Tories over membership of the EEA rather than abstaining as Corbyn wanted it is clear that Leave has serious support within the PLP. This position is more or less the same as Tony Benn’s position in the 1975 referendum, which Leave lost, and uses the wording which has now been used by groups like Open Britain which are against Brexit that we must “respect the referendum result”, a phrase which is a no brainer. The real issue – especially for the young – is respecting democracy by  giving them what the People’s Vote is calling for – another vote. 

Labour Leave is rehashing the old Bennite argument that the UK can survive and prosper outside the  EU. I personally agree with  rejecting EEA and EFTA for the UK needs to be inside the institution, not as the ‘vassal state ‘ with no ability to shape the rules.. However the isolationist argument was spurious before Trump got into the White House with “America First”, and completely invalid now he has started a trade war. The UK has to be inside the EU and forming strong links with Canada and Mexico.

So what is the beef? The real issue is providing a future for the Young, who overwhelmingly favour the EU and are being betrayed by Brexit. The Leavers ignore this dominant fact of electoral politics, while correctly pointing to the fact that for the moment,  “the electors, and Labour’s traditional heartland voters” have rejected the EU. But this only affects some electors in some declining areas which will suffer most from Brexit. If  Labour MPs are now terrified of losing seats if they stick to their guns, they will face the bigger problem long term of losing the young. It pains me to say this as an old age pensioner, but my generation – the Baby Boomers – have failed young people. And the failure runs through all aspects of our politics. 

Caroline Flint raised the immigration issue over the EEA , and there is a real debate to be had, but immigration is overwhelmingly a concern of the Old. The Guardian of 22nd January 2017 reported that of 22 priorities, immigration was the lowest ranked among 18-34 year olds. It was ignored by  the young in the  2017 election when May flagged it up. We cannot ignore the fact that it did affect the vote in the old traditional working class areas, which have to be won back to get a majority Labour government. But Brexit is not the way to do it. It will hand young voters to the Remain parties.

The big issue is whether when the 6 tests are to be used in the ‘meaningful debate’ in the autumn Labour will call for a third referendum this time on the Deal.   This position is morally sound and constitutionally valid, for there is no reason not to allow a third vote. As David Davis said in 2013, “if a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”. True even if he is now the Minister for Brexit. He told Seema Malhotra in Select Committee on 25th April that the Deal document may be no more than a ‘bare bones’ document and cannot be amended. So the six tests are almost certain to be failed. Given that the chances of Labour defeating the document are limited, the most viable way forward is to put the deal to a public vote.

If Labour abandons the position is fought the 2016 referndum on, it moves away from democratic practice,  at the price of risking the votes of young people and metropolitan voters. The Green and Lib Dem Parties are struggling. Nothing would hand them progressive voters more quickly than voting for Brexit. However the big issue is not just whether Labour is about to hand the next election to the Tories by losing votes.

The core issue is democracy. The 2016 referendum was not a priveleged ‘once in a generation’ vote which cannot be repeated. After the 1975 vote Harold Wilson made it clear it was the right of Leavers to campaign to reverse the result. The current Leave campaign  cannot deny voters the same right that they had to get a public vote on the choices before the UK before the UK drops out of the EU. Currently Remain has won one vote, Leave has won one. The next, critical vote will be a best of three – if MPs have enough democratic principle to bring it on. 

Trevor Fisher, June 2018.

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