By Mark Montegriffo
People who have advocated a second referendum for over a year are now releasing a sigh of relief, me included. There’s a lot to unpack from the past few weeks in UK politics, particularly in the Labour party’s route to finally declaring the position of a people’s vote on Brexit as official party policy. So let’s get to it...
This declaration comes four weeks before the withdrawal date. Initial reports will suggest that the new party line is a result of May’s most recent decision to delay the vote on delaying the ‘meaningful vote’, echoing a similar delay at the end of 2018. This isn’t the only irony obviously; it is politics after all.
The actual cause of this new direction is more complex. Prominent Labour MPs and others have been in favour of a second referendum since at least the start of last year. The Liberal Democrats have held it as the party position ever since the debate began after the referendum. There are even Conservative MPs who have been in favour of the second vote. It’s also worth noting that a number of Brexiteers, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage most notably, were voicing preferences for another vote on Brexit...but that was before they knew their side was going to win.
Opinion polling for the prospect of a second vote indicates that having a second referendum is more popular than not (the prior consistently polls in the mid-40s to mid-50s while the latter polls roughly around the 20s). Add this to the fact that approximately 72 percent of Labour members, especially those who joined initially due to Corbyn’s leadership shifting the party leftwards, are polled as in favour of a second referendum (and 90 percent would vote to remain). Given the apparent popularity of this policy one would be forgiven to be wondering why on earth it took them so long.
There have been many things to consider, and while I always thought they should be in favour of a second vote, there are several inward and outward issues that have made it a tricky discussion for the party. Firstly, there’s Corbyn’s personal history. For most of the post-war period up until now, it’s quite clear that the European issue has bitterly divided the Conservative party, leading to the referendum proposal in the first place in order for Cameron to attempt (but colossally fail) to put the division to bed. However, less focus is given to the British left’s attitude to the European ‘project’. Most famously, Labour socialist Tony Benn is a fundamental character in the party’s history and he was a significant influence on Corbyn’s political thinking when they were both in the Commons in the 80s during Thatcher’s premiership.
The perception of the European Union as a neo-liberal and undemocratic austerity machine is backed up by their treatment of the Greece crisis, as a recent example - where some on the radical right view Europe as a communist super-state, some on the radical left view Europe as an authoritarian capitalist kleptocracy. Support for a ‘Lexit’ on the basis of anti-capitalism is not as popular as support of a Brexit on the basis of immigration. But whether the analysis of the European Union is accurate or not, it explains Corbyn’s reluctance to embrace the EU without significant nuances and conditions.
Secondly, a lot of Labour MPs were voted in by constituencies who voted by a majority to leave the EU at the first referendum. Labour lost a chunk of seats in the north and west country due to the fact that the Conservatives and UKIP could speak to their voters better than Labour. It makes no electoral sense to risk the destruction of the Labour party even further by favouring such a policy and alienating the traditional base. In the autumn of 2018, the leadership declared that it would listen to the membership in terms of the people’s vote, but that could ironically come at an electoral cost. The Labour party had to be able to say that it exhausted all options until favouring something like a second referendum. Under a month to go until withdrawal date and with no deal looking likely, this is the last option available to them.
A third note of consideration is the Independent Group, a new party comprised out of former Labour and Conservative who left their parties. Their parties have become too divisive and arrested by the politics of the extremist tendencies within them. Ideologically, the roughly dozen MPs are ‘moderates’, and they are probably closest to Tony Blair’s New Labour or the current Liberal Democrats than the leadership of the parties they were aligned to as they exist at present. Insofar as policy goes, the Independent Group are supporting a second referendum, which is ironic because many of those who left Labour to join this cohort had cited Labour’s reluctance to support a People’s Vote as reason for their departure. It is hard to say how much of a cause this was in terms of pushing Labour to this new position, but it certainly adds to the complex broth of general factors in the landscape.
This is my first sigh of relief since June 23rd 2016, and it’s the millionth irony since this whole Brexit stuff began. A further one is that the Labour party who promoted joint sovereignty for Gibraltar at the start of the millennium could now be the very party who allows to voice of the 96 percent to be heard through a second vote. It remains to be seen whether Gibraltar will vote to stay in the EU on the second time of asking, as it remains to be seen whether the People’s Vote will even secure a majority in the Commons so that it could actually occur. As so often has felt the case with Brexit, ‘plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose’.