To the joy of anti-Brexit campaigners and the dismay of Lexiters, Labour has finally announced its backing for a new referendum. Should the vote happen, confirmed Emily Thornberry, Labour will campaign for Remain.
The news came with just over four weeks until exit date, and parliament no closer to a decision on the Europe question than it was two years ago. Theresa May’s deal remains woefully unpopular, a General Election won’t be called without the Tories’ support, and a no-deal Brexit is favoured by no one but the most extreme ERG shock therapists. At this point, with May refusing to make any concessions that would soften her Brexit offer, it is difficult to see what other choices Labour had left.
Conference policy, passed in September after a record-breaking number of motions submitted by members, committed Labour to explore all options to prevent a Tory Brexit. Opinion poll after opinion poll shows overwhelming support for a public vote among Labour voters. Pressure on the leadership came not only from centrist MPs who, after years of threatening to do so, rather anticlimactically left the party to form a new grouping. Primarily, it came from the grassroots – through countless letters, petitions, street stalls, demonstrations, hundreds of motions debated by CLPs.
These calls, however, were regularly met with a backlash. It’s an attempt to undermine Jeremy Corbyn, we heard. Others foresaw a disaster for Labour’s electoral chances. These concerns were not entirely unreasonable. The most prominent advocates of new referendum do indeed include long-standing Corbynsceptics, using the issue of Europe for their own factional gain. In the media, the campaign is more often than not represented by the same tired establishment faces who so catastrophically failed last time and show no signs of having learned the lessons (if they had, they could best prove it by taking a big step back.)
However, passionate supporters of staying in Europe include many of those who secured Corbyn his leadership victory and strong election result in 2017. Young people who turned out to vote in long unseen numbers, committed Labour activists who woke up at sunrise to knock on doors in marginal seats – it’s impossible to envision a Corbyn-led government without not just their passive backing but active enthusiasm. Allowing a Tory Brexit to happen – whether of the May or Rees-Mogg variety – wouldn’t be something they’d find easy to forgive. Neither would communities, including many Leave areas, where thousands of jobs and millions in EU funding are at risk of disappearing. Remain voters, often taken for granted, have already started to slip away, with a recent poll showing Labour 13 points behind the Tories and only five ahead of the Independent Group.
From a strictly electoral perspective, campaigning for a referendum may be risky but not more so than the alternative. From a moral point of view, failing to do so would be inexcusable. Whether a left-wing Brexit is hypothetically possible makes for a fascinating theoretical debate. However, it was not on the table when the Leave campaign was spearheaded by migrant-bashers and free market fundamentalists, and it is certainly not an option now when the country is staring down the barrel.
The task of stopping Brexit could have been easier had Labour laid the groundwork. The approach of “constructive ambiguity” and changing the topic to domestic policy might well have worked in 2017. Corbyn kept both Labour Leavers and Remainers calm while fighting the election on his own terms. On austerity, the national conversation shifted radically and an economy built for the many suddenly became easier to imagine. In the meantime, questions of nationalism and immigration were swept aside. Those who, as well as a higher minimum wage and a funded NHS, wanted stricter border controls, did not have their views challenged. When criticising the government’s shambolic handling of Brexit, Labour focused on protecting trade – not migrants’ rights and international solidarity.
Now that the “public vote” button has been pushed, Labour doesn’t have another minute to waste. If we are to avoid a Tory Brexit, let’s talk now about the benefits of staying in Europe, and when doing so, let’s not shy away from fighting a battle of values. Vote Leave didn’t win with promises of credible trade deals but a coherent story about the kind of society they wanted to build. The radical left can defeat that vision with a better one. The campaign against Brexit should go hand-in-hand with that against the racist “hostile environment” agenda, and against inequality and deprivation which make it easier for the right to exploit xenophobic fears. Blame your boss, not your neighbour, could become our battle cry. Build homes, not fences. Close tax havens, not borders.
Securing a referendum will be a challenge; winning it decisively perhaps even more so. That was always going to be the case – but the alternative means allowing the hard right to take control of history. Ultimately, the task facing socialists is much bigger than stopping Brexit: we want to rewrite the rules of the world. So let’s have the courage to go on the offensive.
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