Labour for a second referendum: Why, and why now?

Stefanie Lehmann

After what seems like the biggest hedging of bets in the history of British politics, Labour this week finally performed their volte-face and came out, screeching and grinding, in support of a second referendum.

It has to be asked whether this eleventh-hour announcement would have helped the Party more had it been made several months – or even years – ago.

Far from offering clarity, the last-minute move only poses more questions. Has Labour adopted this position because the leadership genuinely thought a no-deal Brexit is now dangerously likely – as suggested by its press statement to the lobby? Or – given that sources in Labour say that Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has been firmly expecting Article 50 to be extended – was this more of a last-minute concession to avoid more defections? Or indeed – in the battle of consciences between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the notably more Eurosceptic Leader’s Office, did the former finally win out?

These questions are worth considering alongside what this latest positioning has achieved for Labour – in terms of competence, consistency, and conscience.

Competence

While the story made the splash in most major papers, the circuitous way in which it was announced by Labour – buried at the end of a lengthy press statement, which also offered several other alternative options; and with Shadow Cabinet broadcast interviews immediately beset by contradictions – did not convey confidence in the Party’s new position. The Party did not even commit to putting forward an amendment backing a second vote itself – only to “putting forward or supporting” one; and sources close to Corbyn almost immediately contradicted what Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry was saying on the airwaves about what the option on the ballot paper would be.

The wider public likely won’t receive this latest development well. There is widespread public opposition to a second referendum, even among Remainers. This is notably on the grounds of democracy; but with many also saying it is not clear what a second vote would achieve. For Labour particularly, the challenge has long been overcoming the divide between MPs representing Leave-voting, post-industrialist Northern seats and metropolitan – in particular London – views, which so clearly favour Remain.

And while Labour claims its position has been consistent throughout – in line with Conference policy; setting out its six tests for Theresa May’s deal, its preference for a General Election and then other means of avoiding a hard or no-deal Brexit, including a second referendum – this is not how it has translated to the wider public, who are hearing news reports of Labour’s new position framed in terms like “surprise announcement” and “finally”. To the public, then, this may well seem like yet another clumsy move by a Party that has sought to please both sides of an immensely polarised debate for too long.

Consistency

It is almost impossible given Parliamentary arithmetic and the deep divisions across the nation – to find a party or indeed individual in Westminster politics who has consistently stayed true to a clearly set out position on Brexit.

The Lib Dems can make this claim – but they are polling at 6% this week according to YouGov, showing that consistency is futile if your position remains deeply unpopular. UKIP is basically extinct, but largely because some of its causes have been much more ably taken up by the ERG, exerting unprecedented pressure on the Conservative centre ground – so can claim significant success.

Sadiq Khan, London’s Labour Mayor, of course declared his support for a second referendum months ago – but his electorate is a unique one, giving him an unequivocal mandate for campaigning to Remain in the same way that Nicola Sturgeon can claim one.

Labour has been accused of prevaricating on Brexit and, largely as a result of that, lost eight MPs last week; on the other side of the aisle, the Prime Minister has lost several crucial votes in historic proportions and undergone several tests of confidence in her leadership. The issue therefore seems to lie with the two major parties, whose electorates are divided and simply too large to accommodate within a simple, consistent position on what may be the biggest public policy challenge of our time. It is also worth noting that a People’s Vote motion would currently still fail in the Commons. While there is cross-party support for avoiding a no-deal Brexit, opinions are far more split on the other extreme – re-running the Referendum.
Brexit does not invite consistency, and Labour backing a second referendum much earlier may well have led to faultlines emerging within the PLP much sooner, and a much bigger exodus from the Party as a result.

So have Labour played a cannier game all along? By consistently leaving the second referendum option on the table, were they always intending to take it up when reaching maximum pressure?

Conscience

While that is a possible explanation, more likely is that Labour’s current position is a result of the desire to be in power winning the intense ideological battles within the Leader’s Office and Shadow Cabinet – with a strong influence by the defection of a sizeable chunk of Labour’s centre ground last week.

Labour has increasingly sought to present itself as a government-in-waiting, and may now have realised that the moment for wishfully asking for a General Election has passed, and a firmer position on Brexit is needed. Its press statement from Monday highlights Labour’s meetings with EU officials and pitches its alternative Brexit plan as “serious and credible”.

Pushed by the creation of The Independent Group further towards the centre ground, then, the leadership clearly felt that this was the moment in which backing a second referendum was both most appropriate and least damaging. It remains to be seen whether the Party remains consistent enough in this new position for it to be believed that this was the plan all along.

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