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1 July 2018

The campaign for a second Brexit referendum is fatally flawed but it could still hurt Labour

Public divisions between Jeremy Corbyn, party members and the wider labour movement on the EU are growing. The row looks set to dominate this year's Labour conference. 

By Patrick Maguire

The majority of Labour’s members are often assumed to have only one political quality: unthinking loyalty to everything the party leadership does. That assumption is lazy at the best of times, and is especially so on Brexit. 

There is undoubtedly a significant gap between Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Brexit and the softer one most of the Labour membership, and the trade unions, would prefer. In January, polling showed that 87 per cent would like to see the UK remain in the single market, and 78 per cent want a referendum on the final deal. The party leadership is offering neither, as Corbyn reiterated on Sky News this morning. 

That the public faces of the campaign for a soft Brexit and second referendum is so visibly not of the Corbynite left – Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry, Vince Cable, et al – helps obscure the gulf, as does the fact that it is not unfairly assumed to be a proxy war for Corbyn’s internal opponents. 

But the gap nonetheless exists. Today’s papers throw it into even sharper relief. A poll of Unite members for the People’s Vote campaign and Observer finds that more than three to one – 57 per cent to 18 per cent – believe quitting the single market would be bad for jobs, with the same number supporting a second referendum. Similarly, the FT reports that a Momentum petition calling for a new poll has passed 2,600 signatures, not far shy of the 4,000 needed to trigger an all-membership vote.

These headlines in particular have to be taken with health warnings. Len McCluskey has rejected the suggestion that the polling offers an authoritative picture of what his members think and instead argues that only the result of the debate on Brexit due at the union’s conference this week can do so. It remains to be seen how Momentum members would vote, if they did. And on the single market, the leadership and Keir Starmer reject the terms of the question: they argue that the single market is less a club that can be quit than a rulebook of standards which can be freely adhered to or not. 

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They could nonetheless presage a sticky summer for Labour. Brexit, and the gulf between the leadership and grassroots, dominated last year’s party conference. It was only Momentum’s intervention that stopped votes on grassroots motions that proposed staying in the single market and maintaining EU free movement of people, and saved Corbyn and Starmer the embarrasment of having their official line rejected.

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Some in Labour are now speculating the campaign for a second referendum could similarly dominate this year’s conference. Noises from the grassroots such as today’s give them good reason to think so, as does the wider political context.

The failure of Tory rebels to deliver MPs a meaningful vote on the final deal has given impetus to the campaign at the grassroots. Lots of constituency Labour parties are largely Europhile, and activists from 62 of them have already promised to table a motion demanding a second referendum. 

As my colleague Stephen says in his column this week, it’s a given that the leadership won’t acquiesce (no matter how often people contrive to notice that Corbyn is “studiously avoiding” ruling out a second referendum categorically). If voted on at conference, the likelihood is that Corbyn’s distance from his members on Brexit will be much harder to hide. If chicanery from his allies prevents a potentially embarrassing vote on Brexit for the second year in a row, then attention will be drawn to the gap anyway.

The campaign has many shortcomings. There is no majority in the parliamentary Labour party, nor the Commons, for a second referendum, and its advocates are making the same mistake as David Cameron: what happens if they lose? While the 2016 referendum left room for ambiguity on the shape of the Brexit deal, there would be no doubt as to what an endorsement of the government’s deal meant. There is no appetite to confront them either. But despite themselves, they will still cause headaches for Labour.