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23 September 2018

No, Labour has not shifted its position on a second Brexit referendum

Jeremy Corbyn's promise to back a “People's Vote” if the party conference votes for one doesn't mean it will be given the chance to do so. 

By Patrick Maguire

Is Labour about to back a second Brexit referendum? That’s the conclusion some have drawn from today’s papers.

Jeremy Corbyn tells the Sunday Mirror that he will “adhere to” any conference vote in favour of a referendum on the Brexit deal, while Tom Watson uses an Observer interview to make the same point: that Labour must “respect” the views of its members if they vote for one.

New polling from YouGov also reveals that 86 per cent of Labour members favour a so-called People’s Vote, and conference will vote on a Brexit motion this week. But it doesn’t follow that Corbyn and Watson have signalled a shift in party policy, despite the welcome they have received from campaigners for a new referendum.

There are several reasons why. The first is that conference is unlikely to get the chance to vote “for a second referendum” in the way that Corbyn and Watson describe. A hundred and fifty one motions on Brexit, with many calling for a new plebiscite, were submitted to conference by Constituency Labour Parties. Members will instead vote on one or more composite motions drawn up by the party.

As was the case when Unite faced a similar choice between realpolitik and grassroots sentiment in July, the likelihood is that members will be offered a fudge that says it is keeping the option of a second referendum on the table. That would not represent a shift from Labour’s current position: that it would prefer the issue to be resolved by a general election and is not calling for a second referendum, but will not categorically rule the latter out.

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Far from even shifting tone, Corbyn restated that argument in his Sunday Mirror interview. “What comes out of conference I will adhere to,” he said. “But I’m not calling for a second referendum. I hope we will agree that the best way of resolving this is a general election.

“But I was elected to empower the members of the party. So if conference makes a decision I will not walk away from it and I will act accordingly.”

Those words are neither supportive of a second referendum in its own right, nor are they anything new. That they came just hours after John McDonnell told the Today programme that people want Brexit “sorted” and that Labour is “accepting that original vote” underlines that they are nothing but triangulation.

It would be odd if Corbyn did anything but, as he himself alludes to when he says he was “elected to empower the members of the party”. His words are a mark of consistency more than anything else. Promotion of internal party democracy is central to the Corbyn project: it is entirely logical that the leader would accept the demands of conference, its notionally sovereign body, even if it were politically unpalatable.

But that he feels comfortable making that promise underlines something else about his political project, that it is now so entrenched and dominant within the party’s internal structures that he can be sure that, in this case, respecting party democracy will not mean a violation of his political will. Expect fudge.