White smoke? Labour’s affiliated trade unions have agreed a new joint position on Brexit: any deal negotiated by a Conservative government must be subject to a referendum that puts it against Remain, with the party to back a Remain vote. They have similarly agreed that any deal negotiated by a Labour government must be subject to a referendum, with a choice between that deal and Remain, and that the party’s position on its preferred outcome will be decided once Labour’s deal has been negotiated.
The move is significant because the agreed policy commands the support of Labour’s five biggest trade unions (Unite, Unison, the GMB, CWU, Usdaw), which between them have enough votes on the floor of Labour Party Conference to mean that there is no realistic hope or prospect that Labour’s policy can survive this year’s conference in its current form. There is also no way that Labour’s current position could survive the other policymaking meeting of the party, the Clause V meeting that sets out the party’s manifesto. So the question for the Labour leadership is how best to finesse that change.
In practice, what it will mean is that Labour will, as in 2017, go into the next election with a policy that its MPs will be able to talk about in different ways in different parts of the country. Love Brexit? Don’t worry, Labour will negotiate a deal. Hate Brexit? Don’t worry, Labour will hold a second referendum.
The strategic gamble is that voters are still inclined to give Labour the benefit of the doubt for one reason or another, whether that be affection for Jeremy Corbyn, the party generally, or fear of a Boris Johnson government. They were in June 2017 after the vast majority of Labour MPs had voted to trigger Article 50 and with an explicitly pro-Brexit policy. But past performance isn’t always a guarantee of future success.