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10 October 2019

Can Labour MPs stop the rush to an early election?

Jeremy Corbyn's parliamentary party is deeply uneasy about his calls for a snap poll.

By Patrick Maguire

No second referendum before a general election: that was the gist of Jeremy Corbyn’s big speech in Northampton this morning, in which he insisted that Labour is “champing at the bit” for a snap poll once an Article 50 extension is secured later this month. It’s also the message being pushed to the Labour grassroots. “Take away No Deal, then let’s have the election,” Corbyn tells members in an email this afternoon.

Is he right? We already knew that the preference of the Labour leader and his inner circle is for an election sooner rather than later – indeed, Corbyn had to be talked out of agreeing to a poll before the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October had been averted for sure. If he had followed his instincts, the UK would be going to the polls as soon as next Monday. There has been no change in his position. 

Most Labour MPs, however, are on an altogether different page. They do not want an election until Brexit has been “resolved” one way or another via a second referendum, especially if the extension is only the short three months mandated by the Benn Act. As such, they listen to Corbyn with increasing unease. Many fear electoral wipeout, and there has been a concerted pushback from MPs to their regional whips. Others have made the case directly to sympathetic members of the shadow cabinet, chief among them John McDonnell. 

The longer Corbyn appears not to listen, the harder their position gets  and the more the appetite for a coordinated gesture of defiance grows. One opponent of an early election suggests despatching Clive Efford, the chairman of the Tribune Group, the biggest of the PLP’s ginger groups, to tell the leadership that MPs will not support any move to make one happen. 

Despite complaints that senior shadow cabinet ministers are stuck in a “London bubble” and “don’t get it” when private entreaties against an election are made as one northern MP moans of Diane Abbott there are signs that the discontent is cutting through. Interviewed on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show this morning, Emily Thornberry as good as conceded the point that a referendum before an election was the best course of action. 

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Sources involved in cross-party efforts to prevent no-deal suggest that the PLP has another ally in Nick Brown, Labour’s chief whip, who is said to be attempting to make the case for a pre-election referendum in negotiations with other parties. 

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The problem for Labour refuseniks? The caretaker administration required to make a plebiscite happen will never be formed as long as Corbyn refuses to stand aside for another candidate (which he won’t), and as long as the Liberal Democrats and former Conservative MPs maintain their opposition to Corbyn heading it (which they will). Then there is the SNP, which wants an election as soon as possible (an attempt, opponents allege, to cash out before Alex Salmond’s sexual assault trial in the new year). And if they can’t get a referendum first, the Lib Dems say they will join them in voting for one. 

With those wheels already in motion, stopping the inevitable rush to the polls will likely require a major insurrection from the PLP.