The Labour movement is not prone to making big policy shifts quickly. In the past few years, I can think of only two examples. The first, in the summer of 2015, was when the major unions suddenly backed Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader, in spite of their leaderships’ initial instincts to go for either Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper. The second, this summer, has been the growing support for a referendum on the terms of Brexit – in outspoken form from the GMB and in a more tentative style from the TUC.
As we approach Labour conference, where an unprecedented number of motions have been submitted opposing Brexit, the debate will focus on the what Tory Brexit means, both for Labour’s electoral strategy and for its prospects in government. But if the policy is adopted, we could be fighting a referendum in a matter of months. Remarkably little thought – on either side of Labour’s Brexit debate – has been put into the realities of fighting and winning another referendum.
Talk to some left activists and you will often find a lazy consensus that the outcome of a fresh referendum would be the same as the first – or even worse. For some, this instinct derives from the shock of the 2016 referendum, and the seemingly inexorable victory of outsider rightwingers in every popular vote. For others, the idea that Brexit would definitely win again fits well with a defence of Labour’s current Brexit position – it reinforces the assumption that there is no alternative to accepting the situation and spending the next few decades picking up the pieces in the most progressive way possible.
Remainers should not be complacent about beating the Tory Brexit deal in a referendum. The public is vote-weary, and a simple tabloid narrative that “we’ve already voted” and that politicians should “get on it with it” would have purchase. If, as last time, the anti-Brexit campaign is dominated by establishment politicians, business spokespeople and celebrity war criminals, our chances of leaving the EU – and creating a moment even worse than June 2016 – will be roughly 100 per cent.
But in spite of the potential pitfalls, I’m convinced that Remain would win. Here’s why.
For all that its opponents try to box it into a corner, this will not be a re-run of the first referendum. In 2016, Leave was a concept, not a policy – and its appeal was correspondingly broad. Blue-collar, working-class voters who bought into anti-immigration narratives but wanted a return to the post-war settlement found themselves on the same side as libertarian Tories wanting a free market and open borders. The Tory Brexit deal will be a solid object that can be picked apart. By definition, not everyone in the initial electoral coalition will be satisfied by it.
Much more importantly, the logic of this campaign would be very different to that of 2016. Then, David Cameron was the main face of the Remain campaign as far as most voters were concerned. In a referendum on the deal, Theresa May and the rest of the Conservative Party leadership will be obliged to campaign for their deal and for Brexit. The anti-Brexit side, if it is any good, will be able to seize the insurgent narrative. In 2016, the electorate saw a big button that said “fuck the establishment”, and pressed it. In 2018 or 2019, that button is pinned firmly to the pro-Brexit side.
The left, too, ought to be completely united. Lexit was never on the ballot paper in 2016, but in this vote, it should be even more marginal. Even die-hard Lexit supporters should swing behind a campaign to defeat an explicitly right-wing, deregulating form of Brexit. And anyone wanting a Corbyn government would have to come to terms with the fact that defeating the government in a referendum on its Brexit deal would be one of the few ways to force an early election.
There are, of course, more conventional reasons to be optimistic from an anti-Brexit perspective. By the time a referendum on the deal takes place, millions of young people who were too young to vote in 2016 will be enfranchised, and millions of older voters will have died. The polls now show a steady majority against Brexit, and that’s without either major political party campaigning against it. But the crucial point is not about statistics, but the narrative and logic of the campaign.
To an even greater extent than in 2016, the outcome of another Brexit referendum would depend on the left. Labour is the biggest grassroots political force in Europe, and has an unparalleled ability to cut through to voters with radical politics and anti-establishment narratives. The Brexit debate might rage on in Labour, but the left must prepare to lead and win if the issue is put back to the people. After all, beating the government in a referendum is one of the few certain ways to bring it down.