Why Labour councils like mine should back a referendum on the Brexit deal

As Labour councillors, our duty is to champion the rights of those who will be hit hardest by Brexit and economic ruin. 

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This week, the Labour group on Hounslow Council voted to support my motion calling for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal. The move by one of the largest Labour groups in London – holding 51 of the 60 seats on our local authority – paves the way for Hounslow Council to formally back the People’s Vote campaign when it meets next month. 

As delegates prepare to descend upon Liverpool for a crucial Labour party conference that cannot fail to be dominated by Brexit, a growing chorus of voices within the party, not least Sadiq Khan, the TUC, the GMB and over 100 constituency Labour parties are heaping pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to prove once again he is on the right side of history and back a referendum on the final deal, or no deal, negotiated by Theresa May. Liverpool’s Labour-controlled council itself is one of those voices, voting in July to back a People’s Vote, followed shortly after by Oxford City Council.

I’m pleased that Hounslow Council is set to join this small, but growing number of Labour councils backing a referendum on the deal. I hope many more will follow.

There will be those who say that Labour councillors should not be wasting their time lobbying on international concerns far beyond their borough boundaries. That they should be more worried about what is happening in Brentford and Bedfont than in Brussels or Berlin; that they should be working hard for their communities, protecting vital public services and sheltering vulnerable residents from the worst of government-imposed austerity. But it is for precisely those reasons that Labour councillors must campaign for a People’s Vote.

Regardless of whether we are facing no deal, a bad deal, or the dream neoliberal Tory deal in which workers’ rights and environmental regulations are slashed as quickly as the taxes, Brexit will be a disaster for our economy.

And when the economy fails, it won’t be Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg picking up the bill, nor the billionaire owners of the right-wing rags who helped them sell their lies. It will be the poorest and most vulnerable people in Britain, the working classes our party was founded to represent.

Like all Labour-run councils, Hounslow has had to make heartbreaking decisions in the face of central government slashing our budget. What the Chancellor Phillip Hammond, in a breath-taking display of doublespeak, calls “progress repairing our economy”, is in reality the immiseration of millions of people forced to turn to foodbanks, choose between heating or eating, and scraping less than a living wage on a zero hours contract. And even he admits that a messy Brexit would mean yet more cuts. These are cuts we simply cannot afford. When Jacob Rees-Mogg says it could take 50 years to see the benefits of Brexit, for once he is being completely honest. The Honourable Member for the 18th Century might have the privilege of being able to see political gain played out across such vast time spans, but for the people in some of the most deprived parts of Britain, spending half a century queuing at a food bank is not an enticing prospect.

Hounslow voted to Remain in the 2016 referendum, but I accept the majority was so slim the vote could quite easily have gone the other way. What I cannot accept is that we, as a council, will let our people be marched off a cliff by the government without calling on the prime minister to give our residents the opportunity to choose a better path. Not when those who advocated so ardently for Leave have had to row back on their pledges, from the infamous £350m a week for the NHS promise, to the attempt to sway British Asians against the EU by pretending we will open our borders to curry chefs once we’re not taking in so many Eastern Europeans.

Now we know exactly what Brexit will look like, now that we understand there can be no unicorns or rainbows, only the choice to leave the EU under the terms the government has negotiated or remain as we did before, the time is right to go back to the people. As local councillors we are the most immediate champions of our residents’ views. And as Labour councillors our duty is to champion the rights of those who will be hit hardest by Brexit and economic ruin. That is why I have asked our council to back a People’s Vote. That is why I urge Labour councillors the length and breadth of this country to do the same.

Salman Shaheen is councillor for Isleworth, chair of the Labour Group on Hounslow Council, and a freelance journalist.