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19 December 2018

Len McCluskey: a second Brexit referendum risks tearing our society apart

For some Labour pro-Europeans, no Brexit and no Corbyn government is a win-win.

By Len McCluskey

A second referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union is now clearly a possibility, as the Tory shambles risks pushing Britain towards the brink of a disastrous no-deal exit from the European Union – something few of those who voted to leave in 2016 can really have desired.

But it cannot be the first choice or the preferred option for Labour Party supporters.  Better by far that parliament can agree a deal, acceptable to the European Union, which can command a broad base of support both amongst the 52 per cent who voted Leave and those in the 48 per cent who accept that democratic verdict.

Labour has outlined the broad elements of such a deal – a permanent customs union, guarantees on workers’ rights and environmental protections, close alignment with the single market and a lasting solution to the Irish border question.

I can see nothing in those proposals that would cause a difficulty for EU negotiators, and I believe most MPs could be won to support them as, at the very least, a pragmatic resolution to what is fast becoming a national agony.

All that is needed is a determination to push that alternative to the top of the political agenda, moving the debate on from the unappetising choices of Theresa May’s moribund deal, no deal at all, or a campaign to reverse the 2016 decision to leave.

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I acknowledge that it is not easy for the party leadership to embrace this option, which I believe to be probably the only and certainly the best way forward. The problem in a nutshell is that the majority of the party membership remains opposed to Brexit, while the majority of working-class communities voted strongly in favour.

Of course, the reality is more nuanced.   There are those on the left of the party holding to the values of Tony Benn, who opposed the European Union on democratic, not nationalistic, grounds.  On the other hand many workers, including Unite members whose jobs depend on single market access, oppose Brexit.

To build the progressive future the country urgently needs, Labour must retain both constituencies of support. Bluntly, there is no route to a parliamentary majority without London, nor without the Midlands and the North, and of course Scotland.

There could be nothing better designed to blow that alliance apart than a second referendum, as things stand. We are told it would be implausible to have a referendum without an option to support the status quo of EU membership, since that view is held by much of the country.  Equally, it is democratically implausible to try to set aside a decision taken by a clear majority just two years ago.

This is a particular challenge for the labour movement.  In 2016 we were uncertain as to working-class opinion on the issue of the EU.  We have no such excuse now.  And the idea that we spend months visiting Mansfield and Middlesbrough telling the people there that they made a stupid mistake is a deeply unappealing one.

They voted above all against an out-of-touch elite whose neoliberal policies had taken from them much of what they once had and left them with nothing in its place.  Their world is no different today to what it was in 2016, a fact no amount of metropolitan moralising can get over.

Many of those arguing for a second referendum have no interest in a Labour victory at the next general election. That is obviously so with regard to the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish National Party – but I suspect it may also be the case for some of the Labour advocates of this course.

For a few of them, endangering the prospects of a Corbyn government would not only be a price worth paying for Britain staying in the EU, it would be a win-win.

This is not to discount those genuine Labour supporters who desperately want another chance to stay in the EU. But, we must all be wary of siren voices.

That is why the premature demand for Labour to table a “no confidence” motion in the government is so self-serving.  Theresa May’s team do not deserve anyone’s confidence for sure, but there was no sign that such a motion would go through the House.  It was merely a box that some Remainers, deliberately misreading Labour’s conference decision, wished to tick on their way to a further referendum.

The vast majority of the movement does not wish to sacrifice its hopes to these ambitions.  Nor does it need to.  The basis for our unity is surely Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto, committing our Party to respecting the outcome of the referendum, but framing that democratic obligation in the context of a sweeping programme of economic and social change.

Of course, if the government opts for a referendum as the way out of the crisis of its own making, Labour will have to take a position.  If “remain” is an option under those circumstances, that is where Unite’s vote will most likely be.

But in my view it will be no use to revert to the “remain and reform” mantra of 2016, sensible though that position was at the time.

Nearly all the key states of the European Union are under right-wing governments, and in the last few years Brussels has shown little capacity for, and even less interest in, any sort of reform that would make the EU more progressive.  Rather, it has doubled-down on austerity and neoliberalism.  Most of Labour’s potential allies on the continent are presently polling at historic lows, victims of their own embrace of the centrist agenda. 

The idea that even a Corbyn government could radically change Europe’s direction at present is fanciful.  Well-intentioned as Euro-reformers may be, their sloganising is divorced from reality and the needs of the moment, and it will not overcome the potential divisions in Labour’s support.

No, the “reform” working people need starts at home, along the lines of Labour’s manifesto.  Investment in the regions and nations beyond London and the south-east, the rebuilding of manufacturing, pushing the market out of energy, water, the railways and Royal Mail; cracking the housing crisis; restoring the NHS to health and lifting the debt burden from a generation of students.

It also includes labour market reform, and I wish that the party was more forthright in publicly championing its policies of clamping down on the abuses which have caused so much dislocation and distress in working class communities.  The government has said nothing to deal with one of the main reasons people voted leave.

The principle is simple – ensure that everyone is paid the rate for the job; that union agreements prevail, and an end is put to the scandal of agency labour being imported by unscrupulous companies simply because it is cheaper than hiring local labour.  Migrant workers are not to blame for this, but the system that allows greedy bosses to abuse all workers. May is silent on this.

The working-class movement will always fight against racism – and exploitation too.  And any trade unionist will know that our strength always needs underpinning by control of the labour supply – a deregulated free market for labour power works no better than it does in any other part of life.

For all these reasons, we need to handle the Brexit crisis, including the parliamentary tactics, with one thing in mind above all – the need to secure a Labour government.

To have a Tory government and still be in the EU will change nothing.  And it is clear that a Tory government outside the EU will simply make many things worse.

It is Labour under Jeremy Corbyn that can actually start to bring the country together – or at least that majority which is anxious about the future, has seen their incomes stagnate and their prospects darken under a decade of austerity.  To get the chance it needs to offer the positive resolution to the Brexit chaos which the government cannot.

And that is not likely to be through a second referendum which risks tearing our society further apart, as the ignored majority believe their views have been scorned once again.  Now is the time for a Labour alternative on Brexit, as promised in that manifesto last year.

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