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16 January 2019

After the no confidence vote, Labour must escape Theresa May’s next trap

The Prime Minister clearly believes that, by surviving a vote of no confidence, she will compel Labour to fall in behind a second referendum. 

By James Mills

The Labour leadership is close to power. In the aftermath of the Prime Minister delaying her Brexit vote last month, it was proven correct not to call for a vote of no confidence in the government. This has meant that Theresa May was not let off the hook. Instead, she was forced into the largest ever defeat for a government in the history of our democracy, with more than 100 Tory MPs voting against her.

In normal times, a Prime Minister would have resigned for less. Instead, May willed Labour into a vote of no confidence, knowing she would win one with the DUP’s support.

Jeremy Corbyn had to oblige and table the vote of no confidence at this point. But Theresa May believes she is setting a trap. The Prime Minister clearly thinks that, after she survives a vote of no confidence, Labour’s position means that the party would automatically fall in behind a second referendum. This is not necessarily the case.

There are numerous reasons why May wants Labour to adopt this position. For starters, the Prime Minister needs to have an external Labour threat to Brexit to be realised to have any hope of shoring up the largest amount of her own MPs. One of her main attack lines at PMQs has been that Labour does not respect the outcome of the referendum, and that it secretly wants to overturn the 2016 decision.

In fact, Labour fought the 2017 general election on a manifesto that stated “Labour accepts the referendum result” and that a Labour government would “seek a Brexit deal”. That platform managed to gain support from 40 per cent of the votes cast, increasing Labour’s share of the vote more than at any election since 1945.

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The honest truth is that if the polls were showing any substantive change in public support for either a second referendum or to overturn the outcome of the last one, then the two main political parties would all be fighting each other on who would implement the policy first. In fact, a recent poll from Yougov suggests only 8 per cent of the public wants a second referendum, and almost half think it would be undemocratic.

This is before we even come to the practicalities of adopting such a policy position explicitly. Because if the next election comes after we leave the EU, then the campaign moves instantly from a case of whether to “remain” within the European Union to one of rejoining it. The latter could be an even tougher campaign to win.

It would be the proverbial albatross around the neck of any general election campaign. Fighting an election on Brexit only blocks out Labour’s popular tangible policies on the domestic agenda. Instead, we would be forced to discuss largely abstract debates with the electorate on trading relationships.

Admittedly this issue would be a problem with a snap election tomorrow too, but Labour successfully closed down Brexit during the 2017 one by accepting outcome of the referendum and by advocating that a Labour government would negotiate a soft Brexit offer.

Just consider how such a campaign would be framed in the right-wing press next time round. It would be that Labour wanted to subvert a democratic vote, in order to allow the EU to force upon the UK the adoption of Schengen, the adoption of the Euro, and no return of the UK’s veto, and no rebate, just a bigger contribution. Regardless of the virtues or validity of any of those claims, the way they would be framed would be harder to rebut than a figure on a bus.

There is no reason why Labour has to adopt this position. The policy position agreed by members at our Annual Conference in September hasn’t set any specific alternative course, it only allowed a number of option to be considered.

Labour’s current position is that once “Parliament votes down a Tory Brexit deal or the talks end in no-deal” then the party will see this crucially as a “loss of confidence in the government”. Now the former of these two positions has been reached. There is no specific time period for when this objective must be met; nor any rule that it has to be obtained via any specific “vote of no confidence”.

Furthermore, the rest of the motion does not commit Labour to backing a “People’s Vote”, it just says that Labour supports “all options remaining on the table”. In contrast to what some say, this is open to the interpretation that if Labour “cannot get a general election” then “all options”, of which a second referendum is one but not the sole option, should be considered.

In addition, the composite motion from September stated that the government should “put that deal to the public”, which could be met via a general election when one comes, either heralding in a Labour administration or at the end of one.

This may sound contradictory, but Labour’s 2017 manifesto was clear about respecting the 2016 referendum outcome, and the fact that a Labour government would seek to “negotiate a Brexit deal”. Labour has a Brexit negotiating position of seeking a permanent customs union combined with a EEA-lite outcome putting workers rights at the forefront. This is what should be sought.

The end of the road may be drawing closer for Theresa May’s premiership, but only the PM or her party can ultimately make the decision on when the journey stops. All Labour can realistically do is box them in and limit their options. But it shouldn’t force itself into a weak position at this stage. Afterall, the prime objective of any Labour leadership is to fight for a Labour government – everything else is secondary.

James Mills was senior strategic adviser to Jeremy Corbyn and a policy adviser to John McDonnell. He held senior roles in both Corbyn leadership campaigns. He writes in a personal capacity. 

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