Labour MPs to urge Corbyn to drop second referendum demand

Opponents of a new vote in the PLP are circulating a letter that will urge Labour's negotiating team to agree a Brexit deal without insisting on a referendum.

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Labour MPs opposed to a second referendum are canvassing support from colleagues in a bid to convince Jeremy Corbyn to agree a Brexit deal with the government without a new poll attached, the New Statesman has learned.

In a sign of continuing divisions within the PLP, Stephen Kinnock and Gloria de Piero – both advocates of a Norway-style Brexit – are seeking signatures for an open letter urging the Labour leadership's negotiating team to secure a deal “that protects jobs, workers' rights and environmental and consumer standards”.

In a WhatsApp message sent to individual MPs and passed to the New Statesman, Kinnock described the letter – to be sent to Corbyn, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Keir Starmer and John McDonnell next week – as “an attempt to ensure that a negotiated deal isn't torpedoed by insisting on inserting a second referendum into the talks”. 

The draft text of the letter, reproduced in full below, outlines group's “deep reservations” about a new referendum. They include concerns that a second vote would be “divisive” but “almost certainly not...decisive”; that a referendum that did not include no-deal as an option “would not in reality, be a democratic process at all”; and that Labour's support among leave voters had fallen to 13 per cent.

It also stresses that MPs are “troubled by reports that attempts are apparently being made to convince the government that any deal that is agreed by the two negotiating teams should be made conditional on MPs supporting a second referendum”. 

“If the negotiating teams are indeed within touching distance of a deal that is based on the government side softening its 'red lines', then it is vital that our side reciprocates, in the spirit of compromise,” Kinnock and de Piero's missive reads. “Insistence on inserting a second referendum into the process would almost certainly cause the talks to collapse. We must not allow what some colleagues see as their ideal outcome (ie a second referendum) to block the emergence of a pragmatic, sensible, bridge-building Brexit deal that a clear majority of Labour MPs would support.”

The leadership will also be warned that a Conservative whip in favour of a deal including a referendum “is simply not going to happen”, and asked why Labour would strike a deal “only to campaign against it in a second referendum”. 

The letter, which is likely to muster dozens of signatures, is yet another indication that the PLP is too divided to acquiesce to any Brexit solution as a bloc - an outcome that sources close to Keir Starmer stress is the point of engaging in talks with the government. 

A substantial number of Labour MPs will not accept any deal that does not include a second referendum, which - as Jeremy Corbyn himself reported after meetings with Theresa May - Tory ministers remain resistant to. Add to that the divisions within the PLP and it is clear that the political context within which these discussions are taking place almost guarantees stalemate.

Full text of the letter circulating among Labour MPs is below.

Dear Jeremy, Rebecca, John and Keir,

First and foremost, we wish to pay tribute to the work that you are doing to steer us through the uncharted and stormy waters of Brexit. There are strongly held views across the country and within our Party, and we appreciate that you are operating in very challenging circumstances. 

We also appreciate the fact that you have consistently reached out to the PLP to ensure that you are kept fully abreast of the full spectrum of views that exist across our parliamentary group.

It is in that spirit that we are writing to you today, firstly to reiterate our deep reservations about a second referendum, and secondly to outline a particular and related worry that we have about the cross-party negotiations, along with what we hope you will take to be a constructive suggestion about how best to conduct the next phase.

Turning firstly to our deep-seated reservations about a second referendum, which are as follows:

1. A second referendum would without a shadow of a doubt be divisive, but it would almost certainly not be decisive. A narrow victory for Remain would immediately trigger calls for a further 'best-out-of-three' vote, and we are far from convinced that a victory for Leave would resolve the matter, either.

2. Our Party is firmly opposed to leaving the EU without a deal, and rightly so. But the fact is that a second referendum which did not have a No Deal option on the ballot paper would be fatally lacking in democratic legitimacy. Recent YouGov polling suggests that 25%* of the electorate wishes to leave the EU without a deal, and it is highly likely that this number will grow as levels of frustration and anger about the perceived intransigence of the EU and incompetence of the current government increase. It is therefore safe to assume that there would be a large-scale boycott of a process that did not offer the No Deal option, potentially leading to millions of spoiled ballot papers. So, the dilemma is this: whilst it would be morally wrong for us to offer No Deal as a Leave option on the ballot paper because we know that leaving the EU without a deal would destroy the jobs and livelihoods of our constituents, we also know that a supposedly democratic process that does not offer the option that is preferred by at least a quarter of the electorate would not, in reality, be a democratic process at all.

3. At a time when trust in Parliament is at an all-time low we believe that it is more important than ever that MPs from all parties work together to break the deadlock. Throwing the decision back to the public because we are incapable of compromising in the national interest would have a corrosive impact on our parliamentary democracy. We all need to step up and agree a deal that will deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum whilst protecting the British economy, guaranteeing the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and ensuring a close working relationship with our EU partners and allies on matters of national security and police & judicial co-operation. To this end we wholeheartedly support the five tests that were set out in Jeremy's xx March letter to Theresa May, which would deliver Labour's alternative Brexit plan.

4. Like you, we believe passionately that our Party is at it's best when it is campaigning and governing for the many, not the few. But recent polling indicates that support for Labour amongst Leave voters has plummeted to just 13%. One of the reasons that our 2017 manifesto attracted such broad support is because it stated unambiguously that we were committed to respecting the result of the referendum whilst protecting jobs and livelihoods. We believe that this manifesto commitment must take precedence. 

Turning now to your negotiations with the government. We have been greatly encouraged by reports that the talks have been serious, detailed and constructive, and we were also pleased to hear the Prime Minister indicate to the House in her 11 April statement that there is growing convergence around the idea of a customs union.

However, we are troubled by reports that attempts are apparently being made to convince the government that any deal that is agreed by the two negotiating teams should be made conditional on MPs supporting a second referendum. 

Our concerns on this point are as follows: 

1. If the negotiating teams are indeed within touching distance of a deal that is based on the government side softening its 'red lines', then it is vital that our side reciprocates, in the spirit of compromise. Insistence on inserting a second referendum into the process would almost certainly cause the talks to collapse. We must not allow what some colleagues see as their ideal outcome (ie a second referendum) to block the emergence of a pragmatic, sensible, bridge-building Brexit deal that a clear majority of Labour MPs would support.

2. It is unrealistic, for a whole range of reasons that don't need to be rehearsed here, to expect the Prime Minister to whip Conservative MPs to back a deal that includes a second referendum. It is simply not going to happen. We are therefore concerned that by insisting on a second referendum as a pre-condition for the deal we could in fact end up torpedoing the talks altogether. It is vital that the public is left in no doubt about the fact that Labour is participating in the negotiations in good faith, and we believe that it would be a mistake if we were to start introducing our own red lines at the very moment that the Prime Minister appears to be softening hers.

3. If there were to be a second referendum with Remain on the ballot paper it is not entirely clear to us how we would campaign in that referendum, if the Leave option is the deal that we will have just recently agreed with the government. Why would you all be working so hard to strike a deal and get it through Parliament only to campaign against it in a subsequent referendum?

4. We share colleagues' concerns about Theresa May being replaced by a hard-right member of the ERG who could potentially attempt to unravel the deal that eventually passes through Parliament. However, the way to address this issue is not by holding a divisive and dangerous second referendum. The way to tackle this is by embedding the deal into the Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill (WAIB). By yolking the deal to the WAIB we would be using primary legislation to tie the hands of this Prime Minister and of her successor within this Parliament, thus giving us the confidence to be sure that the deal that had been negotiated would be the deal that is delivered.

5. There will of course be ample opportunity for colleagues who are campaigning for a second referendum to attach a confirmatory vote amendment to the WAIB should they wish to do so.

In light of the above, we would therefore urge you to do all you can to bring the negotiations to a rapid and successful conclusion, so that we can secure a Brexit deal that protects jobs, workers' rights and environmental and consumer standards. 

Once that deal, based on the re-writing of the Political Declaration, has been voted through Parliament, then the House may well be given the opportunity to determine whether or not it should be put to a second referendum. But it is clear that any attempt to make parliamentary approval of the deal conditional on parliamentary approval of a public vote would be self-defeating because it would simply ensure that we continue to be trapped in the current stalemate which is damaging the credibility of Parliament, undermining trust in our institutions, and wrecking our country's international reputation.

The British people desperately and urgently need a Labour government, and they will get one if we can shift our politics away from Brexit and back on to the bread-and-butter issues that the public really care about: jobs, health, education, housing, and how a Labour government would work together with them, to re-unite our deeply divided country.

We therefore wish you all the very best with the next phase of the negotiations, and remain at your disposal should you wish to meet in order to discuss any or all of the matters that we have raised in this letter.

Given the substantial amount of attention that has been focused on the campaign for a second referendum in recent weeks and months, and in the interests of ensuring that we are able to have a more balanced public debate, we have shared this letter with the media."

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.