For Labour to win an election, Jeremy Corbyn must finally champion Remain

Faced with the threat of defeat to Boris Johnson's no-deal Conservatives, the Labour leader has no excuse left for sitting on the fence. 

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As the dust settles after two weeks of parliamentary guerilla warfare against Boris Johnson’s coup, one thing has become clear: Labour remains deeply divided over how to solve the substantive issue of Brexit.

In the past 24 hours, three positions have emerged. Tom Watson, echoing the position of many on Labour’s centre left, is pushing for a second referendum in advance of an early general election. This, I am told, is also the position favoured by Philip Hammond, Dominic Grieve and David Gauke among the Tory rebels.

At the other end of the scale, at a meeting between Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and TULO — the trade union-Labour co-ordinating group — in Brighton, Unite’s Len McCluskey pushed for the party to commit to a three to six month-long attempt to negotiate its own Brexit deal following a Labour election victory. McCluskey is said to have demanded that shadow cabinet members stop declaring their support for Remain in a second referendum, calling it a breach of discipline.

A third position was outlined by McDonnell on The Andrew Marr Show. It goes like this: during an early election, Labour’s manifesto commits to a second referendum to be held in spring 2020. The ballot paper would feature Remain versus, in essence, Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Labour would neither claim political ownership of the deal, nor campaign for it.

Faced with these divergent options, clearly something has to give. McCluskey's reported position makes no electoral sense: it would doom Labour to fighting a general election as a pro-Brexit party, a position the majority of candidates and activists could not stomach. The election would be a rerun of the European parliament debacle in May.

Watson’s position is equally a non-starter. With the Labour right transparently aligning themselves with pro-deal Tories, the motivation is obvious: to avoid a Corbyn government. Nobody on the left of Labour is going to wear it. So that leaves the position advocated by McDonnell — and here's why I think it is the only game in town.

If Johnson fails to secure a deal by 18 October we will enter a rapid constitutional meltdown. MPs will be obliged to force an extension by deposing Johnson and installing a caretaker government. Once an extension has been agreed, there will be a snap election in which Labour’s primary offer on Brexit is a second referendum: May's deal versus Remain.

The party’s frontbench would declare its commitment to support Remain in the referendum, leaving individual MPs and members to vote for May’s deal should they wish. Brexit would be over by April 2020, leaving the no-deal insurrectionaries to rail powerlessly against the legitimate result of a second referendum.

There are many advantages: it would allow Leave supporters to back a credible Brexit option without risking no deal. It would rule out the possibility of Labour advocating “its own” bespoke deal, something that is clearly impossible and, for the majority of members, undesirable. It would deliver what the People’s Vote campaign always wanted: a second referendum. On the doorstep it would allow Labour activists to say: “we’d rather stay in Europe but you decide — we’re sick of the whole thing too”. 

Crucially, it would meet the criteria laid down by the People’s Vote campaign — which will spend up to a million pounds on tactical voting recommendations based on whether candidates support a second referendum, not Remain. 

With most members of the shadow cabinet backing Remain, it would call the bluff of those who have resisted the party’s swing towards a second referendum. Any Labour MP or trade union leader who fancies campaigning alongside Hammond, Gauke and co. for May’s deal would be welcome to do so and must suffer the reputational consequences among the movement.

To people who say “it’s too complicated, why not just support Remain?” – here’s the answer. The only democratic way to end this crisis is a second referendum. And Labour is delivering that. Indeed, following the Lib Dems’ sudden support for revoking Article 50, it is arguable that the only parties deserving of tactical backing by the People Vote’s campaign would be Labour, the nationalists and the Greens. 

As with David Cameron’s administration, a Labour-led cabinet might not collectively campaign for Remain. But the party, via its constituent organisations, could affiliate to the official Remain campaign or form its own rival one.

This, for me, is the only way Labour can give itself a chance in the coming election. Because Johnson’s coup has changed the game. We are no longer in a battle between Leave and Remain. The battle is to stop Britain becoming a colony of Trump’s America. If Remain loses the referendum at least a hard Brexit, with a Canada-style free trade agreement, is avoided. 

The labour movement does not need the party conference to be a showdown between the pro-Remain and union bureaucrats inspired by the Morning Star. It needs to be a shop window for the party’s offer on social justice and democracy. I believe the above compromise could be agreed and composited before a single pint of Guinness is poured among the delegates arriving in Brighton.

For it to work, one important person has to buy it, and that is Jeremy Corbyn. He is now almost alone among the shadow cabinet’s big hitters in failing to declare that he would personally vote Remain in a second vote. That can't go on.

Once it’s clear there will be no “jobs-first Brexit”, no unicorn deal, there is no further excuse for Corbyn sitting on the fence. Labour members will want to know where their leader would stand in a second referendum — and the issue is suddenly non-theoretical.

There are risks to this strategy — but the bigger risk now lies in entering an election without it. At the TUC conference, as demonstrated, it is very easy to produce platitudes. At a conference of Labour members, still fuming over the electoral fiasco in May, the frustrations will be impossible to manage unless a compromise is reached.

Labour’s switch to a second referendum on any deal, was one of the least well-explained U-turns in political history. Even now the party underplays the political advantage it brings. So let's spell it out. From Calder Valley to Hastings, a clear commitment to a referendum, combined with a rejection of the Brexit deal on offer, could magnetise those who’ve drifted to the Greens and Lib Dems back towards Labour. 

If I could persuade the entire labour movement to enter the coming election pledged to Remain, I would do so. But it's not going to happen. So I suggest we settle for this: if the second referendum is in the manifesto, every Labour MP has to vote for the enabling legislation. That's the only Brexit whip Corbyn ever need impose.

Meanwhile, the internationalist and anti-bureaucratic forces inside Labour need to become much better organised. We backed Corbyn for the democratisation of the movement — not to achieve left politics through the same machine.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.