Labour’s recent announcements regarding Brexit appear to signal a shift towards Remain. Yet, the fact that Labour would campaign for Remain against either No Deal or a Tory deal is merely an extension of the party’s existing approach, argues Peter J. Verovšek. At the same time, Labour now appears to back a second, confirmatory referendum before leaving the EU on any terms (no deal, Tory deal or Labour deal). This might be a game changer, he concludes.
On Tuesday, July 9th Jeremy Corbyn sent an email to the members of the Labour Party seeking to clarify his position on Brexit. In his message, he made two announcements. First, he pledged that ‘Labour would campaign for Remain against either No Deal or a Tory deal that does not protect the economy and jobs’. Second, he also vowed that if he took office and was able to renegotiate the existing Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration regarding the future relationship with the EU, his government would ‘have the confidence to put their deal…back to the people in a public vote’.
At first glance, these announcements seem to put an end to three years of hemming and hawing on Corbyn’s part, starting with his conspicuous silence during the referendum campaign and the strategic ambiguity he has practised since Leave’s narrow victory on 23 June 2016. However, upon closer examination, the first point in Corbyn’s email is merely a continuation of Labour’s established policy of sitting firmly on the fence on the Brexit issue. By contrast, insofar as his second announcement signals a shift towards explicit support for a second referendum or people’s vote, this email may be more important than it initially appears.
Although Corbyn’s first announcement appears to signal a shift towards Remain, this supposed change of policy is merely an extension of Labour’s existing approach. It has been clear for some time that the Labour Party would oppose Theresa May’s withdrawal bill, as well as any agreement negotiated a Tory Prime Minister. Given that Brexit has become such a millstone around the neck of the Conservative Party, the leader of the opposition would be foolish to assist them in taking this issue off of the table. This is why the cross-party talks earlier this year failed (and were probably doomed from the start).
Labour’s opposition to a no deal Brexit is also hardly surprising and has been clear for some time. Despite the assurances of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg that leaving the EU without a deal would be ‘no problem’ and would certainly be better than agreeing to ‘a bad deal’, these positions are disingenuous, to say the least. By the estimates of the OECD, Brexit has already had effects equivalent to a natural disaster such as the earthquake that hit Japan in 2011 and it hasn’t even happened yet.
Navigating a no deal Brexit without devastating consequences to the UK’s supplies of food and medicine – as well as a wide array of other issues – will depend heavily on the goodwill of the EU. While the EU’s self-image as a humanitarian organisation likely means that it will do its best to fudge any rules that will cause loss of life in the UK, there is a certain irony to depending on the goodwill of the EU given some of the things Brexiteers have said about the organisation (such as Jeremy Hunt’s comparison of the EU to a gulag). Additionally, leaving without a deal will not resolve any of the problems that bother Brexiteers within the existing Withdrawal Agreement – most notably the Irish backstop and the exit payments – as these issues will undoubtedly return as soon as the UK comes back to the bargaining table to negotiate a permanent trade agreement with the EU after a no deal Brexit. No deal solves nothing and is not a realistic option for any serious politician or party.
Does this mean that Labour is now a Remain party? Hardly. Despite the drubbing they received in the recent elections to the EU parliament when many Labour voters defected to support the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, Corbyn has admitted that Labour could still contest the next general election as a pro-Brexit party.
This brings us to the second of his two announcements. While the first contains nothing new and continues Labour’s policy of fence-sitting, the second does seem to clarify that Labour now backs a second, confirmatory referendum before leaving the EU on any terms (no deal, Tory deal or Labour deal). Despite its consistent pledges to respect the democratic outcome of the Brexit referendum, Corbyn’s Labour appears ready to support calls for a people’s vote. The fact that this change has been achieved with the support of the trade unions is crucial, especially given the longstanding scepticism of this movement towards the Common Market.
How sincere this support is will be seen in the coming months, when Labour will undoubtedly have the opportunity to whip votes in Parliament in support of a second referendum. Whether it will do so will reveal the true significance of Corbyn’s email. Electorally speaking, only time will tell whether this move will stop Labour’s haemorrhaging of its supporters of Remain to the Liberal Democrats without causing a new exodus of Leavers. However, despite the frequent rhetoric regarding the necessity of respecting the outcome of the 2016 vote, giving the people a chance to vote on a concrete deal to leave the EU is the most democratic way of resolving the issue of Britain’s membership of the EU.
The people change their minds all the time; this is why democracies hold periodic elections. It is also why holding a second referendum in order to give the people a choice between a concrete plan to leave the EU – not a promise based on unrealistic assumptions or flat-out lies – is hardly undemocratic. If anything, the right to change one’s mind is the core of sovereignty and self-rule. Insofar as Corbyn’s announcement helps to bring about a second referendum that puts leaving the EU – whether it comes through a Tory deal, a Labour agreement or no deal – back to the people for a vote, it could turn out to be more important than it appears at first glance.
Dr Peter J. Verovšek is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Politics/International Relations at the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield.