One conclusion Labour should draw from the failed attempt to oust Tom Watson as deputy leader is that it would be barmy to fight an election now.
Jeremy Corbyn should instead push for a referendum on Brexit – something, ironically, Watson has advocated.
Credit where it’s due so far: the Labour leader has already helped blocked to Boris Johnson’s path to a no-deal Brexit. Corbyn threw the party’s weight behind a law forcing the prime minister to ask the EU to delay Brexit, and then stopped Johnson wriggling out of that law by holding an early election in mid-October.
Corbyn mustn’t let Johnson get the upper hand. But that’s precisely what will happen if the Labour leader carries on saying there should be an election as soon as the prime minister asks the EU for extra time.
As Labour activists gather in Brighton for the party’s conference, at the front of many minds will be the vicious infighting over Watson and the party’s Brexit policy.
Simply put, the party isn’t in a fit state to fight a snap election. The way to avoid blood-letting is to have a people’s vote first. In that scenario, by the time we come to a general election, the Brexit wounds might have healed and the party’s policy on leaving the EU would be irrelevant.
A referendum is the best way of resolving the Brexit crisis. It gives the people a straight choice over what they want. In an election afterwards, the people would have a straight choice on who should run the country. If the election is before the referendum, the two issues will be muddled up.
But it’s not just the national interest that points to holding a people’s vote before an election. Doing things that way round is so much in Labour’s own interests too.
The party would be united going into the Final Say referendum, as pretty much everybody from Corbyn down agrees that Labour should campaign against any Tory form of Brexit. So why not join forces with other opposition parties and force through such a referendum as soon as the prime minister has asked the EU to delay Brexit? Following Johnson’s decision to kick more than 20 MPs out of the Tory party, there’s probably now a majority in parliament in favour of a people’s vote.
Corbyn could then campaign to his heart’s content on things he really cares about – such as the NHS, reducing inequality and nationalising utilities – in a bid to gain leadership of the country.
By contrast, if Corbyn pushes for a snap election now, his party will be divided. If enough Labour MPs rebel against the leader, there might not even be an election. After all, two-thirds of all MPs have to agree.
But let’s say Corbyn teams up with Johnson to get the numbers to hold an election. The different factions of the Labour Party would then be fighting like ferrets in a sack.
Corbyn’s own position is that he would negotiate his own deal with the EU and then put it to a people’s vote. He is implying he might be neutral in such a referendum. By contrast, most of his MPs and activists want to campaign to stay in the EU.
Does the Labour leader really think this complicated policy is a winner once it is subjected to the intense scrutiny of an election campaign? Conceivably, Labour might hang onto some Leave voters who would otherwise defect to the Tories or the Brexit Party. But it would lose Remain voters to the Lib Dems, especially now Jo Swinson has a policy to cancel Brexit if she wins an election.
Corbyn might think that Johnson wouldn’t fare well in such an election. Johnson said he would prefer to be “dead in a ditch” than ask the EU for extra time, and if he goes back on that claim, Nigel Farage will savage him for betraying Brexit. But that will be little consolation for Labour if it loses out because voters switch to the Lib Dems.
Even before the latest bout of infighting, it was hard to see why Corbyn was so enthusiastic about an election. Labour is neck and neck with the Lib Dems and around 10 percentage points behind the Tories, according to YouGov and Ipsos Mori. These sorts of numbers might give Johnson a victory even with only a third of the total vote.
Corbyn was smart not to give the prime minister an early election when Johnson was desperate a few weeks ago. The Labour leader should act in the same way if Johnson comes pleading for an election again next month. Instead of falling into a trap that would tear apart his party and the country, he should unite Labour behind a policy of defeating a Tory Brexit in a Final Say referendum.
Hugo Dixon is chair of InFacts and deputy chair of the People’s Vote campaign
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