The latest poll shows that Labour members want a second referendum – shouldn’t Jeremy Corbyn listen to them?

Coming out for a Final Say referendum would transform the parliamentary arithmetic and make a referendum vote winnable – even if it’s the opposite of what the Labour leader wants

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 02 January 2019 13:35 GMT
Tony Blair predicts Labour will end up supporting a second Brexit referendum

Now it’s official: Labour Party members hate Brexit. Some 72 per cent want a Final Say referendum and 88 per cent would back Remain in such a vote, according to today’s YouGov survey for the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Project.

The question is: do Labour’s 550,000 members still love Jeremy Corbyn? That’s the other half of the neat “Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit” slogan coined by the left-wing anti-Brexit group Another Europe is Possible.

Worryingly for Corbyn, the number of members who believe he is doing well has dropped from 80 to 65 per cent since last March, while the proportion who think he is doing badly has risen from 19 to 33 per cent.

Although 16 per cent have considered quitting Labour because of its pro-Brexit stance, I doubt many have done so; the vast majority still support Corbyn. He is in tune with the party’s grassroots on every policy except Europe and the issue is going to be even more dominant over the next three months.

Of course, Corbyn must listen to Labour voters as well as party members. There is evidence that some of the one-third of Labour supporters who backed Leave in the 2016 referendum have changed their minds – particularly women. But the polls are not as conclusive as those of Labour members. So some Corbyn allies warn him that backing a Final Say referendum would prevent Labour winning a general election, by costing votes in Leave-voting seats in the north and midlands.

A roundup of Jeremy Corbyn's 2018

Corbyn says he respects the 2016 decision and means it. The long-standing Eurosceptic sees the EU as a capitalist club whose state aid rules would prevent a Labour government implementing a key objective.

His “constructive ambiguity” allowed him to appeal to both Remain and Leave voters at 2017’s election, so it’s not surprising that he’s clinging to it. Along with pro-EU Labour members, Labour’s Remain voters like the rest of his programme and so might decide they have nowhere else to go in another election.

So at one level, it is no wonder Corbyn has kept pace with Theresa May in the procrastination stakes. He would rather his dilemma over another referendum resolved itself – as it would if May somehow managed to win Commons approval for her deal. But it is likely to be defeated.

Before Christmas, Corbyn looked weak when he dithered over tabling a no-confidence motion in the government. Delay would not be an option next time. But the Democratic Unionist Party and Tory Eurosceptics have said they will support May and so Labour’s move will fail. Then the spotlight will quickly fall on the policy agreed at the party’s conference last September: if Labour fails to secure an election, it will consider all options including “a public vote”.

Despite his personal doubts, Corbyn would find it difficult to resist the huge pressure from his party to back a Final Say referendum. He was elected leader in 2015 on a pledge to increase the members’ influence. On the eve of last autumn’s conference, he promised to abide by its decision on Brexit.

It would be easier to support a referendum if he thought the Commons would reject it; he could argue that he had implemented the conference’s policy and been blocked by the wicked Tories.

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But Labour coming out for a referendum would transform the parliamentary arithmetic and make a referendum vote winnable, if it is the only way to break the Commons deadlock. While about 20 Labour MPs might vote against giving the public the Final Say, they and the DUP’s 10 MPs might be outweighed by enough Tory MPs to forge a majority.

A referendum would probably force Corbyn to back Remain, since he couldn’t back May’s deal or “no deal”. He couldn’t vote for Labour’s “better Brexit” based on a permanent customs union as it would not be on the ballot paper. No room for “constructive ambiguity” there, and another reason why he wants to avoid a referendum.

But backing Remain would put him at odds with... well, himself. In an interview last month, he said that if Labour won an election now, it would negotiate an improved Brexit deal.

This surprised and alarmed some natural allies. Perhaps Corbyn was speaking from the heart rather than the head. It will have been music to the ears of Len McCluskey, the Unite leader, who has warned that supporting a referendum could be seen as a “betrayal” of Labour Leave voters.

Corbyn should listen to his other close allies. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, is more open-minded about a referendum. Perhaps the casting vote will go to Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary. That would probably be good news for our Final Say campaign.

In a letter to constituents in 2017, Abbott said she would fight “for the right of the electorate” to have a vote on the deal but then backtracked as it wasn’t Labour’s policy then. But it is now, and Corbyn should honour it.

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