Corbyn refuses to back a second referendum – but not because he’s a closet Brexiteer

The Labour leader may be a longstanding Eurosceptic, but that is not the reason he engineered today’s fudge at the party’s national executive committee meeting

John Rentoul
Chief political commentator
Wednesday 01 May 2019 08:10
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Brexit protesters stood in front of Jeremy Corbyn's car as he left the NEC meeting

Many Remainers accuse Jeremy Corbyn of resisting a clear promise of a new referendum because he is trying to get Britain out of the EU. I don’t think this is right. If the only thing the Labour leader cared about was leaving the EU, it would have happened by now.

Corbyn may be a longstanding Eurosceptic, but that is not the reason he engineered today’s fudge at Labour’s national executive committee meeting. I suspect that he cares much more about getting to No 10, and that Seumas Milne, his director of strategy, thinks that emphatic support for another referendum would make it harder for Labour to get into government.

Corbyn backed Remain in the 2016 referendum, after all, because it was in his political interest to do so. He was unenthusiastic about it, just as he is unenthusiastic about a second referendum now – because he is trying to hold together a coalition of Remain and Leave voters.

In that respect, today’s NEC decision was admirably clear. “Labour is the only party which represents both people who supported Leave and Remain,” said a party spokesperson. In other words, the party wants to keep the votes of Leave supporters and Tom Watson, the deputy leader, has lost the argument.

We can deduce from all this that Milne calculates a definite promise of a new referendum would lose the party more Leave voters than it would gain Remain voters from Change UK, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

I suspect this judgement is right. If Labour became explicitly the Remain party, the gains from the other Remain parties would be small. After all, how many voters are holding back from voting Labour because it is not pro-EU enough – and if they feel that way, wouldn’t they be happier voting for a truly pro-EU party anyway?

On the other hand, an explicit policy of trying to cancel Brexit could easily put off voters who took the party at its word when it said it respected the result of the referendum, and who imagine that it is sincere in its negotiations to agree a “jobs-first Brexit” deal with the government.

That is why I think Milne and Corbyn resisted the explicit promise of another referendum on any Brexit deal. They think today’s fudge will maximise the Labour vote in the local elections on Thursday and in the European elections in three weeks’ time.

Hence the careful choice of words issued by the party, saying the NEC had agreed the manifesto for the European elections: “To support Labour’s alternative plan...” without mentioning that it is a plan for Brexit, that is, for leaving the EU; “... and if we can’t get the necessary changes to the government’s deal, or a general election, to back the option of a public vote.”

To “back the option”? To support something being a possibility? That means very little, so the spokesperson was quite right to say it is “fully in line with Labour’s existing policy”.

It was the first line of the spokesperson’s statement that gave the game away: “We are working to bring the country together after the chaos and crisis created by the Tories.”

To translate that into normal English: we hope that both Leavers and Remainers will continue to vote for us, while the Conservative Party goes into meltdown for its failure to deliver Brexit.

So far, the Milne-Corbyn strategy seems to be working fine.

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