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Jeremy Corbyn’s words on Brexit today shift the nation significantly closer to another referendum

The Labour leader said: ‘If conference makes a decision I will not walk away from it and I will act accordingly’

John Rentoul
Sunday 23 September 2018 12:38 BST
Jeremy Corbyn pledges to push for a second EU referendum if Labour members vote for it

Jeremy Corbyn believes in party democracy, but doesn’t agree with what 86 per cent of Labour Party members want – namely a referendum to give the people a final say on Brexit. In an interview with the Sunday Mirror this morning, he tried to reconcile the two positions.

“What comes out of conference I will adhere to. But I’m not calling for a second referendum. I hope we will agree that the best way of resolving this is a general election,” he said. In other words, he hopes that the Labour conference will pass a resolution that might mention a second referendum, but which will call for an election as the preferred way of resolving a Brexit deadlock in parliament.

However, he realises that it would look bad if he tried to block a motion calling explicitly for a referendum. Last year, he and his allies were able to prevent a full debate on Brexit, but they won’t do that again – not least because Momentum, his supporters’ group, has decided against advising delegates to avoid the subject.

Jeremy Corbyn arrives at Labour party conference in Liverpool

This is awkward because, as Corbyn told the Sunday Mirror, “I was elected to empower the members of the party”. But it now seems that there are different ways of empowering members. He could go out in front and give them what they want, or he could reluctantly go along with it: “So if conference makes a decision I will not walk away from it and I will act accordingly.”

Mark this down as a significant victory for The Independent and others in the campaign for a Final Say. Specifically, Corbyn has been outflanked by the People’s Vote campaign, which commissioned a YouGov survey of Labour members: not only do 86 per cent support a referendum, but 93 per cent would vote to remain in the EU if that were an option.

Support for a new referendum has increased, although the underlying support for Remain is unchanged in the past year and a half (it was 92 per cent in March 2017). It is possible that, for many Labour members, Brexit is not as important as the hope of what they see as a truly socialist government. But the message from this poll is rather different from that delivered by John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, yesterday, when he said that if Labour could force a general election, it would fight it promising to negotiate a better Brexit than the Tories.

It now looks, then, as if Labour conference will make a referendum official party policy, and that Corbyn and McDonnell will, however reluctantly, have to “act accordingly”. This will probably mean that they will continue to argue for an early election as their first choice, but everyone knows that there is more chance of getting a referendum through parliament.

There are still many obstacles in the way of a referendum. I think it would only become a possibility if Theresa May fails to reach an agreement with the EU. That would, incidentally, resolve the problem of the question wording: the referendum would then be a choice between leaving the EU without a deal, or remaining.

Even then, it would require a large number of Conservative MPs to support it – enough to overcome not just the hardcore Eurosceptic five Labour MPs, but other Labour opponents of a referendum such as Caroline Flint and Gareth Snell.

Then there is the timing. If the Brexit talks collapse in, say, December or early January, there would not be time to hold a referendum, and so MPs would have to vote to have the government ask to postpone Brexit.

However, Corbyn’s reluctant bowing to Labour Party democracy today has edged the nation significantly closer to a chance to think again.

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