Jeremy Corbyn and why the immediate call for a referendum is wrong

By Charlie Thompson

This year’s Labour Party conference, after detailed discussion, including one of the largest gatherings of pro-Jeremy Corbyn delegates ever in the meeting to deal with ‘compositing’ the resolution, voted by an overwhelmingly majority to pass a policy on the EU and Brexit. This position was explicitly endorsed by Jeremy Corbyn and all the key leaders of the Corbyn left and the Labour Party. But now The Observer, which for years has carried on a relentless and outrageous campaign against Jeremy Corbyn, is promoting an attempt to implicitly overturn that decision and to campaign among Labour members calling for the Party to adopt a policy of immediate support of a new referendum on the EU.

This campaign is, naturally, supported by the Labour right and the overlapping ‘People’s Vote’ organisation led by the Blairites, but the Guardian is also falsely trying to claim this campaign is supported by the ‘Corbyn left’: ’A ‘model motion’ stating that Labour should campaign to put the issue to the people again and then back Remain is being circulated to all constituency Labour parties by Corbyn supporters.’

Far from this being an initiative of the ‘Corbyn left’ this campaign is a move in the Labour right and The Guardian’s long running campaign against Jeremy Corbyn – a campaign which in reality, as will be seen, they consider more important than any attempt to actually stop a hard Brexit.

This new campaign is merely attempting to exploit the fact that not only do all polls show the overwhelming majority of Labour voters, Labour members, and the Corbyn left oppose Brexit but the most senior leaders of the Corbyn left – Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott – campaigned and voted for Remain and all have reaffirmed this was the correct position since. As Jeremy Corbyn put it: ‘I voted remain because I thought the best option was to remain. I haven’t changed my mind.’

The issue of taking a correct position and tactics on Brexit is of key importance – it has the potential to make possible or derail the creation of a Jeremy Corbyn led government because of the huge number of jobs it affects and its economic consequences – and significantly affects the conditions for the success of such a government.

Because of this great impact, in addition to reaffirming his support for having voted Remain, Jeremy Corbyn has refused to commit Labour to any such course of an immediate call for a referendum and therefore of overturning of Labour Party conference policy. As this website is a strong supporter of both Jeremy Corbyn, and in the present situation Remain, in line with the overwhelming majority of Labour members and voters, it is important for the left to be clear regarding this new piece of attempted confusion by the Labour right. Not only is the Labour Party conference position correct but Jeremy Corbyn’s new restatement of Labour’s position and tactics is entirely spot on – his position in his recent lengthy interview on the issue is given in detail below.

Labour Conference decision

The part of the Labour Party conference resolution on the EU regarding Labour tactics, supported by Jeremy Corbyn, which the Labour right and Guardian is campaigning to overturn, was clear. It stated: ‘Should Parliament vote down a Tory Brexit deal or the talks end in no-deal, Conference believes this would constitute a loss of confidence in the Government. In these circumstances, the best outcome for the country is an immediate General Election that can sweep the Tories from power.

‘If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote. If the Government is confident in negotiating a deal that working people, our economy and communities will benefit from they should not be afraid to put that deal to the public.’

As is quite clear, this resolution did not support Labour calling for an immediate referendum as the Labour right/Guardian backed campaign aimed at Labour Party members is calling for. On the contrary it said two things were necessary before this could be considered as an option.

  • First, that Parliament should vote down the Tory Brexit deal – which obviously means that, to do this, the terms of the Tory Brexit deal should be known.
  • Second, that following the voting down of the Tory deal, Labour should focus its campaign on attempting to force a general election.

Only after these steps were taken would anything to do with a referendum be considered (i.e. put ‘on the table’). This is the position which the Labour right/Guardian campaign is attempting to overturn – and instead for Labour to immediately call for a referendum.

The Labour conference position was correct

This position of the Labour Party conference was correct for numerous reasons of securing the return of a Labour government, of supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and of blocking a hard Brexit – and the campaign for an immediate referendum is also wrong for the same reasons.

First, a general election is clearly a superior result to a referendum – it would give the opportunity not only to defeat the Tory deal on Brexit but to remove the Tory government from office and with that to defeat all its policies. The Tories and the DUP will certainly try to do everything possible to prevent a general election, but the government will not in the end be able to prevent a Parliamentary vote and defeat of its unacceptable Brexit deal – the government are merely manoeuvring to try to put off the day of that defeat until January, or even better for as long as possible, in the hope of scaring MPs into voting for it because of the perceived rising risk of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

As Jeremy Corbyn put it in the House of Commons on 17 December: ‘The deal is unchanged and not going to change. This House must get on with the vote and move on to consider the realistic alternatives… an unacceptable deal is on the table. No amendments have been secured, renegotiations have been rebuffed, not even mere reassurances have been offered and the Prime Minister’s shoddy deal no longer even has the backing of the Cabinet. The Prime Minister ran away from putting her deal before Parliament because even her own Cabinet has doubts and she herself admits Parliament won’t back it. So we are left edging closer to the 29th March deadline without a deal and without even an agreed plan in Cabinet to get a deal. The Prime Minister has cynically run down the clock trying to manoeuvre Parliament into a choice between two unacceptable outcomes: her deal and no deal.’

The political crisis that will be produced by that Parliamentary defeat of May’s deal, at present scheduled for the week starting 14 January, will open new possibilities which cannot be known precisely in advance. Labour should in line with that, therefore, only decide its tactics once it knows the situation created by the defeat of the Tory Brexit deal. Jeremy Corbyn put this clearly in his recent interview with Robert Peston, the ITV Political Editor regarding the vote on May’s Brexit deal (people should listen to the whole interview online and not simply the short extract that was used on ITV): ‘The important thing is to concentrate, and I urge all my colleagues to do this, to concentrate on the vote… I think that signal has to be there that this deal is unacceptable…. I want this deal defeated and that is our priority. And that is what we will vote on. We will then take our tactical decisions after that.’

Therefore, when Peston asked Jeremy Corbyn to answer a series of hypothetical ‘ifs’ the reply was: ‘There are two ifs there… We’ll answer the second when we know the answer to the first.’

Furthermore, even if in the end Labour could not force a general election, the defeat of May’s Brexit proposal in Parliament would be discrediting for the Tories, with many people thinking that a general election should be called following such a humiliation. Therefore, in all cases to focus on the campaign for a general election will strengthen Labour’s position.

As Jeremy Corbyn put it regarding a general election, this was called for if: ‘The obvious thing is that if the government has lost the confidence and support of the House of Commons, and it was already defeated three times last week on very crucial votes.’ Therefore: ‘Our view is that if this government can’t negotiate a deal that is acceptable to Parliament and to the people of this country therefore it should resign and there should be a general election.’ And: ‘Our priority is for a general election. Because it is quite clear, if the government has lost its majority in parliament, as it has, because its been losing other votes as well but significantly last week this question of being found in contempt of Parliament by Parliament. That is a massive decision by the British Parliament. I think that government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons. And there ought to be an election so that the people of this country can decide who they want to be in government and who they want to negotiate on their behalf.’

Why an immediate call for a referendum is wrong

In contrast any call for a referendum, before the precise deal on offer on Brexit is known, would both be damaging to Labour, and to the chances of a Jeremy Corbyn led government, and in fact also significantly weaken the chances of winning any referendum on this issue to block a hard, or any, Brexit.

Jeremy Corbyn spelt out clearly the reasons for this in his interview with Peston. Any position Labour took on a new referendum on the EU would significantly impact Labour’s chances of forming a government because of Brexit’s huge impact on the British economy. As Jeremy Corbyn put it: ‘An awful lot of people out there are very very worried about their jobs because of the loss of supply chains if there is a disruption on March 29th.’

But Jeremy Corby clearly explained why calling for a referendum, without the full details of the real Tory deal on Brexit being known, would seriously alienate electors, including putting them off from voting Labour and also, among other things, making it harder to win any referendum against a hard Brexit. As Jeremy Corbyn put it: ‘I think a rerun of the original referendum would be met with a lot of dismay by a lot of people. They’ll say “hang on” we gave the job to parliament to do and they’re just coming back with the same question.’

A referendum is a serious thing. It would be regarded by many people as unreasonable to simply rerun the 2016 referendum. There has to be serious new information and a new question – which is why talk simply of a ‘second referendum’ is confusing and therefore wrong. As Jeremy Corbyn put it: ‘I think any other vote has to be on the basis of what’s gone on in the future’ – i.e. after the 2016 referendum.

Given this approach Jeremy Corbyn therefore was able to respond precisely to Peston’s question that: ‘You have said that if there is another referendum it must be qualitatively different to the last one. What does that mean in practice? I presume you believe that if there is another referendum Remain would have to be on the ballot paper. So, what would be the difference?’

Jeremy Corbyn replied: ‘Well there has to be an option there of what’s on offer. And we still don’t know what would be on offer. At the moment we’ve got this deal which doesn’t look like as though it is going to get through Parliament, or some other subsequent offer that comes from the EU Commission…. You’ve got to find out what the options would be at that point. ‘

In other words, any Labour support for a new referendum on the EU would have to be clearly based on new key information for the electors, the precise terms of any proposed Brexit deal, and therefore on a new question. Without this Labour would merely appear to be disregarding the 2016 referendum – creating a backlash against it. An irresponsible decision on this, calling for a new referendum without any new key information being available, would damage Labour’s electoral chances – and therefore the chances of a Jeremy Corbyn led government.

But, of course, the Labour right do not want a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn – indeed their actions, including on the referendum, show they are much more against a Jeremy Corbyn led government than they are against even a hard Brexit. That is why they are completely irresponsibly, and damagingly, attempting to overturn Labour’s Conference policy position and to push for a referendum before the exact terms May is proposing are known and before Parliament has had any chance to vote on it.

Jeremy Corbyn therefore laid out Labour’s Conference position, which he thoroughly endorsed, in his interview with Peston: ‘Our conference motion set out a series of events. We would push for a general election. That would be our absolute priority. The resolution also went on to say that all other options should be on the table including the possibility of a popular vote, a referendum, later down the line.’

Dealing with a fake ‘Corbyn left’

These facts, including Jeremy Corbyn’s unequivocal statements, make it crystal clear that:

· Those pushing for Labour to adopt a position now in favour of a new referendum on the EU are not the ‘Corbyn left’ – they are acting directly against the views of Jeremy Corbyn and the most senior figures in the Corbyn left.

· Those pushing for Labour to adopt a position now in favour of a new referendum on the EU are wrong – and the position of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party conference are correct. Those leading the campaign for Labour to adopt a position now in favour of a new referendum on the EU are in reality much more opposed to a Jeremy Corbyn led government than they are opposed to Brexit.

Such activity is against the interests of electing a Labour government, of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and against the positions in favour of Remain which were taken by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and which were supported by the overwhelming majority of Labour voters, Labour members, and the ‘Corbyn left’. No credibility, should, therefore be given to the view that such a campaign for Labour to commit itself today to a new referendum is a position of the ‘Corbyn left’ – it is a campaign articulated entirely by the Labour right and those opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Therefore if attempts are made in CLPs to move motions calling for Labour to adopt an immediate position in favour of a new referendum the response should be the following:

· Given that Labour conference has very recently passed a resolution on this issue there is no need to vote on such a new motion at all.

· If it is decided to vote on such a motion for a new referendum instead a resolution should be passed reaffirming the Labour Party conference position.

Those pushing for Labour to adopt an immediate position in favour of a new referendum on Brexit are neither supporters of Jeremy Corbyn nor even competent opponents of a hard Brexit.