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CONSIDER for a moment a key basis upon which Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have staked their legitimacy — Corbyn’s decades of Campaign for Labour Party Democracy membership and adopting political positions that are consistently more representative of the membership and much of the base of Labour than many in the PLP and successive Labour leaders.
The Labour right, using the People’s Vote campaign, now turn this to their advantage — trumpeting that the man who was the embodiment of the membership is now finally out of touch with the rank and file, who they describe as being overwhelmingly in favour of a second referendum. This is the one area where there is enough ambiguity in the opinions of the membership to furnish enough material to make a framing of “the membership versus Corbyn” remotely plausible.
The brazen dishonesty of this project has been rendered explicit by recent parliamentary events that demonstrate, in practice, the inability to find a majority for a second referendum in the House of Commons.
Even Yvette Cooper’s amendment to extend Article 50 recently, despite the support of the front bench, did not pass, thanks to the opposition of 14 Labour rebels, helping negate the seventeen Tory rebels who voted for it. Even to achieve their desired goal, advocates of a People’s Vote would have to concentrate on breaking the DUP’s support for the government, the stranglehold of Jacob Rees Mogg’s European Research Group (ERG) and force Tory Remainers to actually vote for such measures regardless of their fear of a Corbyn government. Instead, what was the reason given by Sarah Wolloston and Luciana Berger’s tabled amendment for a People’s Vote? That they would have had the numbers had Jeremy Corbyn come out behind it.
This is coming from people who in the recent past argued that Corbyn’s leadership was illegitimate because he could not command a majority in his own party, and now he is alleged to have supreme power over the voting direction of all his MPs, despite members of his own shadow cabinet reportedly threatening to resign were Labour to take a position in favour of a second referendum.
Reality is ignored in favour of political point-scoring. The authors of this amendment and its supporters must know full well that the House would have to pass a Bill to activate a second referendum, and moreover, that the government — holding a majority by definition — would oppose it, yet this problem is barely addressed. Corbyn’s positioning on a People’s Vote is consistently presented as the sole obstacle to a second referendum.
After May’s withdrawal of the “meaningful vote,” Ian Murray and several fellow People’s Vote supporting MPs wrote to Corbyn on December 10, using precisely those terms, invoking the membership — “The time is now to trigger the stage of the conference motion supporting a public vote. The vast majority of our party members and supporters want this now, as you well know.”
This was repeated on January 6 following Labour’s unsuccessful vote of no confidence in May’s government, in the form of a letter from the SNP, Greens, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru — again — “[At Conference], Labour delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion which called for your party to demand a general election… Today’s vote of no confidence did not manage to secure a general election. We believe, as per the motion passed at your party conference, it is only correct that you now move to back a public vote.”
Given the nigh impossible parliamentary arithmetic for May to be able to pass a tweaked version of her deal through Parliament again or offer a softer deal without the support of a large chunk of the opposition, one would have thought that a general election would have been more likely than before, especially given leaks that Number Ten has been wargaming for a snap general election (although admittedly this can also be explained as a tacit threat from May to her recalcitrant ERG backbenchers), but the default constitutional precedent for this appears to have been silently put aside in favour of a People’s Vote.
A leaked poll on the February 6 commissioned by the TSSA and shared with Momentum explosively concludes that Labour failing to oppose Brexit could be as damaging for the party as Iraq or the Lib Dem turnaround on tuition fees under the coalition government — both, of course, examples wherein the leadership was seen as betraying the membership of the party. Only this conclusion, and not the actual working itself — rather important for an assessment of a poll — was shared.
On that same day, Chuka Umunna made the same argument, tweeting “I hate to think what all those young voters who flocked to the party for the first time in 2017 will make of this. Vote Labour, get a Tory Brexit. They will feel they have been sold down the river.” This went even further by seriously mischaracterising the 2017 Labour manifesto, which stated, in black and white, “Labour accepts the referendum result.”
Given that the working YouGov did shortly after that election, released on July 11 found, despite an option for “stopping Brexit,” 28 per cent of respondents claiming to have voted for Labour on the basis of its manifesto, 13 per cent for Corbyn’s appeal himself, 8 per cent for protecting the NHS and 12 per cent for “hope/fairness for the many,” it seems hard to maintain that an overwhelming vote for Corbyn was one against Brexit.
The category with the most significant youth representation itself was that of Corbyn’s own appeal, with 24 per cent of 18-24-year-old respondents, whilst the appeal of the manifesto was fairly evenly spread across age groups of respondents. Generic anti-Tory and anti-Theresa May sentiment among 18-24-year-olds — the categories that could be interpreted, perhaps, with the lack of a “stopping Brexit” option, to stand in for it — came out as 11 per cent and 3 per cent.
Claiming that Corbyn’s refusal to back Remain damaged the standing of Labour with 18-24-year-olds doesn’t add up, given it has not even damaged Corbyn’s personal popularity. It is, once again, the same line, with the interpretation pre-emptively being to claim that Corbyn has betrayed his base.
Merely a few days before the aforementioned conference letters, Andrew Rawnsley in his column at — where else? — the Guardian, kindly rendered explicit the subtext behind many of these manouevres, in an article entitled To stop Brexit, Labour supporters will have to revolt against their leader (January 6), of which the subtitle read “Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership with a promise that the will of the members would be paramount.”
Rawnsley’s argument is far from unique in such publications; such a call cannot be regarded as merely an attempt to do whatever it takes to achieve a second referendum — the specific form of opposition to Labour’s position on Brexit is one that strikes at the heart of Corbyn’s claim to political legitimacy.
If by some miracle Labour does support a second referendum and the necessary legislation passes through the House, where will the left-wing leadership of the party find itself? If it wins, the People’s Vote will take the credit, and the ensuing negative electoral impact in the next general election can be blamed on Labour not supporting Remain from the start.
In any case, as Tony Blair stated in July 2015, speaking quite clearly for sentiments that are not rare on the right and centre of the party — “I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”
And if the second referendum loses, they’ll simply blame Corbyn for not backing Remain from the beginning. In his column for the Guardian on December 7 Jonathan Freedland wrote, “…how to win that second referendum for remain? How much easier would that task have been if Labour had spent the last two and a half years exposing the Brexiteers’ project as the impossible fantasy it is — rather than indulging it, accommodating it and even echoing it, right until the very last moment.”
The multi-party, “grassroots” campaign seeks to achieve a second referendum by driving a wedge between Corbyn and the Labour membership. The efficacy of this strategy, the dubious evidence upon which it is pursued, and the confusion of those pursuing it are irrelevant to recognising what is the demonstrable political intent of their interventions — stopping Corbyn from reaching Number 10 and splitting the party base.
The added bonus would be to remove some of that base to provide the electoral ballast to make a new centrist party credible in the medium term. An even more distant, unlikely bonus would be actually being able to get a second referendum, win it for Remain, and thus stop Brexit. But that was never really the point, was it?
Sam Edwards is a Labour and Momentum activist in south-east England.
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