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Editorial: Watson and Blair's referendum push is disingenuous – and dangerous

TOM WATSON and Tony Blair’s push for Labour to prioritise securing a second EU referendum without an election forms the logical next step from a right wing determined to prevent a transformative socialist government.

Blair praises Jeremy Corbyn for avoiding the “trap” of an election before October 31, but then says no election should be held before Brexit is “settled” by another referendum for fear that it would muddy the waters by mixing Brexit up with other policy issues.

Watson echoes this, saying “elections should never be single-issue campaigns” and a referendum would get Brexit out of the way, ensuring that issues like the NHS and inequality are not drowned out by the EU in any election campaign.

Given that 68 per cent of voters in Watson’s West Bromwich East constituency voted to leave the EU in 2016, there are good reasons why a man who claims that vote has been “invalidated” and Labour must be “unequivocally Remain” might not want Brexit to be an election issue.

But all socialists, whether they supported Leave or Remain, should reject the logic of Watson and Blair. Trying to separate Brexit from issues like the future of the NHS and inequality is nonsense: the Brexit vote was a product of deep dissatisfaction with an economic model that is driving insecurity and poverty to levels not seen since 1945.

Part of the left’s problem has been to allow an artificial divide to grow up between Brexit as a “culture war” issue and working-class concerns over jobs, pay and public services. But the referendum result cannot be understood in isolation from the fact that Britain is already the “bargain basement, race-to-the-bottom” economy that Remain supporters say a no-deal exit would create, and people have had enough.

It is also hard to take either Blair or Watson’s fear that other issues will be drowned out by Brexit at face value. Neither is exactly a fan of Corbyn’s policies. Blair is on record saying he would not want to win a Labour government on a socialist platform, and Watson has never missed an opportunity to distract people from Labour’s policies by launching broadsides at the leadership on unrelated issues at key moments. 

His intervention today is a case in point, gaining far greater coverage than Corbyn or Laura Pidcock’s inspirational speeches to the TUC this week on Labour’s plans for government. Broadcasters’ preferences are explained by the media establishment’s hostility to Corbyn and unwillingness to accurately inform the public about Labour policy, by a media culture that sees politicians’ infighting as more interesting than serious political debate and by a Westminster bubble that doesn’t recognise the intolerable living and working conditions of millions of people and is therefore indifferent to Labour’s solutions.

As Labour proved in 2017, the public are much more interested in better jobs, better public services and an end to the neoliberal racket than the Establishment thinks. The road to a Corbyn-led government runs through a relentless focus on its promise for this country and a sense of urgency that is incompatible with endlessly putting off an actual election.

By contrast, a second referendum is beset by dangers. Holding one when the result of the first has not been honoured would immediately alienate huge swathes of Britain. It would entrench an unnecessary division among working people into irreconcilable Leave and Remain camps. It would ensure many more months in which Brexit “drowns out” Labour’s programme — possibly years, since there is no reason to suppose it would settle the issue to the satisfaction of the losing side. 

Promising one if Labour wins an election is bad enough. Prioritising one over an election would be worse, since it leaves an illegitimate and dangerous Conservative regime in office. Labour’s retreats so far have only encouraged the right to push for more. It is precisely these attacks that are drowning out the message. We should concede no more ground. 

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