Greek Referendum 2015 - No. Photo: Bob Dass Greek Referendum 2015 - No. Photo: Bob Dass

As pressure mounts, Labour must hold the line and keep fighting for a general election, argues Shabbir Lakha

Jeremy Corbyn is once again under intense pressure to back a second referendum following the EU elections. The line pushed by Emily Thornberry, Tom Watson and Keir Starmer, even before most regions had declared their results, is that Labour’s failure is down to not backing a confirmatory vote on a deal to leave the EU and a pledge to campaign to Remain in said vote. Remarkably, this is the line they have stuck to, and that the media has unquestioningly parroted, despite the success of the Brexit Party.

As many of us have said since 2016, including many who voted Remain in the EU referendum, a second referendum would be a highly undemocratic exercise. It would be telling the public ‘you got it wrong, do it again’. The truth is, a confirmatory vote on a deal – a so-called People’s Vote – would be even more undemocratic than a rerun of the 2016 referendum. It would pit a Tory deal which can’t even get meagre support against Remain. This means there is no real choice for those who voted Leave except to agree to a deal already rejected from across the political spectrum or to throw in the towel. It’s not something any democrat should be advocating.

The clamour now, even among some left Labour MPs including unfortunately John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, is that all other options have been ruled out and therefore a public vote is the only solution. Well, a) all other options have not been ruled out, and b) it isn’t really a solution – not one that keeps the Corbyn project alive anyway.

The numbers don’t lie

Looking at the electoral spread of the 2016 referendum results[i], we know that:

  • 90 out of the 150 most marginal non-Labour seats were majority Leave.
  • 107 out of the 150 most marginal Labour seats were majority Leave.
  • 43 of the 54 seats that Labour has confirmed to be targeting were majority Leave.
  • 409 of the 650 seats in Parliament were majority Leave.

Have people changed their minds since 2016? A comparison of average polling on the question of “If there was a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, how would you vote” shows that public opinion has hardly changed since 2016. The latest YouGov poll puts Remain on 52% and Leave on 48% – their April 2016 poll put Remain on 54% and Leave on 46%. The latest Survation poll puts Remain on 49% and Leave on 51%.

Both the local elections in April and the recent EU elections had very low turnouts and the results cannot reliably be extrapolated to a general election. But even so, in the local elections the Lib Dems didn’t make the substantial gains they have been credited with – in actual voting numbers. Their big increase in council seats was largely down to a lack of Labour voters turning out at the same level they did in 2015. And they won mainly in Tory areas.

In the EU elections, the Lib Dems were the first party in 1 out of 11 regions while the Brexit Party came first in 9, and the Lib Dems received half the vote share and half the seats that the Brexit Party did. Looking at the parties in terms of their stated policy on the EU, rather than what their voters are likely do in a second referendum, as both nationalist parties command a leave vote, Remain parties (Lib Dems, Greens, SNP, Change UK and Plaid Cymru) received 40.4% of the vote, and Leave parties (Brexit Party, UKIP and Tories) received 44% of the vote. This is without Labour’s vote share even though its position is primarily to leave the EU.

What this tells us in clear terms is that the country is as divided on the question of the EU as it was in 2016. There has been no mass shift to Remain and should there be another referendum it will be even more divisive than the first one. Two things are clear: there is the strong likelihood of a second Leave vote; and there is simply no route to electoral success for Labour in a general election if it backs a position that seeks to overturn the referendum result.

The Labour right now presenting backing a second referendum as a progressive, principled positions are the same people who were willing to end freedom of movement, who have time and time again backed wars that have ravaged the Middle East. They have no problem with neoliberal policies.Their primary goal is to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn once and for all and they will do whatever it takes – no part of the left should be aiding them in doing that.

Class politics

Corbyn’s success in being elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015 opened up a space for the return of class politics in the mainstream. One major determining factor in the EU referendum was class, and Corbyn’s radical message rooted in class politics and driven by an energetic grassroots campaign in 2017 achieved a much better vote for Labour than his critics expected.

What has happened since, however, has been a retreat. Corbyn’s correct analysis in his speeches that what divides people in this country is not whether they voted Leave or Remain but their class position and who profits at the expense of whom, has been drowned out by the Tory meltdown and the Labour right attacks both of which have solidified the Remain v Leave dynamic. Unfortunately, the lack of combativeness by the Labour leadership has allowed the retreat from their People’s Brexit position that won them 13 million votes in 2017 to the fudge it now is, which is trapped within the Remain v Leave framework.

It’s what has allowed Nigel Farage, whose electoral project collapsed immediately after the referendum, to exploit the genuine anger in the failures of Westminster and become a leading figure in British politics once again – with the simple argument that he respects democracy and represents the left behind while Labour represents the establishment.

For Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to stand any chance of coming to power it has to return to being the anti-establishment insurgency that it was, and it simply cannot do that while arguing against people’s democratic decision in favour of a neoliberal institution that is backed by big business.

Those on the left that have committed themselves to stopping Brexit at all costs have shown what an unprincipled position this is by the degradation of their politics. People who have become so obsessed by Brexit that they think the expulsion of Alistair Campbell – who bears responsiblity for the deaths of over a million Iraqis – is a bad decision, or in the words of the Guardian’s editors, “vindictive”, “petty” and “counterproductive”. People like Paul Mason who two years ago was telling a Progress conference that Labour is not a Remain party that supports illegal wars, is now calling on Labour to back a second referendum and focus on becoming the party of law and order, of championing nuclear weapons and of stoking Russophobia to do it. Even if you’re totally blind to the electoral disaster that a second referendum would mean for Corbyn’s Labour, is that really the kind of government we want? It would be the end of Corbynism with or without a catastrophe at the ballot box.

The other effect of the dilution of class politics in an ever-polarising society is the rise of the far-right. Farage recently announced that a Brexit Party general election manifesto would include a pledge to abolish the House of Lords, and the introduction of PR, using populist and anti-establishment politics as part of stealing the left’s terrain. Farage may have kept his messaging strictly on Brexit and away from his usual migrant-scapegoating, racist rhetoric. This suits his purpose to gain the widest possible range of pro Brexit support. But that doesn’t change the fact that he is a racist and in the coming months he will have a significant impact on the political landscape.

In the same way that his 2014 EU election success under UKIP shifted both the Tories and Labour to the right, his newfound success has made it quite likely that the new Tory leader will be further to the right than May and despite the failure of UKIP, will boost far-right street activity. A second referendum would be a dream come true for Nigel Farage. Where he can again run on a single issue platform as a man of the people standing up to the establishment, and that will be accompanied by a bolstering for the hard-right factions in the Tory party and a boost in confidence for fascists like Tommy Robinson and Britain First.

Take it to the streets

Meanwhile, there are 14 million people in Britain living in poverty. There are 4 million children living in poverty. There are a million people dependent on foodbanks. There are hundreds of people dying on the streets. There are 400 buildings with the same cladding as Grenfell. There are headteachers running marathons to raise money for pens for their schools. There are people dying on trolleys in hospital corridors and unprecedented numbers of nurses committing suicide.

These are the pressing issues that affect the majority of people in this country. These are the issues that no one other than a Corbyn government can solve. This is why the priority has to be achieving a Corbyn government regardless of Brexit.

We are soon going to have yet another unelected Tory Prime Minister pushing through the same cruel agenda of austerity. The majority of people in the country believe there should be a general election following Theresa May’s departure – which Corbyn has to push for instead of being bogged down by campaigning for another referendum.

After Theresa May’s catastrophic mistake calling the election in 2017, we should be under no illusions that the Tories will easily give in to demands for an election. But there is a logic to the political situation which leads to it, either if the new Tory leader decides to fight on this basis, or if some Tories join in a vote of no confidence in their government in order to stop a no deal Brexit. And pressure for this option needs to grow on the streets, in the trade unions, in communities up and down the country. Corbyn’s biggest strength has never been in Parliament – it’s on the streets. His success in becoming leader of the Labour Party came from the mass movements that he’s always been a part of.

His politics and his tactics were a break from conventional norms, but since 2017 his campaign has resorted to some of those same conventions. There have been several moments when the Labour leadership could have been at the forefront of bringing masses of people onto the streets – Grenfell, Windrush, against a zombie government unable to govern. Labour would have remained an insurgency, connected to real working people and would inevitably have avoided getting boxed into the narrow framework of Westminster and 6 weeks of negotiations with the government.

That needs to change. The entire left should be united around pushing for a movement to bring down the Tories and for a change of government.  It should not get caught in a divisive campaign that takes us in the opposite direction of achieving a Labour government.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.