Pro-EU demonstration, London. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Pro-EU demonstration, London. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The second referendum announcement on Monday is exactly the kind of concession to the right that Jeremy Corbyn should not make, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Faced with mounting pressure from his colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and the defection of 9 MPs, Corbyn conceded that Labour will support a second referendum if its own alternative Brexit plan is voted down in Parliament.

The chances of winning a vote on a second referendum are slim. There are few Tories who would back Labour. Last month, moreover, 17 Labour MPs voted against or abstained in the vote on Yvette Cooper’s amendment to extend article 5.

Even more MPs from Leave constituencies would be loathe to go through another referendum even if they themselves might be Remainers.

It would open them up to accusations that they betrayed the Brexit vote. The Conservative party chairman, Brandon Lewis, pushed the line that Tory Brexiters would take up with relish: Labour wants to “betray the will of the British people and ignore the biggest democratic vote in our nation’s history.”

Indeed, Labour MPs from the Midlands and the North are right to be sceptical. Any new referendum could breathe new life into UKIP or something even more xenophobic and extremist.

Worse, the spirit of insurgency of Corbyn’s campaigns for Labour leader and the 2017 general election would be lost. It would be the neoliberal People’s Vote MPs who would make the running. Any hope of winning the next election would be gone.

If anything, Corbyn’s resistance to a second referendum ensured that millions of real or potential supporters who had voted for Brexit were reassured that Corbyn would not sell out to the establishment like previous Labour leaders. It is this, as much as Labour’s radical manifesto, which accounts for Labour’s good result in 2017.

So why ditch the policy now? Corbyn and his team must be calculating that the vote on a new referendum will stem the tide of defections from Remainer MPs and reassure Remain voters that Labour has done all it reasonably could to stop Brexit. But they must also know it is likely to fail.

Indeed, given today’s announcement from Theresa May that she will allow Parliament to vote on a no deal and on an extension to article 50 if her current deal fails to get Parliament approval on 12 March, it is unlikely Tory Remainers would back another referendum now.

Thus, Corbyn and his team hope that the damage to Labour in Leave areas will be minimal with this new policy switch, and that the debate will move on to the 12 March vote, after which a general election or a different kind of deal can be negotiated with the EU.

Even if this is the case, the move is very risky, not just because some Tories may indeed wish a second referendum upon Labour.

But the move also emboldens the hard Remainer MPs who hate Corbyn and will never be placated, potentially opening Corbyn up to a leadership challenge or further splits of Remainer MPs if he fails to get a second referendum. Moreover, even if the bid fails, it sends the wrong signal to Leave constituencies, namely, that Labour is prepared to gamble them away.

Corbyn must know this was a bad compromise, and he only acceded to it because he was under intense pressure. The truth is that for him to be able to counter such pressure in the future, there needs to be a counter-pressure from the left outside of Parliament, whether or not that left is in or outside of the Labour Party. We need to up our game.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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