Campaigners march to 'Bin Brexit' in Birmingham Birmingham 'Bin Brexit' march for a 'People's Vote', September 2018. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

With growing calls for a second referendum, Martin Hall clarifies why we must not capitulate

As the Conservatives stumble towards Brexit with a deal that pleases no one, the clamour for a second referendum is becoming louder. In particular, if the European Court of Justice rules this coming Monday that the UK can unilaterally withdraw Article 50 – and legal opinion is suggesting that this is likely – then the push for this from what is putatively a wide spectrum of opinion is only going to get stronger.

However, the left in and out of the Labour Party must resist this at all cost, for a number of related reasons. Let us list them then look at each in turn:

  • A second referendum will energise the far right
  • The People’s Vote campaign is not an organic expression of popular opinion
  • Labour Party support would significantly decrease the prospect of a Labour government
  • The path to radical reform – in the first instance – of the neoliberal model lies outside the EU

Evidence that the emergent fascist street movement, with an increasingly far right UKIP as its electoral wing, is using Brexit as a recruitment tool is everywhere. Witness the upcoming pro-Brexit march organised by Tommy Robinson and his followers.  Any sort of betrayal of the wishes of 17.4 million people – however contestable and multi-faceted their reasons for voting Leave were – is fertile ground for the far right to paint itself as champions of democracy in the face of an undemocratic elite. Representing the working class is the natural position of the left and it must not abandon it. Clarity in terms of the upholding of democracy is key here, especially at a time when the extreme centre is at pains to tar the left and the right with the same brush. The left must make a clear case for a Brexit which not only centres working people’s concerns, but also begins to go down the long road of returning power to them.

Despite support from good leftists in the Labour Party and a tiny sect or two, the majority of the people pushing the People’s vote line are not of the left. The People’s Vote campaign was begun in the spring by a cross-party group of MPs who represent the continuity Remain position: Chuka Umunna; Anna Soubry; Jo Swinson and others. Behind them with their collective fingers crossed sits the CBI, the City of London, the Treasury, the Bank of England and all of Jeremy Corbyn’s enemies in the Labour Party: the recently published list of what is currently 68 MPs backing a People’s Vote also happens to be (pretty much) a list of MPs who think the party is rife with antisemitism, who backed Owen Smith, who back British foreign policy in the Middle East, and who want to be in opposition and not in government under Jeremy Corbyn. It really is that simple. They don’t support the party’s policy of attempting to force a general election in the event of the deal not getting through parliament. They support another referendum and continued Tory government. Of course, many people supporting a People’s Vote do support Jeremy Corbyn. We will turn to the contradictions in that position in the next paragraph. Moreover, the People’s Vote campaign has a large amount of celebrity backing (as seen by the paid for coaches to take people to London) whose view of the EU (and of Leave voters) has not moved on in two years from the simplistic remain = good, leave = bad, position taken two years ago and enthusiastically pushed then and since.

There is little to suggest that across the country workers are organising in favour of remaining in the EU; indeed throughout the continent, as Costas Lapavitsas suggests, ‘there has never been a mass movement of workers in favour of the EU or the EEC, but at most a sullen acceptance’[i].

Labour’s stunning result in 2017 – completely against the trend of centre left social democratic parties Europe-wide – was primarily a result of two factors: that it had moved leftwards and was addressing the concerns of working people; and that it had respected the referendum result, via forging a position acceptable to the vast majority of the left with its manifesto commitment to a People’s Brexit. This enabled it to increase its vote in strongly remain areas like Vauxhall (even with a pro-leave candidate from the party’s right) and keep hold of, and in some places increase, its vote in many heartland constituencies that had strongly voted Leave. In doing so it picked up approximately a third of UKIP’s votes following its electoral collapse in 2017.

Since then, it has moved increasingly towards Remain, beginning with its commitment to a transitional deal to remain in the Customs Union and Single Market announced last August, and ending in John McDonnell’s recent announcement that if Labour fails to force a General Election, a second vote of some description appears inevitable. While Jeremy Corbyn has attempted to spell out the benefits of Leave in the last year or so, in particular regarding Labour’s plan to use state aid in a variety of ways, his is becoming an increasingly isolated voice in the shadow cabinet.

At this point a reality check is required. Between 60 to 70% of Labour constituencies from 2015 voted leave a year later in the referendum. Furthermore, many of the marginals that it has targeted and would need to win to gain a majority are Leave-voting. The proposed gains from backing a People’s Vote will be wiped out by the haemorrhaging of support in Leave-voting areas, leaving a Labour Party going into any upcoming election backing a second referendum likely to win fewer seats than it now has. More to the point, ignoring democracy is not a good look for leftists. 

There is also the question of leftwards momentum, which brings us to the last of our list. The Lexit case did not get the traction we would have liked in 2016, as the corporate media, in both its Leave and Remain guises, ensured that the campaign became a battle of ideas between two different versions of contemporary capitalism: remain and carry on as we are (with nods to reform in there) versus an imaginary return to some sort of imperial splendour as outlined by much of the Leave campaign. However, what we did get was a conversation regarding sovereignty of sorts, though hijacked by the right. Popular sovereignty is key, though, to the first stage of any left critique of the neoliberal EU and it cannot lie uncontested and claimed by the right. The current Gilets Jaunes protests in France are at base a call for a return to popular sovereignty against technocracy, as represented by the darling of liberalism and saviour of Europe, Emmanuel Macron. They are politically contested, and it is telling that much of the corporate media is at pains to find the right wing voices and exclude the left.

But sovereignty is key to the return of large scale working class engagement in the political process, after its hollowing out in the neoliberal period. All across Europe, there has been more than three decades of the return of power from labour to capital following the hard-won gains of the preceding years, as seen most starkly at a structural level in capital’s freedom of establishment in the EU, one of the four freedoms of the Single Market, and in the increasing divide between rich and poor. A return to the prioritisation of productivity, of procurement based on need, to workers’ rights and trade union power, requires a radical rupture from the EU. It is no accident that a report earlier this year suggested that what was really feared in Brussels was a Corbyn government, not the Tory Brexiters’ dream of a low tax economy off the coast of the continent; always unlikely, given the intertwining of the needs of capital and Tory policy.

In terms of the myriad predictions of economic doom, they are all predicated upon the UK continuing to do the same things it does now; within that model, it is the case that all forms of Brexit will lead to a poorer performance. The point is to do something else, not carry on doing the same thing. Doing things differently in the UK under a Corbyn government would provide the left across all of the EU – in particular, in countries stuck in the benighted, structurally flawed Eurozone – with a model to follow.

The Labour Party must not lose sight of this and the various pro-Leave voices in and around the leadership must get the point across at every turn that the key to its success, both electorally and when in government, is a commitment to a Brexit that puts working people first and does not tie the UK into the Single Market. A second referendum would be a disaster, and support for it from the party would spell the beginning of the end of the Corbyn project.


[i] Lapavitsas, C (2018) The Left Case Against the EU. Cambridge: Polity Press. P. 128