Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Labour and a Second Referendum

John McDonnell's remarks aren't official Labour Party policy, but let's run with them. We know Theresa May's Brexit deal won't pass muster in the Commons, regardless of TV debates and threatening backbenchers with imminent doom. What happens next?

We are seeing a convergence between the reality wing of the Tories and leading Labour lights around a Plan B. This deal is a proper soft Brexit, an arrangement based loosely around Norway's relationship with the EU, and was previously an option available earlier in negotiations (but dismissed by May in her monomaniacal obsession with immigration). Given the cavalier way with which the PM had approached negotiations, this is looking like the only sane alternative that can be pulled together in short order - EU declarations of May's deal being the final deal notwithstanding. But how to handle the politics?

I think now it's time for Labour's constructive ambiguity to end. The party's call for a general election is fine, but we need to be clear about why. As we stare down the barrel of an entirely unnecessary national emergency, Labour should set out its stall. The party should be agitating for an Article 50 extension. This might upset the Brexiteers, but they're less than satisfied with May's position anyway and are inclined to accept that more time is needed to come up with a better deal. Though, of course, Norway with added extras is hardly the stuff of which nationalist delusions of an "independent Britain" are made, but it might be acceptable to the bulk of Labour leavers. Secondly, we need to be open that Norway plus is the only flavour of Brexit that meets Keir Stamer's six tests. This is politically acceptable to most remainers, moderate leavers, and has the virtue of uniting most of Labour, bringing on board the SNP and LibDems, exacerbates the internal splits in the Tories, and puts the Irish border issue to bed permanently. It allows for the possibility of Labour to hegemonise Brexit away from the little Englander fantasies of the right. And finally, Labour should say that it is prepared to put its negotiated deal to the public vote. No messing about or nonsense, it would be a simple take it or leave it - Labour's Brexit or no Brexit.

Yes, a general election isn't likely, but a map of what happens next can start winning people over to a clear way out of the mess. However, as John notes in his remarks, what happens if there isn't a general election? "Our policy is if we can’t get a general election, then the other option which we’ve kept on the table is a people’s vote", he said. As noted before, getting one through the Commons would be difficult but stands more of a chance than May's deal has. And provided it's an either or proposition, May's deal vs no Brexit, it avoids issues with ambiguity and legitimacy a three option referendum would have - and one ludicrously argued for by people who should know better.

Again, this doesn't happen in a vacuum. This is politics, not technics. As argued previously, Labour coming out against Brexit and being seen to thwart the "people's will" would have gifted the Tories a great opportunity to firm up their vote and provide them an in with Labour leavers. "You don't like us", might go the call, "but we're the ones delivering your referendum vote". With many leavers openly broadcasting their dislike for May's deal, and going so far as to say staying in the EU is better than this, they are articulating a sense of getting cheated and, crucially, prising at the cracks in the leaver bloc. That pain, that responsibility is uniquely the Tories precisely because Labour steered clear of opposing Brexit. And so Labour's room for manoeuvre has widened. If a second vote comes before the Commons, Labour's support for it will not cost anywhere near as much damage as it would have done six months, two months, even a month ago.

The second issue is what happens to the leave voters. Yes, some of them will be extremely angry and the possibility of resuscitating UKIP or something worse can't be ruled out. Labour's business, among other things, is not to make life more difficult for itself. Yet here too, I think May's deal has taken the sting out of possible opposition. This constituency, particularly the older, right-leaning Brexiteers, are tending toward Brexit fatigue and are just as likely - if not more so - to register their disappointment with Brexit's outcome by staying at home and not giving any party time of day than sign up with a rebooted BNP. Again, the hard right balloon has been allowed to deflate because the Tories were afforded space to wrexit Brexit on their own terms.

Neither path to a second referendum is without risk, though the rewards are greater if Labour is seen to take leadership on Brexit than where the party is merely responding to events. Nevertheless, in either case the situation Labour had to manage has changed. If you like, the zone of Brexit non-punishment has expanded. The constructive ambiguity it maintained, often in the face of terrific pressure, is approaching the end of its useful life. We need not be hemmed in by it any more, and the second vote can be a live, viable option.

4 comments:

Fred said...

Interesting as always Phil. But one question. Assume that the scenario painted follows. Labour win a GE, extend article 50, negotiate a Norway-style deal, and put this to a referendum. Why should the two options (I agree that three is stupid) be the deal or no Brexit, rather than the deal or 'no deal'. I think argument could be made that we've already had a referendum on whether we want to be EU members or not. Any further vote should be on the nature of our relationship to the EU post-leaving.

Phil said...

It's significant that Labour's amendment to the Brexit Bill - co-signed by JC, JMcD, KS and ET - effectively commits the party to a "Norway plus" Brexit *or no Brexit at all*. If we can't make the government fall, Labour's Brexit will cease to be an option, so there will be a choice between remaining and leaving on terms which Labour has now rejected (along with just about everyone else). The logical solution would be a second referendum, with the choices being the May deal and Remain, on the basis of "confirming or withdrawing the people's choice, now that we know what it entails in practice" - and in such a referendum Labour would (with whatever show of reluctance) be campaigning for Remain.

Whether a second referendum would also be necessary or appropriate if Labour won an early election I'm not sure - personally I'd rather we didn't leave at all, but I can see the potential argument in favour of respecting the election result and everything it would stand for, a "six tests" Brexit included.

Boffy said...

Norway plus is a dead-end diversion, and is being used only as a stalking horse to avoid the real issue, which is that the choice will always come down to a hard Brexit or No Brexit. Norway means being inside a single market, and accepting all of the conditions that comes with that, but having no say over the rules that govern that single market. It means that Britain also would not be able to do separate trade deals to those done by the EU, because as Trump highlighted, the conditions required by the EU single market will conflict with the rules required by the US, or China, or India, or whoever the UK might want to do some other trade deal with, and vice versa.

Norway does not provide a Customs Union, without which the Northern Ireland problem is not resolved. Britain could negotiate a separate Customs Union membership, like that of Turkey, but again that means that there is no possibility of negotiating separate trade deals to those negotiated by the EU itself. In fact,as the government's economic analysis shows even on an optimistic estimate, any such new deals that could be negotiated by being outside the EU, only make 0.2% difference to UK GDP anyway, so its an advantage not worth having all of the costs and disruption for.

So, a) Norway does not enable the UK to negotiate separate trade deals, which Labour's Six Tests requires, and b) it does not enable the UK to have any say in determining the rules of the single market, or were a Customs Union deal added to it, any role in determining the rules of the CU either, which also thereby breaches Labour's Six tests.

Even if it didn't breach those six tests, and Labour like May was forced into the reality that in order to obtain a deal it has to capitulate on its own negotiating requirements, why would any sane government do that? Why would you place yourself in exactly the same economic and trading relationship you have with the EU and the rest of the world that you have now, but in the process give up your right to have a seat at the table determining the rules and regulations of the single market and customs union that you have thereby committed yourself to abiding by?

Plan B s being thrown up as a distraction from the real point that May's deal should simply be voted down. Neither May nor Mogg would actually push through a No Deal Brexit in March, because they know it would spell utter catastrophe for the UK economy, which would destroy the Tory Party, for a generation if not forever. Capital would never allow them to push through such a No Deal Brexit. Markets won't crash on 11th December, because they have discounted May losing the vote, and have equally discounted any chance that May would push through a No Deal.

But, if she or Mogg did have some kind of mental aberration, and appear to be pushing a No Deal, then markets really would sell off, the Pound would crash, as suggested in the Bo E's analysis, and within hours, the government would make clear that it was not pushing ahead with a No Deal, and would instead make hurried arrangements to scrap Brexit and restore stability. It would probably do so by agreeing to a General Election to leave Labour the mess to clear up, as they normally do. It would involve extending Article 50.

The question then is what does Labour say in this GE. Does it mindlessly parrot the "we must respect the referendum" nonsense, or does it take up its responsibility to provide leadership, and come out clearly to say, Brexit is reactionary, and we will scrap it? It should clearly do the latter.

Speedy said...

I can't recall any political outcome ever being so shrouded in uncertainty.

There are a lot of shoulds and coulds but it seems increasingly likely there will be another referendum because no party will want to own the outcome of the parliamentary process (and there will not be another GE because the Tories will not support it).