Monday, 25 February 2019

The Labour Politics of a Second Referendum

Politics is weird. At party conference last September, Labour passed a motion committing it to a second referendum in the event of Parliament rejecting Theresa May's Brexit deal, and if, for its part, it couldn't force a general election. Well, here we are in February 2019. May, you will recall, has suffered the largest defeat in parliamentary history, and lost a further vote endorsing her Brexit strategy on 15th February. Unfortunately, she survived her post-disaster vote of no confidence and has played for time ever since. Now thanks to the founding of The Independent Group, she is a bit more secure as TInG have said they would back her should another no confidence vote come up. So much for the supposed social democratic politics, as Tom Watson would have it, of its ex-Labour component. This brings us to where we are. With no route to an election and the disaster of a no deal Brexit looming, pushing a second vote comes into play.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. As Gary Gibbon noted in his Channel 4 News report, Jeremy Corbyn's statement was hardly a full-throated declaration of intent but more of a reluctant, going-through-the-motions in line with conference policy. As this Graun report, um, reports, about 25 Labour MPs could rebel against Labour's backing the second referendum amendment, and the likes of Stephen Kinnock warn this could prove a divisive and costly mistake. Unfortunately, given everything written here these last couple of years, I'm inclined to agree. If socialism is, among other things, the democratisation of the state and social life, then setting aside the outcome of a mass democratic exercise is not a place any socialist wants to be, or should be in.

What's going on? As the Graun piece notes, Keir Starmer and Tom Watson pushed this move to forestall future defections to the TInG on the fringe. This is understandable where Tom is concerned. Contrary to arguments made during his recent media appearances, it's not the Labour Party that's in a serious crisis, it's the Labour right who are. Never in the party's history has it endured reduced circumstances like these vis a vis the left in the unions, the membership, and the apparatus. Its remaining power base in the PLP has suffered because of the defection of former favoured sons, and was set to shrink further in the event of others scuttling over to the TInG bench. It appears the leadership have been spooked by what this might do to Labour's vote in the marginals and so have consented to the Watson/Starmer push.

Then again, politics watchers know a second referendum isn't going to get through the Commons. Or could it?. Even if the Cameroons finally make good their promises to rebel will it be enough? Assuming the 25 Labour MPs unhappy with the new position break the whip then, well, it's going to be very tight. Who knows, with any luck perhaps a few of them will do an Ian Austin flounce. Still, it seems likely the leadership feel a vote isn't going to be won but they've nevertheless shown willing - a point the BBC's chief political correspondent concurs with.

Should we worry about Labour leavers though? Well, yes. Of course we should. After all, the condition for winning an unexpected number of these voters back from UKIP in the 2017 General Election was Labour's acceptance of the referendum result. If you like, we were granted permission to be listened to. That said, a couple of other calculations come into consideration. First, May's Brexit can very clearly and unambiguously be dubbed a Tory Brexit, which isn't an argument too difficult to sustain. Just look at the litany of disasters and the grim forecasts coming from business. Still, as far as May is concerned as long as the Tory party is preserved it will all prove worth it. More fool her, this just hands other parties plenty of ammunition. The second involves the character of Labour leave voters. Just as the primary concern of Labour remainers wasn't the referendum's outcome but the 2017 policy platform, it seems the leadership are backing on a shift among Labour leavers. Accepting the referendum result might have got Labour a hearing in the first place, but after two years Brexit fatigue is setting in and the consequences are becoming more apparent. Perhaps now the way one voted has become secondary to other concerns. And third, for the rising generation of voters coming of age then Labour can now say that, at the end of it all, it did what it could to prevent a Tory Brexit.

All said and done, it is a risky move. Not just because of the difficulties it poses Labour's own coalition, but because of the firming up effect it could have on the Tory vote. Remember, Brexit is the glue binding them together. So we're in a tense moment, a situation that could sound the death knell of Jeremy Corbyn's chances of occupying Number 10. Or be the making of it.

16 comments:

chris e said...

and arguably, as they don't have a friendly press if they were going to change tack to offer a chance for people to re-assess the situation, they could only do so once public mood changed from being split within the margin of error, and public mood has only started shift in the last 3 months or so.

Alan Story said...


Phil:

I am glad to read that you do think this decision has been made, in least in part, as a reponse to political pressures and as a result of a so-called "listening exercise" by Corbyn. That Corbyn took this decision is to his credit.

The response of some Corbynistas has been to suggest that this announcement and its timing was all some sort of Corbyn master plan and that Corbyn does not respond the way that other leaders/ politicians do and that there has not been some internal realignments at Labour's top table eg. it is clear that Macdonnel's role is now more prominent....which I think is a plus as,personally, think he has better political instincts than Corbyn. The JC "master plan" approach is delusional.

Alan

Amanda said...

As it is getting down to the wire it looks like May, with help from ex-Labour #Tiggers, and a Labour faction, may get her Plan B, or whatever it is now up to in the alphabet. Then if the economy does convulsive somersaults on Exit Day, Labour can look more economically responsible, with the wiser heads as they made the 'Doubting Thomas' moves. If things are less doomsday and more merely transitional then Labour can critique as per normal.

Speedy said...

Probably makes no deal more likely -

Labour version will not pass.
Referendum will not pass.
May's deal will not pass.

Alternative - extension? For what?

Ergo no deal.

If Corbyn had reached out to moderate Tories earlier with Labour's version, it is possible they may have arrived at a deal, but, as you imply, the enthusiasm to enforce a Tory Brexit on the nation over-ruled this policy - it seems the Tories are not the only ones playing party politics.

Political pygmies one and all.

Boffy said...

Corbyn's position has again only shifted semantically, as he came under further pressure. We still don't know what he means by another referendum. He's previously said it would be a referendum on Labour's Brexit plan as opposed to May's Brexit plan. That's just taking the piss.

1. The Tories were never going to join up to Labour's proposal for a CU (which is irrelevant anyway to NI etc.), because the only point of Brexit for Tory core members and voters is to be out of the CU, so as to implement a policy of protectionism for those same small business people. For May to pact with Labour would have seen her out on her ear.

2. Labour plan for being in the CU and a seat at the table, whilst negotiating its own deals etc. would never be accepted by the EU, because it would destroy its basis. The EU may make friendly noises in that direction, but only to further weaken May's position. In any actual negotiations they would tell Corbyn what they have always told him - to have a seat at the table you have to be in the EU. Labour would have to accept that, and thereby as Gardiner previously said, become a vassal state, or would be faced with itself implementing a No Deal Brexit of some kind.

3. May will get no concessions to get her deal through parliament. If she gets it through it will be on the basis of another capitulation, of right-wing Labour MP's backing the deal, and some of the ERG voting for it. But, given the 230 majority against it, it will take some climb down to get the votes required.

4. Having failed to pass her deal, May will not go for a crash out, because it would destroy the economy, lead to chaos and an emergency Bre-entry, with UK losing all its current opt-outs.

5. So May will have to try to get a majority for her deal or something else by other means. That means calling a GE. Either May gets a majority, and pushes on with her deal, or more likely a Managed No Deal, and Canada, or Labour wins the election (unlikely) and has to take the blame for Brexit, even more than it currently will.

6. We are headed for a GE. On Corbyn's current positions, Labour will lose, and the Blair-rights will have been given a perfect opportunity to blame him, and make a return. All down, once again to the lunacies of Stalinist politics and strategy.

Boffy said...

"If socialism is, among other things, the democratisation of the state and social life, then setting aside the outcome of a mass democratic exercise is not a place any socialist wants to be, or should be in."

Phil, I'm surprised that you of all people could produce this bourgeois-democratic twaddle. Socialists are not in favour of "democratisation" of the state, but of smashing it! We want to destroy the state, as an instrument of class oppression, whose very existence indicates that class society still exists, and that oppression along with it. That is precisely the point Marx makes in The Eighteenth Brumaire, about previous revolutions only perfecting it rather than smashing it.

Moreover, this talk of "the state" again shows the extent to which Stalinist/social-democratic ideas have infected the labour movement, because talk of "the state" only has meaning for a marxist if it is qualified by what kind of state it is - a feudal state, a capitalist state, a workers state?

Marxists are certainly in favour of democratisation of a Workers State, in so far as it continues to exist in the process of its withering away, but talk of democratising the bosses state rings of all of that Lassallean nonsense, criticised by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, that was inherited by the social-democrats and Stalinists.

But, I take it then that you will now be holding to that principle and continuing to argue against Labour now calling for such an "undemocratic" further referendum.

j said...

A few points around which I would genuinely value your opinion

- A lot of my comrades tend to see this in binary terms. However, by my reckoning (and depending upon ones definition), at least 50% of working class voters opted for remain. If around 60% of Labour voters favour some brand of remain, why does the argument constantly fixate on the sentiment of leave voters? What about younger people in marginal constituencies? What would be the effect if they simply abstained from voting?

- During the past four months, Brexits media & public animus appears to have receded almost wholly to parliament. Consequently, MP's feel their power as a lot of hitherto insubstantial people fling around various amendments. For a party that aspires towards mass politics and popular agency, the effects must be enervating.

- Why has such little work gone into scoping what a socialist remain campaign might look like?

I recently had a stab; https://www.iwa.wales/click/2019/02/how-radical-remain-can-win/

It's relatively short, but for those who cannot be arsed reading;

1: It argues for an insurgent campaign located in peoples immediate (and legitimate!) economic demands.
2: It also argues that Peoples Vote is a busted flush and that we should go nowhere near it.
3: Rather, we should undertake a rude and aggressive drive, demanding the domestic redistribution of the EU's economic dividends - delivered by people from *within* working class communities.
4: Put briefly - the rich have grown fat on our EU membership. Let's remain and share that wealth around.

Boffy said...

"Should we worry about Labour leavers though? Well, yes. Of course we should. After all, the condition for winning an unexpected number of these voters back from UKIP in the 2017 General Election was Labour's acceptance of the referendum result."

There is a) no evidence that UKIP voters in Labour seats ever were Labour voters, as opposed to being previously, apathetic non-voters, or supporters of the BNP/NF, or other kinds of mavericks - which is also a characteristic of some of those Labour councillors that joined UKIP, and b) there is absolutely no evidence that Labour's crazy "respect" Brexit stance led to any substantial vote for Labour by former UKIP voters.

Labour's increased vote, as seen by the declines of Liberal and Green vote share, came from Remain voters that previously supported these other parties, who voted Labour to stop a hard Tory Brexit, and in the hope that Labour would move eventually to an anti-Brexit stance. In places it came from Tory Remain voters - Kensington and Chelsea, Canterbury. It came from former Labour voters that had become disillusioned by Blairism, but they are not the ones that were always prone to voting UKIP or other gangs based on bigotry.

Had Labour adopted a principled position of opposing Brexit outright, it would have won more of that support, and lost virtually none of the bigots' votes. As Labour has now gone through this journey, and still appears to be failing in taking a principled stand, and despite this semantic repositioning still looking like the Brexit second 11, it is likely to lose many of those progressive votes it picked up in 2017, and it is that which has caused the change in stance.

Boffy said...

"That said, a couple of other calculations come into consideration. First, May's Brexit can very clearly and unambiguously be dubbed a Tory Brexit, which isn't an argument too difficult to sustain."

No it can't, because Labour has mostly voted through the Tory Brexit measures, and all along has itself said it is committed to Brexit. The opinion of business is that both are responsible, because both parties have failed to produce any credible solutions. The idea that a "Labour brexit" could somehow have been any less a disaster is fantasy, and no one believes it, outside a group of people trying to justify the disastrous position that Labour has taken over the last three years.

If voters actually believed that the disaster is a Tory Brexit, and that a Labour Brexit would be wonderful, why is it that Labour is not way ahead in the olls, rather than lagging?

Boffy said...

"And third, for the rising generation of voters coming of age then Labour can now say that, at the end of it all, it did what it could to prevent a Tory Brexit."

They could try to say that, but no one will believe it.

Deviation From The Mean said...

Let us summarise Boffy’s position in relation to Brexit. Boffy is totally for free trade, he just loves it and supports free trade and at the same time Boffy wants us to remain in the EU to, erm, protect us from free trade (race to the bottom etc)!

Boffy once again uses the dialectic in a thoroughly diabolical way! In fact he doesn’t use the dialectic at all, he is just making this stuff up as he goes along, hence the inner inconsistency of his logic. This inner inconsistency of his logic can be seen in number of positions he takes, his positions almost always being ideological rather than logical, empirical and historical. Boffy has no theory he just clings to dogmas.


“Socialists are not in favour of "democratisation" of the state”

This may be so but they are not in favour of the de-democratisation of the state either!

And it does beg the question; if socialists are not in favour of "democratisation" of the state what other democratisations are socialists not in favour of? The democratisation of universal suffrage, don’t take part in capitalist elections? After all we aim to smash bourgeois democracy in all its guises right? How about democratisation of the economy, for example workers on capitalist firm’s boards? We plan to smash the wage slave system right, so no democratisation of the economy?

Boffy uses Lasallle as an example but "democratisation" of the state of the state is a political question and I am pretty sure that Marx said workers should take an active interest in even bourgeois politics (doesn’t mean he was right but he certainly said it). After all Marx saw fit to advise the bourgeois that the Bank Act was a mistake! He can hardly do that and then tell workers to ignore decisions that directly affect their lives!

Jim Denham said...

But how embarrassing for those Lexiteers and anti-second referendum latter-day Harry Pollitts who’ve “argued” their position essentially on the basis of blind loyalty to Corbyn: will they now change policy, just as the British CP got the line wrong on the outbreak of the Second World War and had to change its line a few days later, costing Pollitt his job as CP General Secretary?

bbk said...

I don't know how this will impact Labour's chances in a GE, but this is pretty clearly a victory for the TIG people and all the Corbyn opponents.

The best outcome for them would be Brexit not happening or at least a "soft" a Brexit as possible, and Corbyn losing a GE.

If May fails and no-deal becomes likely then there is a greater chance of a snap GE. In that situation Corbyn becomes the only choice for Remainers because Labour will still be the major party most against Brexit (if not enough for some people). That will be a nightmare for the TIG people because then their goals of preventing Brexit and stopping Corbyn conflict.

But if a referendum is possible then Brexit can be stopped without having Corbyn win a GE. Even better, forcing Corbyn to support a referendum may even reduce his chances of winning a GE even more while not impacting the chance of stopping Brexit.

The TIG people have played their mendacious hand well. Their darkly ironic "love" of democracy for some things (like a referendum), but not for others (like a by-election) is perfectly pitched to achieve their actual goals. With the friendly media covering for them, they've been able to threaten Labour as a potential party of government to get what they want. It's hard to beat someone willing to kill what is supposed to be precious to both sides.

Boffy said...

"In that situation Corbyn becomes the only choice for Remainers because Labour will still be the major party most against Brexit (if not enough for some people). "

Except its clear, even now that it isn't! Milne and co. tried to brief immediately that the change of course was not a change of course. Thornberry then had to tweet that she had not "misspoken" to slap Milne etc down. But, we have COrbyn still extremely ambiguous on what the position would be if there is another referendum, and even more ambiguous if there is a GE, seeming to say that his position would still be to first continue to tilt at windmills with his ridiculous and impossible "Jobs First brexit" position.

McDonnell on Peston said something similar but slightly nuanced, to say they are still hoping for a GE, in which they would argue for this have cake and eat it Brexit, as their first option! On top of that, we have McDonnell and Corbyn showing all the backbone of a bowl of oxtail soup, as they throw Williamson under the bus, whilst allowing Watson to continue to mobilise the Blair-rights against them, and allowing all the right-wing Labour MP's like Snell, Flynn and so on to openly declare they will defy the Labour position in order to appease the bigots in their constituencies who they still stupidly believe ever were, or ever will be core Labour voters, and who, in the process will thereby lose thousands of actual progressive Labour voters, as well as all those Liberals, Greens etc. who lent them their votes in 2017.

This is just about the worst example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory I have seen the Left engage in in my lifetime, and I'm old enough to have seen quite a few such examples.

Patrick Holt said...

It's a catastrophic error. Remainiacs, particularly Momentum remianiacs may have judged that most Corbynist activists will loyally accept the reversal, but the same does not apply to previously non-voting working class Leavers. Who have been marginalised and underestimated within the same mental frame of Remainiac snobbery and condescencion as that exibited by the wider Remainiac campaigns. Their willingness to turn out and vote for Corbyn's Labour is much more conditional, and much more battered by the continuing suspensions and expulsions of Labour left stalwarts, instead of Blairite enemies (from the pint of view of those voters)being perpetrated under the rubrik of hostility to BDS. Many of those voters will know someone who has previously been expelled by the Blairites during the '90s and 2000s, and the struggles to get Jeremy Corbyn elected and re-elected as leader in the first place in which they or someone they know was prevented from joining or viting at some point. The fact that thses witch-hunts are being carried out in the name of identity politics, rather than class politics will only highlight the differences in political culture that seperate them from the middle-class London-centric lefties backing Remain. Enough will refuse to vote Labour for us to lose because of this move, unless, and this is crucial, it never happens and we leave on WTO terms on march 29th, which is what the vast majority of Lexiters, like all other Leavers, voted for.

Boffy said...

"but the same does not apply to previously non-voting working class Leavers. Who have been marginalised and underestimated within the same mental frame of Remainiac snobbery and condescencion as that exibited by the wider Remainiac campaigns. Their willingness to turn out and vote for Corbyn's Labour is much more conditional, and much more battered by the continuing suspensions and expulsions of Labour left stalwarts, instead of Blairite enemies (from the pint of view of those voters)being perpetrated under the rubrik of hostility to BDS."

What utter confusion! The whole point about "previously non-voting working class Leavers" is precisely that - they were non-voters!!! Moreover, most of them when they did vote did not vote Labour, but UKIP/BNP or some other maverick bunch. Moreover, it is precisely because of their backward, individualistic politics that these non-voting, working-class Leavers, are the last people in the world to be bothered about "the continuing suspensions and expulsions of Labour left stalwarts".

"Many of those voters will know someone who has previously been expelled by the Blairites during the '90s and 2000s".

No they won't, because if they can't usually even be arsed to vote, and when they do, they vote for reactionaries, they are unlikely to be privy to the internal workings of the LP, or be bothered in the least about it. If anything they would probably be in support of the expulsions of what they would see as loony left troublemakers.