AT PRESENT BRITAIN is committed to leaving the EU. That was decided in a referendum in June 2016. Labour has accepted the result. We cannot challenge that decision now.
The LRC rejects the call for a second referendum at this time. The call is used by Corbyn’s critics to undermine his leadership. And also the 52% who voted to Leave would be rightly angered to vote on a repetition of the 2016 in/out question. Nothing material has changed since the first referendum.
The clock is ticking. The UK is due to leave the European Union on 29th March. It is still not clear whether Britain and the EU will have reached an agreement by then. The problem is that Theresa May has spent more time negotiating with her fractious Tory colleagues than with the EU. The present impasse is on account of the ‘backstop’. In the event of no deal, Northern Ireland alone (the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU) could stay in the EU customs union as a backstop - so there would be no tariffs on trade between the north and the Republic. The alternative is a hard border with customs, armed guards, the works. How long could this go on?
The Tories are propped up in Parliament by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), bribed with £1 billion of our money. The DUP is not happy with the suggested backstop arrangement, and neither are many Tories.
What should Labour do?
Labour is committed to negotiate a customs union with the EU. Theresa May has set her face like flint against the UK being either a member of the single market or the customs union, though neither issue was on the 2016 ballot paper. A customs union would solve the Irish border question which has deadlocked May’s negotiations. Unfortunately the Tories are in charge of negotiations for Brexit, and they are making a hash of it. At some stage the Tories will have to come back with a deal for Parliament to take a decision. They are likely to offer either:
» A deal based on Theresa May’s Chequers proposals, quite possibly watered down in negotiation.
» No deal because of a failure to agree with the EU. They want to frighten people with the threat of a chaotic ‘no deal’ Brexit to vote for a rotten Tory deal.
Many Tories would welcome a bonfire of controls on workers’ rights and consumer and environmental protection. So both a Chequers-based deal and a ‘no deal’ exit are almost certainly unacceptable. If the Conservatives try to force us to choose between the two, Labour must reject both.
When the government returns to Parliament with the terms they have negotiated, Labour has made it clear that the most important requirement for any deal to quit the EU is the defence of jobs and living standards. One of Labour’s six tests is, “Does it deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union?” That is why Labour must negotiate a customs union.
Airbus and auto firms have warned of the dangers to their complex supply chains spread across national boundaries posed by tariffs between the UK and the EU. The slightest disruption to these ‘just-in-time’ supply chains could be devastating - a threat to thousands of workers’ jobs. Nobody voted in 2016 to lose their job.
It is quite possible that Parliament will be incapable of coming to a decision, because of deep splits within the Tory Party. This will trigger a political and constitutional crisis.
The question of a referendum rather than a general election may arise again at the stage of a parliamentary impasse. John McDonnell has insisted that any second referendum should be on the terms of the deal, not a repetition of the ‘in/out’ vote in 2016.
A second referendum administered by the Tories would pose a number of problems for Labour. Crucial conditions - such as the wording of the referendum and who is entitled to vote - are both out of our control. The Electoral Commission would decide. The 2016 campaign served to divide the working class.
Referenda are inevitably binary, asking ‘yes/no’ questions. The few examples internationally of three part questions in referenda tend to demonstrate that they never get a clear majority for one view - 51%. That is one key dilemma of a proposed second referendum.
Labour’s preferred option is for a general election, the sooner the better. A general election puts all the issues facing the British people on the table, not just Brexit. Were Labour to win a general election, we would ask the EU to give the Labour government time to renegotiate terms of withdrawal. Only in the event that Labour’s negotiations were also unsuccessful would the decision to remain within the EU be on the table. If Labour forms a government, we would decide as a party, perhaps with a special conference, on the outcome of a deal and legislate it through Parliament.
Only Labour can solve the Brexit crisis.