The self-inflicted fate of Labour’s referendum sceptics
Since the EU referendum, I’ve thought our least bad option was to implement it in moderate fashion — to meet each other halfway rather than poison our politics or burn down our economy. I still think that. It may be the third choice out of three on first preferences. But I prefer universal grumpiness to pleasing one half of the country, enraging the other and filling both with mutual loathing.
So I’ve had a lot of sympathy with Labour’s reasonable second referendum sceptics. I think Lisa Nandy is right to fear the damage it could do to our politics. I completely understand why Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell worry about killing off the alliance between Hampstead and Hull. I see the People’s Voters’ confidence of winning a referendum and think hubris begets nemesis. I don’t want the UK to become an embittered cuckoo in the EU nest.
But at some point a diagnosis requires a prescription. And Labour’s sceptics have almost all refused to grasp, still less follow, the logic of their views. That logic was fairly clear. Save for Kate Hoey (with whom I have no sympathy), their problems with May’s Brexit related to the future relationship, not the Withdrawal Agreement. It was and is abundantly clear that the Withdrawal Agreement is the only one on offer and the Political Declaration is not binding. Quite rightly, almost no Labour MPs are prepared to countenance No Deal. They therefore needed the Withdrawal Agreement, and as much input for MPs into the future relationship as they could get.
Further, many of the Labour sceptics didn’t want a Brexit all that different from May’s. They usually wanted to end free movement. They wanted a customs union, and they usually wanted more regulatory alignment than the Tory Brexiteers. The Northern Ireland backstop entails a customs union for the foreseeable future anyway, so the real differences were relatively minor. Dynamic alignment on employment law rather than a level playing field is not a stake for which anyone should gamble the country.
In fairness, five current and two ex-Labour MPs did, at some point, vote for what they said they wanted. Kevin Barron, John Mann and (no longer Labour) Ian Austin did from the beginning, along with Frank Field (who’d left already). Caroline Flint did from the second meaningful vote. And Rosie Cooper and Jim Fitzpatrick voted for the Withdrawal Agreement on 29 March. No other Labour MP in favour of an orderly Brexit has cast a single vote to concretely advance their cause.
They may have voted for one or more non-binding options in the ‘indicative votes’. But any option they cared to name required the Withdrawal Agreement first — the Agreement they refuse to help ratify. And it rapidly became clear that even when the Government offered the main procedural requirements they could reasonably have hoped for on MPs’ input into the future relationship, it wouldn’t be enough for them.
By then it was far too late not to hold the European elections. And in holding them, we gave new shape to the radicalisation of British politics on Remain/Leave lines. The Labour sceptics gave their internal opponents the electoral argument they’d always lacked before: that if Leavers would punish a reversal, Remainers would punish a compromise. The result? More Labour MPs now fear losing votes to the Liberal Democrats than to the Brexit Party.
Sealing the fate of the Withdrawal Agreement also, finally, sealed the fate of Theresa May. Obviously Tory MPs had far more to do with her political demise than Labour MPs, who could hardly be expected to sustain her. But the likelihood must be that our next Prime Minister will be more, not less, hardline than she is. And if the Withdrawal Agreement is dead in Westminster, Brussels has no intention of allowing another to be born.
Partly as a result, the middle ground is dying. MPs who want a deal and a compromise — rather than a culture war grudge-match via a second referendum or an accelerationist, destructive No Deal — have no viable leaders and no concrete offer. Unless a genuine pragmatist wins the Tory leadership election, the Withdrawal Agreement seems dead. We are staring down the barrel of a No Deal or No Brexit choice.
I’d have voted for the Withdrawal Agreement. And until lately I’d have voted against a second referendum. But I can’t call myself a realist and argue for all MPs to resist a referendum when MPs who say they want a deal have shown they’ll never vote for a real, not imagined, Brexit. Our legal default remains No Deal. And so we can either seek to reverse Brexit or be dithered off a No Deal cliff.
I prefer a second referendum to revocation with no democratic mandate and to No Deal. I really don’t want one. I don’t want to turn our politics into something like America’s without the checks and balances. If the chance for compromise re-emerges, I’ll be relieved. But for now, I see no such hope.
The diehards on all sides must take their share of blame. But a special responsibility rests with those who said they wanted a compromise and never followed through. They have no right to blame moderate Remainers who seek other ways to stop disaster.
This post was originally published on Medium.com on 4 June 2019.