Pressure is building on UK opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn to switch course and back a referendum on whatever Brexit deal the government reaches with the European Union.
Labour Party activists are trying to force a debate on the issue at its annual conference in Liverpool next month. If they succeed – and there are still some hurdles – a second plebiscite that could potentially reverse Brexit becomes much more likely.
Efforts to secure a shift in Labour policy are intensifying due to warnings from senior government ministers that Britain could crash out of the EU without a deal, according to Mike Buckley, a party member from Sheffield, northern England, and director of the Labour for a People’s Vote campaign group.
“More and more people can see Brexit is going to end up very, very badly for the people we got into politics for,” he said.
Labour has been trying to straddle both sides of the Brexit divide to balance the fact that while most districts the party represents backed leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum, the majority of its supporters nationwide voted to remain. The party has said it respects the result and that if voted into power, would “prioritise jobs and living standards” in talks with Brussels.
With an October deadline for Theresa May’s government and the EU to reach a deal fast approaching, Labour may be forced to change tactics.
Supporting a second vote would create a clear division between Labour and May’s Conservative Party, which has consistently said politicians have a duty to deliver on the result of the referendum. But it would also be a considerable risk, as lawmakers across party lines fear that another vote would be seen as subverting democracy.
National polls are also inconclusive as to which way a second referendum would go.
Buckley’s group is urging local party branches to put forward a motion to the conference, which says that Labour should try to force an early general election and then campaign on a pledge for a referendum on any divorce deal with the EU – including an option to stay in the bloc. If there’s no election, the party should push for a referendum from opposition, it says.
If the motion is debated and passed at conference, it would put pressure on Corbyn but wouldn’t necessarily force a policy change. When the Unite trade union, Labour’s biggest financial backer, debated a similar motion this year, a compromise was brokered so as not to “tie the hands of the leadership.”
That may happen again this time, even though a survey of 1,024 Labour members last year found 78 per cent supported a second referendum.
Buckley’s group has tried to make its motion as appealing as possible. To counter any claims that it amounts to an attack on Corbyn, it clearly states support for the party leader and his redistributive agenda. Its position is bolstered by the fact that thousands of members of Momentum – the grassroots group set up to support Corbyn’s leadership – have also signed a petition calling for a second referendum to be put on the conference agenda.
More than 4,100 people have signed so far, but only an estimated 70-80 per cent are Momentum members, petition organiser Alena Ivanova said, meaning it still falls short of the threshold of about 4,000 needed to force a Momentum-wide poll on whether to press for a conference debate on the issue.
Ivanova is keen to avoid any association with pro-EU Labour lawmakers who sought to oust the leader in 2016 amid criticism of his lackluster role in the Brexit referendum. While some of them are also pressing for a second vote, they’re a hindrance to the campaign, she said.
“The less some of the figures who are tainted with previously trying to sabotage Jeremy Corbyn are seen to push for this, the better the chances are of it getting to the conference floor,” Ivanova said by phone. “One of the reasons the petition is important is because it shows there is an appetite from the left to discuss this.”
Though not Labour policy, senior Labour officials have left open the possibility of a second referendum. Treasury spokesman John McDonnell told Bloomberg in April that the party hasn’t “ruled anything out,” though his preference was for a general election.
Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, told the BBC last month that if there’s no divorce deal, or if Parliament rejects the agreement May brings back from Brussels, “the sensible thing is to keep all our options on the table.”
Buckley said he expects about 200 of the 647 Labour constituency parties to consider his group’s motion by the deadline of September 13, and as many as 50 of them to send it to conference as the one item they are permitted to propose for debate. Nine have so far chosen to do so.
Delegates would then vote on the first day of conference on whether it should be added to the official agenda – alongside other motions on the health service, education or the economy.