Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, the Labour Party’s effective number 2, has just stated that his party will “inevitably” back another referendum. Does this statement mark a shift in party policy?
The answer is no. How then can we make sense of this statement? This statement is entirely consistent with the Labour Party’s current policy on Brexit.
Just like Brexit itself, Labour’s policy on Brexit is a complicated one – largely because it seeks to maintain an uneasy presumed coalition between Remain- and Leave-voting segments of the electorate – and that is one reason why so many (including Labour voters) claim they do not understand or know it.
Labour does not oppose Brexit despite the views of both its voters and the vast majority of its members. Rather it claims to support a ‘jobs first Brexit’.
This is a contradiction in terms since respected analysts (as well as the government) estimate that any type of Brexit (including one based on the Withdrawal Agreement as not one but at least two studies have shown) will hit the UK economy in the short and medium term.
But since Labour is in opposition, not in government, it cannot conduct the negotiations between the UK and the EU. Prior to the conclusion of these negotiations, Labour devised six tests on the basis of which it would then assess the outcome of these negotiations.
Predictably, the agreement reached by the minority Conservative government and the EU failed these tests and this is why Labour is officially against the Withdrawal Agreement and is expected to vote against it in the House of Commons. This is where the party’s second policy segment becomes relevant.
Labour claims to be able to pursue a better deal and this is why they want to replace the Conservative administration.
The Labour party favours a general election as the means to achieve that objective and this is significant since the actual meaning of both EU membership and Brexit depends – at least up to a point – on choices made by national governments.
However, replacing the government is not in Labour’s gift, due a) to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011, and b) the fact that the most ardent supporters of Brexit on the Conservative benches do not appear to be capable (at least at present) of replacing Prime Minister Theresa May with one of their own, despite all the noise they have been making recently about it.
John McDonnell’s statement reflects growing awareness that – at least for the time being – the route to a general election appears to be blocked.
This is where the Labour party’s third policy segment comes into play.
Since the route to a general election appears to be blocked, at least at present, and in the expectation of the Withdrawal Agreement’s rejection by the House of Commons, the only available route to the pursuit of Labour’s objectives is through another referendum.
This route has the significant advantage that it is overwhelmingly popular with current Labour members. However, this is also the point where Labour’s own contradictions (and the fragility of the coalition which it seeks to preserve) become apparent.
This is so because, in the event of another referendum, the party is open to the inclusion of the option of remaining in the EU on the ballot paper.
The honesty of this view will be tested if the legislation that is required for another referendum ever comes to the House of Commons.
Until then, Labour will quite happily keep taking any stance that appears to shift to the government the blame for any choice that this fragile government makes while hoping its own contradictions do not become too apparent.
By Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos, senior lecturer in politics at Birkbeck, University of London.