In this article, Chris Annous argues that the “People’s Vote” campaign are acting primarily in the interests of the Labour Party, and through their deliberate actions are undermining the chances of a second referendum to prevent internal Labour splits, and increase the Labour party’s electability over those of its other component members.
Just 6% of Britons think that Theresa May’s deal has negotiated a good Brexit deal. (Natcen, 2019), but despite this sweeping displeasure with what Brexit has become, ‘Second referendum’ campaigners have been unable to link this dissatisfaction with the deal to support for a People’s Vote, or halting Brexit. Their most damning failure has been their inability to assemble the necessary parliamentary majority for a referendum on the Brexit deal. Why, when the majority of MP’s voted for remain in 2016 and, like the British people, are united in their dislike of Theresa May’s deal, is there not a parliamentary or popular majority for another referendum?
I believe that the official ‘People’s vote’ campaign is the key problem, considerably harming the chances of a 2nd Referendum. By prioritising Labour’s credibility as a party for Remain voters (and so also preventing a split) the ex-Labour party grandees that run the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign have willingly undermined wider efforts to force Corbyn’s Labour into properly backing a 2nd Referendum. Labour’s support is pivotal to the success of any 2nd referendum campaign, as with Theresa May committed to leaving whatever the cost – a cause in which she is joined by the majority of the Conservative party – the only route to the necessary parliamentary majority for a 2nd Referendum is through genuine and vocal support from Corbyn’s Labour party.
To understand how and why the People’s vote campaign is hindering the chances of a new referendum, one must first look at the organisation’s structure and the campaigners directing it. After the referendum, the official remain campaign was succeeded by “Open Britain” in September 2016, with an aim to keep Brexit Britain in the single market. This ambition later evolved into a demand for a 2nd Referendum in March 2018 as it officially launched the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign, and assimilated grassroot organisations like OFOC into its wider network.
Open Britain was demonstrably an organisation dominated by Blairite era Labour heavyweights: Lord Mandelson, Will Straw (son of Jack), and Trevor Phillips are all directors, as is Roland Rudd, a close advisor to both Blair and Mandelson. Indeed, of the 13 Open Britain Directors listed on Companies House, 6 of them are strongly partisan Labour figures, with just 2 tied to the Liberal Democrats, and one to the Conservatives. In addition to this, many of the more notable People’s Vote activists have persistent Labour links. One of the campaign’s most high-profile spokespeople – Femi Oluwole – has regularly praised and excused Corbyn for his hints and then retractions of support for a 2nd Referendum. Femi openly and frequently defends his decision to vote Labour at the 2017 General Election, which makes you question which comes first: his support for a second Referendum, or for Corbyn?
It is thus clear that the campaign has a strong Labour presence right through to its core, but this would not be comment worthy if these directors and senior activists weren’t prioritising partisan loyalty over the need for a 2nd referendum. Sadly the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign are – through their own actions – fatally undermining the chances of a 2nd referendum.
While cross-party collaboration is clearly needed to bring about a 2nd referendum, it seems that ‘People’s Vote’ have taken this as a call to write the Liberal Democrats – and to a lesser extent the Greens, SNP, and Plaid – out of history by labelling their work as cross-party collaboration under their non-partisan banner, completely erasing their politicians from the coverage and narrative of the campaign. In contrast, every single flutter towards backing a People’s Vote by Labour party figures has been heavily promoted by the campaign – for instance the fanfare surrounding Tom Watson’s presence at the most recent march – with no promotion of the fact that Jeremy Corbyn and the rest of the Labour leadership declined to attend. This lack of support from People’s Vote for parties and electoral vehicles that are actually pro-referendum is fatally damaging the chances of another referendum, as it undermines their genuine work while facilitating Labour’s dithering Brexit stance.
Corbyn has always wanted to leave the EU since his vote to leave in the 1975 EEC referendum, and his stubbornness to deliver a Brexit has shown this to still be the case. However, in outright refusing to press Corbyn into explicitly stating his position on a second referendum, the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign are prioritising Labour interests over the wider those of their own movement. The ‘People’s Vote’ campaign did this first by actively discouraging supportive MPs from initiating parliamentary votes on holding another referendum. They have recently regressed further into this quagmire by denouncing Sarah Wollaston’s pro-referendum amendment during the second Meaningful Vote, providing Corbyn with his excuse to abstain once again. By not being forced to cast a ‘Yes/No’ vote on a 2nd Referendum, Corbyn has been able to broadcast that he supports another referendum to Labour Remainers whilst refusing, and effectively blocking, any efforts to bring one about, a deception the People’s Vote has actively facilitated. The deceit continued during last month’s indicative votes, with Labour announcing that their favoured Brexit outcome was their own ‘jobs first’ Brexit, with a referendum only on a Conservative deal rather than Brexit as a whole.
By not forcing Corbyn to commit to a Brexit policy, the campaign has allowed him to continue backing Brexit, but without the otherwise inevitable associated fallout amongst Labour supporters and members. As long as the ‘People’s vote’ campaign permits this, the 2nd referendum becomes ever less likely.
Thus, if campaigners are to get Labour properly backing a 2nd Referendum – whips enforced and leadership not contradicting – they will need to give Corbyn an electoral incentive to do so. Corbyn will only move his stance on an issue when he knows it might to wreck his chances of power: look at his move from advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament to reluctantly supporting Trident at the 2017 General Election. Consequently, a resurgent, pro-referendum force – attracting the support of large numbers of 2017 Labour Remainers – is needed to threaten him, but many of these disillusioned Labour Remainers don’t feel they have a viable alternative vehicle. If the ‘People’s vote’ campaign prioritised a 2nd Referendum over the future and prospects of the Labour party, they would be promoting and driving resources towards the cash-strapped yet effective Liberal Democrats so that they could better reach Remain voters, and force Corbyn into backing a 2nd Referendum. Their refusal to do so, and active undermining of genuine campaigning through their variable coverage, is thus a clear demonstration of the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign’s true intentions.
I support a 2nd Referendum as it is the only way out of this Brexit paralysis, but the ‘People’s vote’ campaign is a Labour dominated organisation that through its diminishment of sincere pro-referendum parties and appeasement of Corbyn’s opposition is prioritising the interests of the Labour Party over the chances of another referendum. As Liberal Democrats, we must work with the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign where they can help, but not be subjugated by a campaign that has ulterior motives to our the otherwise worthy campaign.