It has been an interesting few days for the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader, has made a couple of pronouncements. First, there was this:
Corbyn has been clear on this too:https://t.co/aEIYjRu1Fl
“We can’t stop it. The referendum took place. Article 50 has been triggered. What we can do is recognize the reasons why people voted Leave.”
— Steve Kneale (@steve_kneale) November 10, 2018
Then there was this:
— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) November 11, 2018
As Giles Fraser noted on Twitter, ‘I have always believed Jeremy Corbyn to be one of Brexit’s canniest advocates.’ I agree. But ‘we can’t stop Brexit’ and he doesn’t agree with Jo Johnson on a second referendum. That all seems pretty clear.
But then Keir Starmer went on TV to say this:
“Brexit can be stopped” – @Keir_Starmer contradicts @jeremycorbyn‘s recent comments on the UK’s exit from the EU. @skysarahjane asks Starmer why the Labour leader is getting the party’s #Brexit policy wrong.
— Sky News Politics (@SkyNewsPolitics) November 12, 2018
If you can’t be bothered to watch the video, the key phrase is this: ‘Brexit can be stopped.’ Oh. Alright then. The party leader says it can’t be stopped while the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union says it most certainly can be stopped. The party leader insists we don’t need a second referendum while the Shadow Secretary of State for Existing the European Union insists that a second referendum is very much a live option still on the table.
Perhaps Emily Thornberry could clarify:
— Property Spotter (@PropertySpot) November 11, 2018
But then again:
Perhaps Diane Abbott could help us out:
“If you want a second referendum now, be careful what you wish you for. My suspicion is that the same people who voted leave… would vote leave again saying: ‘didn’t you hear us the first time?’”
— George Aylett (@GeorgeAylett) November 9, 2018
That neither quite says whether she would back one or not, just that there are problems if we do.
Twitter has generally been arguing (rightly or wrongly) that it is Jeremy Corbyn who has departed from Labour Party policy. The policy as agreed at the Labour Party conference was that ‘all options are on the table.’ That has generally been viewed as including the possibility of a second referendum, either on the final deal or on whether we leave with that deal or stay in the EU. Now Corbyn, seemingly backed by the likes of McDonnell and Abbott (who would very much share his politics and views on the EU), is suggesting that Brexit can’t be stopped and a second referendum would not be helpful.
It would be easy to point out that the Labour Party are in a bit of a mess on this issue. There can be little doubt about that. But let’s not pretend the Conservative Party aren’t similarly up the creek without a paddle. They are currently facing a series of resignations from people on all sides of the debate on the grounds that they are currently pleasing absolutely nobody. The only party who seem to be as one on the issue is the Lib Dems who, if current reports are to be believed, are facing oblivion.
The problem we have is that there really is no compromise on a binary choice. The reality is that we either leave the EU and all its mechanisms – Single Market, Customs Union and ECJ – or we remain in it. Talk of soft or hard Brexits really just muddy the essential issue. The referendum campaign, on both sides of the debate, made clear that leaving would mean leaving all of these things. The problem is that parliament is overwhelmingly made up of MPs who do not want to leave the EU. They are caught between upholding the will of the people and embarking on a decision that they (for whatever reason) do not believe to be the best. We thus, from certain quarters, receive the strangest of fudge that attempts to tread the fiction that they are, indeed, upholding the democratic will of the people whilst simultaneously not doing what they have asked having been given the choice and assured whatever they decide would be implemented.
The fact is, there is no compromise here. Either MPs enact Brexit as per the referendum, or they do not, in which case they will have overruled a democratically reached decision of the people. There simply is no way to square democratic principles with rejecting what has been asked of elected representatives. Keir Starmer stating ‘Brexit can be stopped’ may as well have said ‘the people can be ignored.’ Like it or not, Diane Abbott’s warning in the video above is entirely right.
The big problem for Labour is that its traditional supporter base overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU. The Northern mill and mine towns – where most Labour support was once found – determined to leave the EU. The metropolitan centres, where Labour also have considerable support, largely voted to remain. Electorally, Labour have a big problem. They could fight the referendum result, pleasing some of their supporters and angering others, or they can push to enact it upsetting the other group. They are hoping to keep all sides happy by not coming down too heavily on any side – it is a big electoral gamble that those who want them to do something in particular (and everyone does want something in particular) will not resent the fudge.
The truth is, if strong support for remain would lead to an influx of support from remainers, the Lib Dems would currently be soaring in the polls. As it is, they are facing electoral wipeout and financial ruin. The only party to lay out its stall as openly anti-Brexit, with a clear intent to stop it at all costs, are dying on their feet. It doesn’t account for the fact that many remainers – though they intended to stay in the EU – are democrats before they are EU advocates. They would rather we pressed on with Brexit given the democratic vote on the matter than we worked hard to overturn what has clearly been decided. The view is summed up here by Geoffrey Archer:
Remainers will happily tell us that the referendum was just advisory. That is, essentially, true. But it was presented to the electorate as a vote that would be implemented and the government would listen to the advice of the people. If they had no intention of listening to the voice of the people, the referendum was pointless. Indeed, they could have held a consultation – as they often do – to hear the views of the people and it would be billed as advisory as all consultations are. But that didn’t happen. It was a vote that we were told would certainly be implemented, come what may. For example, here is Wes Streeting – a Labour remainer – making that known:
A week before the referendum, Wes Streeting told Parliament “I voted to give people a choice, and I will abide by their decision when they make it next week”.
Now he’s on a #LosersMarch to overturn the result of that referendum. That is NOT abiding by their decision. pic.twitter.com/kyVngK91d3
— Change Britain (@Change_Britain) 20 October 2018
So here is a question for the political establishment that wants to remain: do they value our membership of the EU more than they value democracy? The government has been on a drive to push British values, one of which is democracy. None of those values, interestingly enough, were membership of supranational organisations. Do they value their own invention of British values more than our membership of the EU, which they did not include?
So, yes, Keir Starmer is right that Brexit can be stopped. But, and I presume this was the subtext of Jeremy Corbyn’s comment on the issue, it cannot be stopped whilst upholding democratic principles. So which do the political establishment value most?