The 2016 referendum marked a significant change in the UK’s constitutional practice. It shifted the democratic centre of British politics. England and Wales voted to leave the EU and Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain. Nobody voted to leave the single market or the customs union. It required Her Majesty’s Government to negotiate a deal with the EU and, in recognition of popular sovereignty, return to the people to ratify in a Yes/No referendum.
The Tories rejected most of this. Leaving the single market and customs union is the crucial aspect of their version of Brexit for their plan for a free trade with Trump and US health corporations and to ramp up immigration control and a build up hostile racist environment. The Tories, as English unionists, are determined to impose their policy on the majorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland who voted to remain in the EU.
Corbyn seized the centre ground. He took a ‘remain-democrat’ stance when he voted to trigger Article 50, in the 2017 general election manifesto and in the 2018 Labour conference resolution. Labour already supported a ratification referendum but not a Remain question. However Labour fudged the democratic issue in calling for ‘a’ customs union, instead of remaining in the actual one, and aligning with the single market instead of remaining in it. Most significantly Labour failed to demand the democratic right of Northern Ireland and Scotland to remain in the EU.
Nevertheless, Labour’s imperfect version of a remain-democrat position enabled Corbyn to block Tory Brexit and wage a successful parliamentary struggle against it. May was beaten three times in the Commons and eventually forced to resign. Thanks to Labour’s fight, the UK is still in the EU at least until 31 October. Those who oppose leaving should be singing Corbyn’s praises. The very opposite is true. He has been isolated as former allies like John McDonnell, Diane Abbot, Paul Mason and others have backed Watson.
There has been a massive campaign waged by Tom Watson and the Labour right to destabilise and eventually overthrow Corbyn. Watson’s transitional programme demands Labour switch to a second referendum for remain and reform, expel the socialist left through the anti-Semitic witch-hunt, and demand the sack for Corbyn’s closest advisors. It has been a continuous barrage of lies, slanders and misrepresentations which has brought Labour into disrepute.
The real winners in Watson’s battle against Corbyn are the Tories. By adopting a liberal ‘remain and reform’ unity in the Labour PLP may break-down. Mays’s deal, which was defeated in parliament, could conceivably be resurrected and repackaged. As section of Labour MPs released from any need to follow Labour discipline may vote with the Tories. The unintended consequence of Labour shifting to remain could be victory for Tory Brexit.
Corbyn has been resisting and standing by the 2018 conference policy, backed up by Len McCluskey. But on Monday five union leaders, including Unite, backed a switch. Corbyn signalled the change after the shadow cabinet meeting. He wrote to Labour members saying “As democrats, Labour accepted the result of the 2016 referendum. In our 2017 manifesto, Labour also committed to oppose a No Deal Brexit and the Tories’ Brexit plans – which threatened jobs, living standards, and the open multicultural society that we as internationalists value so much.” He continues “Labour set out a compromise plan to try to bring the country together based around a customs union, a strong single market relationship and protection of environmental regulations and rights at work”.
He reassures members “We continue to believe this is a sensible alternative that could bring the country together” and says “Whoever becomes the new Prime Minister should have the confidence to put their deal, or No Deal, back to the people in a public vote”. So far democrats can agree.
However Corbyn has added the call for a remain question on any ballot paper. This introduces a new compromise into Labour’s existing compromise. Labour still wants a general election for a Labour government to go the Brussels and negotiate an alternative deal. But then Labour comes back and supports ‘remain’ in a referendum against its own deal! This is a real problem without an answer as yet.
9 July 2019