On Monday Tory MP Justin Greening came out in favour of a second referendum. She proposed three questions and a system of prefential voting. The Labour Party is not in favour but did not rule it out. Therasa May said it would not happen under any circumstances. Politicians and parties are split between yes, no and maybe.
There will be a Tory Deal with the EU. There will be a process of ratification. The only question is who will be able to vote to ratify or reject it. It could be ratified by the Crown perhaps by the Privy Council. It could be endorsed by the Westminster parliament with its 1450 MPs and Lords having a “Meaningful Vote”. It could be ratified or rejected by 46 million people in a ‘Peoples referendum’.
Opposing a peoples vote means supporting the authority of the Crown-In-Parliament. There may be a case to oppose a ratification referendum but it is not based on general principles. This would find Weekly Worker automtically opposing the Irish referenda on gay marriage and abortion and the Scottish referendum on self determination and seperation. We cannot hide from the working class behind a big wall of ‘principles’.
We are not dealing with any old referenda at any old time but specifically in relation to the fight over the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. It is essential to distinguish “Repeat referendum” and “Ratification referendum”. The term “Second Referendum” is often used to confuse or obfuscate. We need to cut through that.
A Repeat referendum means asking the same question from 2016 – “Do you want to leave the EU”. It is claimed by the Right that leavers in the ruling elite want to overturn the result by running it again. The Irish case is cited. After the Treaty of Lisbon was voted down, the Irish government ran it again to get the result they wanted.
In principle there is no reason why a given nation should not be asked the same question again. People are then free to give the same answer or change their minds. Democracy is a process which involves learning more of the truth and thinking again. Elections every five years could be annual events. They are not “once in a life time” as Cameron described the 2014 Scottish referendum. Scotland’s IndieRef2 would be a Repeat referendum asking the same question as in 2014.
A Ratification referendum is different. It is not seeking to repeat the first EU referendum. It is asking a different question for the first time. “Do you support or reject the deal negotiated between Her Majesty’s Government and the EU?” The 1976 Common Market referendum was in effect a ratification of Ted Heath’s actual agreement to join the EU on known terms and not a decision to join in principle.
In England, Leave supporters often describe a Ratification referendum as a “second referendum” to suggest it is an attempt by anti-democratic forces to run the same event for a second time and get a different result. In January 2018 Nigel Farage mischievously called for a “second referendum”. He wanted to repeat the same question to put an end to the “moaning of politicians who had not accepted the previous vote” (Independent 11 January 2018).
Recently the University and College Union (UCU) circulated its members to consult on a ‘Second Referendum’. General Secretary Sally Hunt explained that “At its recent meeting the national executive committee (NEC) agreed to my recommendation that the union consult members on whether to support a second referendum on the final Brexit deal negotiated by the UK government”. Since there has not been a first referendum on the final deal, this displays a Faragean level of confusion.
We must be absolutely clear. Our slogan must be “No to a Second or Repeat referendum – Yes to a Ratification referendum”. Justin Greening called for a second referendum, containing both repeat and ratification type questions. It must be opposed, but not on the grounds that we oppose every referendum on principle, everywhere on every occasion.
In England there is a democratic case to oppose a Repeat referendum and support a Ratification referendum. The 2016 EU referendum divided the working class in England. A Repeat referendum would deepen that divide and play into the hands of the Tory Right, UKIP and the fascists. Corbyn is correct to rule out a Repeat referendum but wrong to oppose a Ratification referendum.
In Scotland the argument is different. A majority voted to remain, an important distinction between Leave-voting England and Remain-voting Scotland. There is no reason for Scottish Remain supporters to repeat this. Scottish Leave EU supporters may have a reason to call for a repeat, hoping Scotland may have changed its mind.
At the end of the day issue of a referendum is a tactical question in a struggle has divided the country into leave and remain. We need to locate the case for a referendum in the struggle between reactionaries and ultra lefts on side and liberals and democrats on the other.