Remain-Democrat: Labour’s Brexit option

Steve Freeman and Phil Vellender offer critical support for Labour’s Remain-Democrat position on Brexit, but argue Corbyn needs to lead by making the democratic case more powerfully.

General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) Dave Ward (New Statesman, 7 June 2019), says “Labour won in Peterborough because it was able to cut through the Brexit issue” by avoiding the pitfall of a second referendum and refocusing people’s minds “on the other profound issues facing our country and their local communities”. He continues “I can tell you now that Labour would not have won in Peterborough” with the demand for a second referendum. “Coming out, all guns blazing, for a referendum to keep us in the EU would have been a gift to the Brexit Party and deflated Labour’s turnout operation”.

“Across England and Wales there are hundreds of seats – just like Peterborough – that Labour must win to secure a majority in parliament at the next election. It certainly will not do that if it ends up nailing its colours to the idea of overturning the result of a democratic referendum which the political class promised it would respect”. This is fine as far as it goes. Labour has avoided, for now, the poison chalice of a second referendum. Ward’s argument against it is based on the balance of votes to be won or lost. In 2017 Labour had eight million remain voters and four million leave voters. Defeating Labour at the next election requires driving a wedge between these two sections of its social base.

Labour needs to anchor its position in social democratic ideas if it is to sustain itself against the tidal wave of liberal and reactionary attacks. Political struggle in the UK today is a contest between three broad trends – reactionary, liberal and social democratic. Historically, these have been squeezed by the corset of the British constitution into two major parties, on one side, a coalition of reactionaries and liberals and on the other, of liberals and social democrats.

The UK’s conservative politics has been severely disrupted, first in 2015 by the election of Corbyn as Labour leader, and then in 2016 by the EU referendum. Out of this crisis we can perceive three shadow ‘parties’, which we will call ‘Ultra-Leave’, ‘Remain-Democrats’ and ‘Ultra-Remain’. These haven’t replaced the major parties, but reflect a growing polarisation and division as demonstrated by the Brexit party and Change UK.

James Ball (New European, 16 May 2019) identifies these ‘parties’ from opinion polling data collected before the recent European elections. He points to Pro-Brexit parties with total support of 47% and the Pro-Remain parties predicted at 38%. The Labour Party is placed in the middle with 16% between the two extremes. Labour’s position arises from its democratic values and the central importance of the working class, one deeply divided over the EU. This is a dangerous situation which presents possibilities for the far right to consolidate its base among working people.

The European election results were close to Ball’s prediction with the Ultra-Leave parties winning 44% and the Ultra-Remain parties securing nearly 41% with Labour taking 14%.  In Northern Ireland and Scotland the pro-remain parties confirmed the vote from 2016. In Wales, pro-remain Plaid secured an increase in its votes. Peterborough presents a different picture, more like a general election, than this slightly unreal substitute ‘referendum’ on the EU.


In 1975, Tony Benn told his constituents, before the referendum on the Common Market, that “The whole nation, and all political parties, is divided on the Common Market question. We must respect the sincerity of those who take a different view from our own. We should all accept the verdict of the British people whatever it is, and I shall certainly do so”. (The Spectator, 18 January 1975) This is a good starting point. ‘Remain-Democrats’ support remaining in the EU, but have accepted the democratic mandate given by voters in 2016. They recognise Remain was in the minority, but continue both to exercise their right to criticise the rampant corruption in the Referendum and to explain the case for remain, while respecting the majority mandate to leave. Labour’s Brexit is a policy which seeks to address the contradiction of a post-Referendum, divided working class.

Although, Remain-Democrats defend the democratic mandate to leave the EU, this includes neither leaving the single market nor the customs union, because the question put in the 2016 referendum, as defined in law (i.e. leave or remain) did not include these two options.

Remain-Democrats should recognise that Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain, as did Gibraltar. Democrats and internationalists must recognise their right to remain and oppose any agreement that does not respect and secure their right to self-determination. Crucially, this is a republican not a Unionist interpretation of the 2016 referendum.

Remain-Democrats can never back any imposed settlement on the people. A deal negotiated by any government must secure a majority in parliament and be endorsed by the people through a ratification referendum. Such a public vote asserts the democratic accountability of the government to the people by emphasising their right to decide on whether the 2016 mandate has been carried out or not.

Importantly, a ratification referendum is not a second referendum; i.e. one seeking to reverse or overturn the 2016 result. Therefore, the ballot paper would not contain any option to remain. It simply focuses on the actual proposal on offer from the government. If the deal is rejected, then next step is to seek to negotiate an alternative, which might involve, for example, a general election. Such a referendum is equivalent to trade unions putting a proposed settlement of a pay dispute back to members for ratification.

Corbyn and Labour Brexit

The Corbyn Labour Party pitched its tent on ‘Remain-Democrat’ terrain as the party of remain which accepts the 2016 result. Labour campaigned for remain in 2016 and told voters in June 2017 that it would respect the result and carry it out. On the basis of that election result it successfully blocked the Tory version of Brexit. So far General Corbyn has been able to keep his parliamentary troops relatively united, rebuffing a Tory Brexit and pushing them to dump May. His greatest successes include the 2017 general election result, which wrecked May’s parliamentary majority, three defeats of the Tory Withdrawal Agreement and, finally, derailing the decision to leave on the 29 March, which finished May. Consequently, Corbyn can take the lion’s share of the plaudits for enabling the people to vote in the May 23 European election. However, this European election has left the parliamentary arithmetic unaffected.

There are three democratic omissions from Labour’s Brexit. First, Labour must adopt the democratic demand for a ratification referendum while rejecting a second, or repeat referendum, with any remain question on the ballot paper. Second, Labour should clarify their support for England and Wales leaving the EU, but remaining in the single market and customs union. Third, Labour should support the democratic right of Northern Ireland and Scotland to remain in the EU.

A ratification referendum is Labour’s democratic answer to reactionaries in the Tory and Brexit parties flaunting their fake democratic credentials. It is Labour’s democratic answer to the liberals who have no respect for the working class, no policy for austerity and simply support British capital remaining in the EU.

The weakness of Corbyn’s position is not as Paul Mason (Guardian, 27 May 2019) and the liberals argue, that he doesn’t back a second-remain referendum. Corbyn is under massive pressure from the national press to do so. However were he to support it then the media would soon pivot to attack Labour for betraying its leave voters. Corbyn is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

Labour must make it absolutely clear its opposition to a ‘second-remain’ referendum: the time for a second remain referendum is when the working class has shifted decisively in favour of remain. This has not yet happened. Opting for a second-remain referendum would be highly controversial, highly divisive and a dangerous gamble. And it will not get through the present parliament. It would weaken the opposition to no-deal, divide the Labour opposition and benefit the Tories.

Therefore, the only practical outcome of a Labour left demand for a second-remain referendum will be to help Tom Watson and the liberal wing of the Labour Party to overthrow Corbyn. This Ultra-Remain demand will, by undermining Corbyn, enable Tory Brexit to win. This is what Paul Mason has done by adopting this demand. The call for a second referendum with remain on the ballot paper and the allegations that Labour under Corbyn is an institutionally anti-Semitic party, are the two prongs of the liberal attack on social democracy.

Defeating no-deal

The choice is now stark between no-deal (WTO) or another extension beyond 31 October. First, Labour will make the democratic case that the new Tory Prime Minister should face a general election. This is Labour’s current policy. This must not be a token parliamentary effort for a vote of no confidence, but a country-wide campaign linking Tory Brexit with austerity: Corbyn sheds his parliamentary persona and gets back on the road as ‘Corbyn the campaigner’. Of course, the Tories and the DUP will the votes to block a general election.

Second, Labour will then resume its central role in defeating any Tory Brexit, including a no-deal Brexit, in Westminster. Corbyn should reject the imposition of no-deal, with special reference to Scotland and Northern Ireland which voted remain. He should warn the Tories that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the next Labour government will facilitate a border poll in Northern Ireland and a second independence referendum (IndyRef2) in Scotland.

Third, Labour must not rely on parliament to block no-deal (on World Trade Organisation terms). The demand for a ratification referendum is a key demand. This is essentially a democratic backstop and a principled means of preventing a no-deal Brexit before 31 October. The question should ask “Do you support or oppose a no-deal Brexit? Yes or no?”

Fourth, Labour must clearly reject the call for a second-remain referendum which will divert the battle against no-deal into a dead-end, undermining Labour’s strategic position, fatally weakening Corbyn, further dividing the working class and strengthening the Labour right, the Tory right, the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party. If a majority vote against no-deal in a referendum, then there will have to be an extension, perhaps for a general election and a new round of negotiations.

Philip Stephens (Financial Times, 31 May 2019) believes an extension is the most likely scenario. He says, “So the Brexit deadline most likely will be extended again. And then what? Well a sizeable slice of the UK population will remain noisily unhappy. They will accuse all and sundry of subverting democracy. But the noisier they become and the further we travel from 2016, the more eccentric Brexit will seem to a wider audience”. He concludes that, “barring a referendum, doing nothing looks more and more like the default option. Better to leave the fight unsettled and talk about something else than to reopen constantly the old wounds. Perhaps limbo is not such a terrible place when the alternative is Brexit hell”.

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