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The #PeoplesVote crowd have had a good run in their campaign for a second referendum on Brexit. Lots of fun social media stuff. A bit of EU flag waving. Endless opinion pieces from commentators. Some concrete support from MPs on both sides of the house too.
All this activity was supposed to culminate in Labour bowing to Remainer pressure and changing its policy at the party’s annual conference in Liverpool.
It has not worked out quite like that. After five hours of wrangling on Sunday evening, delegates at Labour conference decided on a motion that might commit the party to arguing for another referendum: “If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”
Will Dry, co-founder of the pro-Remain youth group Our Future Our Choice tweeted: “I might be wrong but sounds like, ‘if Lab can’t get a general election, it must back a People’s Vote.’ That is a HUGE win if so.””
Well, not quite. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has already signalled that Labour will vote down whatever arrangement Theresa May returns with. And there is no way any deal May strikes meets the conditions of test two of the six tests set by shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer: “Does it deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?”
The Labour position now seems to be that, if it’s impossible to force a general election, Labour will argue for a second vote. But as John McDonnell signalled on the Today programme, that exercise would not have Remain on the ballot: “It will be on the deal itself. We will respect the referendum.”
Cue cries of foul play. It would be “farcical” to have a vote without the Remain option, said David Lammy MP, a leading Labour figure in the campaign for a second referendum: “A people’s vote is the only realistic option to save this country.”
Lammy is right to some extent: the Labour leadership is in a muddle on this. How can the country vote on the merits of a deal that by then will, according to this scenario, have already been rejected by parliament?
But the incoherence expresses an important truth. Jeremy Corbyn has impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. Look at his record.
He is a Bennite Eurosceptic. Tony Benn, guru of the Labour left in the 1970sand 1980s, was opposed to the EU on the basis that its trajectory is anti-democratic and anti-worker. Speaking at the Oxford Union in 2013, Benn said: “What they had in mind was not democratic. I mean, in Britain, you vote for a government and therefore the government has to listen to you and if you don’t like it you can change it but in Europe all the key positions are appointed, not one of them elected…The bankers and the multinational corporations have got very powerful positions.”
Compare that with Corbyn’s opposition of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993: “It takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers.” In 1975, Corbyn voted against membership of the Common Market. There was a “strong socialist argument against the Lisbon Treaty”, he said in 2008.
It’s true on so many fundamental issues that, if you want to understand Corbyn, you have to understand Tony Benn’s vision of popular democracy and the role of international elites in Western foreign policy, and it’s no different on the European question.
So much pro-Remain energy has been diverted into the argument for a People’s Vote – so much political capital has now been spent on arguing for a goal that was fantastical in 2016, and is still more fantastical now. Labour’s leadership is Eurosceptic to the core. That will not change. It sees the European project on the side of capital over labour, boss over worker – that is a fundamental principle of Corbyn’s (and McDonnell’s) world view.
Remainers who were radicalised by the Brexit vote refuse to accept the pathos of their position – to be pro-Europe in a broadly anti-European country, seeking to persuade anti-EU far left leaders to help them out.
In their campaign the People’s Vote crowd have substituted real political activism for cheap thrills. And in doing so, they may well ruin any residual possibility that the UK may one day rejoin the “European project”. Remain could well lose a People’s Vote (again) – always assuming it ever made it onto the ballot.
I am reminded of an ancient motif that runs through Scottish folk culture. We find a lone figure stumping along through the night. He walks into a dark copse. And suddenly, things are lit up in a magical glare. He is surrounded by dancing figures and rings of beasts silhouetted against the trees by the firelight. A fairy dances up to him and promises him rest and bliss. Forget your journey for a while. Our way-worn traveller cannot resist, and he spends all night in the Land of Faerie.
When the traveller wakes from his trance, he continues his journey. And finally, he gets home. His wife opens the door. She has grown old – “You have been gone these thirty years.” She shuts the door.
Remain activists have come to Labour conference with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. And it’s true that Corbyn may make positive noises in that direction if it suits him in the short-term. But they have put their faith in the wrong man. He’s a wizened, stubborn old Socialist with a lifelong antipathy to the European idea, as he understands it.
It becomes easy to get diverted if you think you’ve found fairy dust. And that’s especially true of politics. In closing their ears off from the world and in failing to integrate the 2016 vote into their thinking, Remainers risk waking up to find the world has passed them by.