For the past three years, Westminster has been at war with itself over Brexit. From the stark Leave/Remain divide during the EU referendum to the never-ending conflict over *how* the UK should leave the EU, the Commons has been a battleground.
But while those struggles have waged, another dogfight has been going on behind the scenes in the Labour ranks – if and when the party should formally back a second referendum on Brexit.
While pro-Remain elements of the party have rallied for public a vote, the leadership – conscious of the fact that millions of Labour supporters voted Leave – has tried its best to keep the idea at arms-length.
As a result, every concession made by Labour in recent months towards a people’s vote has been caveated within an inch of its life – and has left many voters confused about where the party *really* stands on the issue.
But all that could be about to change. Following Labour’s thrashing in the European elections – with many blaming the party’s failure to take a strong stance on Brexit – Jeremy Corbyn has gone further than he ever has before.
Speaking on Monday, the Labour leader said his party would back a people’s vote on *any* Brexit deal.
In a letter to his MPs, Corbyn said it was “clear that the deadlock in parliament can now only be broken by the issue going back to the people through a general election or a public vote”.
“We are ready to support a public vote on any deal,” he added.
It represents a significant shift for Labour and has already upset MPs in Leave areas, with Lisa Nandy saying it would be the “final breach of trust” for these voters.
But how *exactly* is that different from what he has said before – and how did the Labour Party end up here?
Here’s a short history of Labour’s stance on a second referendum.
What Happened At Labour Party Conference?
The debate over Labour’s stance on a second referendum got into full swing during the party’s annual conference in Liverpool last year – as did much of the drama.
Before then, Labour’s policy had been to force a general election if parliament was deadlocked over Brexit, with Jeremy Corbyn having previously ruled out another public vote. However, members managed to get a debate on a second referendum onto the agenda at the conference.
After five-and-a-half hours of debate and six versions of the proposal, the motion that was finally put to delegates was a classic compromise.
Rather than throwing its weight behind a people’s vote on Brexit, Corbyn’s party vowed: “If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”
Full motion from Labour Party conference:
Conference welcomes Jeremy Corbyn’s determined efforts to hold the Tories to account for their disastrous negotiations. Conference accepts that the public voted to leave the EU, but when people voted to ‘take back control’ they were not voting for fewer rights, economic chaos or to risk jobs. Conference notes the warning made by Jaguar Land Rover on 11.9.18, that without the right deal in place, tens of thousands of jobs there would be put at risk.
Conference notes that workers in industries across the economy in ports, food, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, energy, chemicals, in our public services and beyond are worried about the impact of a hard Brexit on livelihoods and communities.
Conference believes we need a relationship with the EU that guarantees full participation in the Single Market. The Brexit deal being pursued by Theresa May is a threat to jobs, freedom of movement, peace in Northern Ireland and the NHS. Tory Brexit means a future of dodgy trade deals and American-style deregulation, undermining our rights, freedoms and prosperity. This binds the hands of future Labour governments, making it much harder for us to deliver on our promises. Conference notes Labour has set six robust tests for the final Brexit deal. Conference believes Labour MPs must vote against any Tory deal failing to meet these tests in full.
Conference also believes a no-deal Brexit should be rejected as a viable option and calls upon Labour MPs to vigorously oppose any attempt by this Government to deliver a no-deal outcome. Conference notes that when trade unions have a mandate to negotiate a deal for their members, the final deal is accepted or rejected by the membership. Conference does not believe that such important negotiations should be left to government ministers who are more concerned with self-preservation and ideology than household bills and wages.
Stagnant wages, crumbling services and the housing crisis are being exacerbated by the government and employers making the rich richer at working people’s expense, and not immigration. Conference declares solidarity and common cause with all progressive and socialist forces confronting the rising tide of neo-fascism, xenophobia, nationalism and right wing populism in Europe.
It was a clear signal that a second referendum was far from Labour’s first choice option. As set out by the motion, the party would first vote down Theresa May’s Brexit deal if it failed to meet Labour’s red lines on leaving the EU.
Only if parliament agreed and the PM still refused to call a general election could Labour support a public vote on Brexit. So not *exactly* what many Labour Remainers were hoping for.
However, several ‘People’s Vote’ campaigners were delighted to have made some major progress. They were even more pleased when Keir Starmer won a huge ovation for declaring, off script, that the referendum ballot paper would include the choice to Remain in the EU.
What Happened In Parliament?
Remember back in February when everyday in parliament seemed to be dominated by amendment after amendment?
As Theresa May’s Brexit deal faced endless revisions – and in the wake of seven of his pro-people’s vote MPs resigning – Jeremy Corbyn revealed that if Labour’s own plan for Brexit was defeated the party would throw its weight behind a second referendum.
On February 25, Corbyn told the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) he would be “putting forward or supporting an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit being forced on the country.”
After a meeting of the leadership’s Brexit sub-committee, a private briefing note was sent to the PLP, making even clearer that the party would support a public vote on Brexit – one that would include a Remain option, but would not include no-deal.
Speaking after his alternative Brexit plan was voted down in Parliament on February 27, Corbyn told the Commons: “We will back a public vote in order to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or a disastrous no deal outcome.”
He also kept to the conference script: “We will also continue to push for the other available options to prevent those outcomes, including a close economic relationship based on our credible alternative plan or a general election.” But the statement about backing a public vote was a significant shift.
What Happened During The European Elections?
After it was announced that – thanks to the UK’s departure date from the EU being pushed back to October 31 – the European elections would in fact take place, political parties swung into action to rally voters around Brexit.
While the Lib Dems and Change UK chased after Remainers, Nigel Farage set about collecting thousands of Leavers to back his newly-founded Brexit Party at the ballot box.
Labour, on the other hand still seemed unclear on the issue of a second referendum. An early draft of a European election leaflet caused a backlash among MPs and members as it didn’t even include the ‘option’ of a referendum.
The leaflet was subsequently changed, but a marathon meeting of the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) on April 30 rejected a move by deputy leader Tom Watson to insert a firm manifesto pledge for a public vote.
“Britain is divided as a nation, and some politicians view these elections as an opportunity to stoke those divisions,” Corbyn said in the foreword of the party’s European manifesto. “Labour is the only party trying to bring our country back together.”
Stubbornly refusing to take sides, Corbyn urged people to stop seeing themselves as Leavers or Remainers.
However, with Brexit at the forefront of people’s minds during the election, the tactic proved a failure.
Labour took just 14.1% of the vote share, losing 10 of its seats in European parliament and trailing in third behind the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems.
Labour heavyweights tore into the party’s fence-sitting stance during the election campaign, which saw Corbyn attempt to appeal to both Leave and Remain Labour voters.
Within minutes of the Euro polls closing on Sunday May 26, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry made a major move to toughen the party’s line.
“We should have said, quite simply, that any deal that comes out of this government should be put to a confirmatory referendum and that remain should be on the ballot paper and that Labour would campaign to remain,” she told the BBC’s results programme.
Instead, the party got a “kicking” because “we went into an election where the most important issue was ‘what was our view on leaving the European Union’ and we were not clear about it”. Corbyn would listen because “as a democrat” he would want to listen to the views of his members, she added.
Deputy leader Tom Watson tweeted: “Following the disastrous EU election results, Labour urgently needs to re-think its Brexit position and realign with members and voters.”
Significantly, John McDonnell also threw his weight behind a second referendum after learning of the election results.
“Can’t hide from the hit we took last night. Bringing people together when there’s such a divide was never going to be easy,” he wrote on Twitter. “Now we face [the] prospect of Brexiteer extremist as Tory leader & threat of no deal, we must unite our party & country by taking issue back to people in a public vote.”
McDonnell also suggested that the prospect of a general election was unlikely as the Tories were terrified of losing, so the move to a public vote should be the main option.
Crucially, another key Corbyn loyalist, Diane Abbott, added: “When we come in third after the Brexit party, that is a clue something is wrong with our strategy. We need to listen to our members and take a clearer line on a public vote.”
Whether it was the scale of the defeat - or pressure from his shadow cabinet and members - the European elections have undoubtedly pushed the party further towards a second referendum.
Most importantly of all, when Corbyn finally made a statement on the late May bank holiday Monday, he appeared to confirm a shift in position.
“It is clear that the deadlock in parliament can now only be broken by the issue going back to the people through a general election or a public vote. We are ready to support a public vote on any deal.”
That shift to a public vote on ‘any’ deal, not just a ‘bad Tory deal’ was seen as very significant indeed. It suggests that even a Labour deal would have to be put to a referendum.
Speaking in Dublin on May 29, Corbyn seemed to toughen further his language, saying “the only way out of the Brexit crisis ripping our country apart is now to go back to the people” either through an election or referendum.
However, as if to prove the zig-zagging nature of the party’s positioning, Corbyn added a new caveat that caused concern among People’s Vote campaigners.
“We don’t back a re-run of 2016, that happened, that’s gone,” he said.
“What I do say is if parliament comes to an agreement and it’s reasonable, then there should be a public vote on it, but that is some way off.” The last remark suggested that he would only back a referendum if MPs can agree a Brexit deal, and even then that was ‘some way off’.
The question now is just how Corbyn will formulate the policy formally in coming days and weeks. With pressure to hold a special conference or members’ ballot, many believe he cannot wait until the annual conference in September, when activists are likely to push once more for a stronger stance.
It has taken many months, but for many MPs it now seems a question of when, not if, Labour under Corbyn will commit to a second Brexit referendum, with Remain on the ballot paper.