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31/05/2019 08:41 BST | Updated 31/05/2019 08:41 BST

A Second Referendum Would Only Pump More Venom Into Our Politics – Labour Must Not Support Another Vote

Corbyn positioning Labour as the party to reach across the great Brexit divide is absolutely right. We cannot allow our party to be painted as remain zealots.

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Panic is a poor political counsellor. The bad results for Labour in the European elections – elections no-one anticipated nor wanted – should of course be an occasion for a review of where we are, but not for the abandonment of the only plan that could lead to a Labour victory.

Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communications Workers Union, is absolutely right to argue that we should not be bounced into backing a second referendum, or allow Labour to be painted as remain zealots. Recent excellent contributions from MPs such as Lisa Nandy, Gloria de Piero and Jon Cruddas have outlined the dangers of that road for Labour.

Indeed, the whole debate is a distraction from what should be our priority – assembling a broad cross-party coalition against the danger of a no-deal Brexit come the end of October.

That is clearly what many of the candidates to inherit the tarnished Tory crown are promising.  It seems likely one of them will be chosen by the dwindling number of hard-right Conservative Party members. How can a hard Brexit Prime Minister be derailed?  By a vote of no confidence and a general election, of course. 

I don’t discount that possibility at all, and it is the one we should be working towards. It does depend on enough Tory backbenchers voting for a course of action that may challenge their party’s electoral prospects. Maybe enough will be found to put country first and they would be joined in stopping no-deal by just about every opposition MP.

There is also the possibility of a further referendum on EU membership.  However, Commons support for that is far from certain, and it would require a further extension from the EU itself.  More fundamentally, I am baffled as to how the advocates of a further referendum can imagine it will conceivably settle the matter.

Such a national reconciliation might happen if, against all evidence, remain was to prevail by a 1975-style margin of around two-thirds. But it is far more likely that any margin of victory will be small either way, and quite likely on a lower turnout than the first referendum in 2016.

Hardcore remainers, who have missed no opportunity in the last three years to express their contempt for benighted fellow citizens who do not agree with them, would not accept any new leave vote any more than they did the last one. Nor will leave voters be reconciled to a narrow reversal of the 2016 verdict, particularly if remain prevails with fewer than the 17.4 million votes cast to quit the EU in the last referendum.

A further referendum will only pump more venom into the body politic.  It will ensure that the issue of EU membership dominates ever election into the distance. 

So then we are left with simply cancelling Brexit, by revoking Article 50.  For Labour to embrace such a position, as some seem now to be inching towards, would be not just electorally suicidal, it would represent a profound rupture in our movement’s democratic traditions.  All those millions who voted in 2016 would simply have their decision set aside – not to forget those that voted for Labour’s commitment to respect the result in the 2017 General Election.

And there is absolutely no route to a Labour victory as a remain party, even with transform, reform or whatever tagged on the end – unicorn projects given the way European politics is developing.  Look at the results of the European elections, with all the usual caveats regarding turnout and the exceptional caveat regarding their particular pointlessness. If we aggregate all the votes of remain parties, including Labour, in key constituencies, what do we get?  Around 33-35% of the poll in Doncaster, in Wakefield, in Bolsover, in Ashfield, in Mansfield and many more. 

There is no way round it – leading the charge for remain and relying on returning Lib Dem or Green voters, rather than continuing to respect the referendum result, will see Labour losing dozens of constituencies it has held since World War Two and before, and put key marginals we must win way out of reach.

Perhaps there would be some corresponding gains in remain areas, but anyone thinking that becoming partisans in a culture war rather than uniting for social justice is the route to a Labour majority is deluding themselves.

This leaves me thinking that Jeremy Corbyn’s pre-European elections positioning of Labour as the party which tries to reach out across the new great divide in our country is absolutely the right one.  However, that requires a willingness to accept that we should respect the referendum result and leave the EU with the best deal for jobs and investment that can be secured.

This may not be a universal view in the Labour movement, but I thought the final, hastily withdrawn deal proposed by Theresa May could have provided a basis for moving forward.

Yes, a more definitive clarity on the customs unions was essential, and Jeremy Corbyn was right to conclude that trying to do a deal with a collapsing government which could deliver nothing was fruitless.

However, if a new Tory leader builds on May’s deal – a big ‘if’ I admit – such a deal could come very close to meeting the criteria for agreement that Corbyn himself set out in his conference address last year. Of course, many Tory backbenchers wouldn’t like it, but that could be the moment for statesmanship from Labour.  I know Jeremy Corbyn, as a man of principle, can do that.  And the time for a free vote for Labour MPs, given their strongly held legitimate different views, has surely arrived.

Consulting our membership is essential, for they are the lifeblood of our party.  But the party also must embrace the trade union affiliates. As mentioned, Dave Ward graphically illustrates, from his CWU conference, the strength of feeling that exists in other unions as well.

Also, the distribution of Labour Party membership can make interesting reading, where membership in the South East, where Labour has eight MPs, is roughly the same as the North West where Labour has over 50 MPs.  So it’s important to weigh in our deliberation the concerns expressed by many of those Northern and Midlands MPs.

Labour was founded on a federal basis for a reason – to ensure a strong working class voice through the trade unions and regional areas.

Anyway, whatever differences, we know what Labour members want – a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.  I have heard accounts of constituency meetings from Liverpool to north London – strong “remain” areas – where the members are clear that if given a choice between a Labour government and staying in the EU, they would go for the former every time.

Rightly so.  In or out of the European Union, our social misery will continue unless and until we make a change at Westminster.

Every calculation must take second place to that aim.  And continuing to speak to the whole country, to Stoke and Stoke Newington alike, is the way to do it.

Len McCluskey is general secretary of Unite