The chorus for a second Brexit referendum is growing louder by the day. The latest big name to argue for one is Labour’s London Mayor, Sadiq Khan. A second referendum has been promoted heavily over the summer by The Independent which launched its final say petition so far signed by over 600,000 people, and is now supported by The Observer.
The worst-case scenario of the Brexit negotiations is a no-deal Brexit, which raises the possibilities of food and medicine shortages, disruptions to supply chains, rising import and export costs, huge budget deficits and subsequent cuts to public services.
The demand for a second referendum is based on a range of arguments – that the Leave EU campaign lied and cheated during the 2016 referendum, that the growing prospects of a no-deal Brexit will be disastrous for the UK, that Theresa May’s Chequers plan is both unworkable and, even if implemented would not yield any competitive advantages to the UK economy whilst increasingly significantly costs of trade with the EU and rest of the world.
All of these arguments are valid. The most valid argument, though, is that neither of the above Brexit options and their associated costs were on the table during the 2016 referendum, and that it is only democratic to let the public have its say.
However, there is a great deal of naivety amongst those calling for a second referendum. Much of these arguments are based on assumptions that with the right information the public will vote the right way, i.e. against Brexit. This is quite an insulting position to take, given that the remain campaign also had its fair share of lies during the campaign, such as then Chancellor George Osbourne’s claim that a vote to leave the EU would result in a year-long recession, and cost up to 820,000 jobs lost within two years.
Moreover, those leading the campaign for a second referendum are hardly likely to conjure up the trust of the electorate. Lib Dem leader Vince Cable was a cabinet member during the 2010-2015 coalition which implemented ruinous austerity policies. He has, very belatedly, recognised that such policies might have contributed to the Brexit vote. High profile Tories that support a second referendum, including Anna Soubry and Justine Greening, have also been rock solid in their support of Tory austerity since 2010. Other big names calling for a second vote include Alastair Campbell. But his criticisms of the Leave campaigns false claims will be forever compromised by his role in selling the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the British public.
If any of these MPs or commentators lead the Remain side in a second referendum, they will hand a huge propaganda victory to the Leave campaign. The latter, will be able to claim with some justification, that Remain offers only a return to the bad old days of austerity, and that only they, the Leave campaign, has the courage to break away from the old politics.
Amongst most of those calling for a second referendum, there is little mention of how Britain must be governed in fundamentally news ways if it is to rise to the challenges of the 21st Century - from low wages and insecure work, to crumbling public services and poor quality public and private housing, to global warming and rising geopolitical tensions.
If there is a second referendum, only Jeremy Corbyn has the political integrity to lead it to a decisive victory. He opposed austerity from the start, and campaigned against the policies and processes that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis, such as light touch financial regulation, and rising economic inequality. He supports greatly enhanced workers’ rights in the gig-economy and more broadly, a shift towards greater environmental sustainability, and a commitment to peaceful resolution of geopolitical issues.
Corbyn also argues for cooperation by left of centre parties across Europe to combat the rise of the far right. While former Trump special advisor Steve Bannon is mobilising the global far right, a Labour victory at the next general election, hastened by a successful Remain vote, would boost the resurgence of the centre left in Europe and globally. There are left wing parties in power and with significant influence across Europe that would be part of this movement – such as Portugal’s Partido Socialista and Podemos in Spain. An alliance of such parties and movements could contribute to the reform of the EU.
A second referendum cannot be a re-run of the first. It must be part of a broader campaign for a British New Deal. The rationale of such a referendum would not be only about Britain’s place in Europe, but would be about the legitimacy of the current socio-economic model. Given Theresa May’s commitment to Brexit, a vote to Remain would bring her down and open the way for a general election as the Tory party would be subsequently ungovernable.
To win, a second referendum would effectively need to be a proxy for a general election. Those calling for a new referendum must be convinced that the price to pay for remaining in the EU is a fundamental realignment of British society, politics and economics.
Corbyn and the Labour leadership have developed a well worked out industrial policy that aims to propel the UK away from a low-wage, low-productivity, low-tax model to something profoundly different. Such a socio industrial policy would involve high rates of investment in cutting edge economic sectors, in particular those orientated to generating green jobs. It would entail raising productivity, wages and taxes across the economy to facilitate greater funding of public services. It would also contribute to shifting the balance of power away from capital and towards labour in what would be a long term transformation of the UK.
Those calling for a second referendum might be wary of asking Corbyn to lead the Remain campaign. But Labour has had much success in shifting public opinion, for example, towards higher taxes for the NHS and over renationalising the railways. Moreover, its ability at the last general election to cut the Tory lead from over 20 percentage points to almost zero represents a the best example so far of an insurgent campaign disrupting normal politics.
A victorious Remain vote and the beginnings of a shift towards more progressive politics –requires not just leadership by Corbyn but a mass mobilisation. In a second referendum the Leave camp, probably lead by Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage and others and backed up by the print media, will no doubt deploy xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-left propaganda as a means of rallying support. To effectively counter such a campaign the Remain movement must offer a politics of hope grounded in mass participation that promises to re-found British politics.
A Remain victory must also be decisive. A narrow Remain victory would provide long-term ammunition to the far right Leave which would use it to argue that Remain and all those supporting it do not really believe in democracy. A decisive victory, however, would undercut such claims. A mass movement, lead and articulated by Corbyn’s vision for a transformed Britain stands the best chance of putting behind us the Brexit debacle.