The eleven MPs who quit the Labour and Conservative party cited Brexit as one of the reasons for their departure. Ten out of the eleven who left want a people’s vote on Brexit. More MPs are believed to be wrestling with their consciences and considering leaving should their parties not change their Brexit stances, and soon. Jeremy Corbyn tentatively committed to backing a referendum amendment less than a week after The Independent Group (TIG, for short) was established.
All of these things are true. And yet the role of TIG in the upcoming Brexit endgame is far from certain.
Inevitably the most significant split in British politics since the 1980s was to be met with an immediate attempt by commentators to diagnose its future electoral prospects. What are its policies? Does it have any? Who will its leader be? Will it have one?
Flashbacks to the SDP swirled with their predictable appeal to anybody keen to declare this grouping dead on arrival. But slow down for just a minute, and it isn’t difficult to appreciate the impact this breakaway is already having on the most important national crisis we face.
Two weeks ago, a Labour source told Sky News reporter Lewis Goodall that ‘hell would freeze over’ before the party moved to back a referendum as the solution to the Brexit impasse. Similar reports suggesting Labour remained resolved in its opposition to a public vote are common, so what changed?
Perhaps they’ve finally taken note of the gloomy electoral consequences for the party should they enable Brexit. Perhaps the leaked poll by the Labour affiliated TSSA union last month, which found the party could lose up to 45 seats should it have facilitated Brexit, resonated with those in the leadership office. Its possible the numerous reports on the vast numbers of young people who would turn away from the party in these circumstances also had an effect. Or maybe Jeremy Corbyn, sworn champion of a party apparatus which would respect the views of members at its very core, finally heeded the calls of the overwhelming majority of supporters and members who back a people’s vote and followed suit.
My guess is these indisputable facts were taking their toll. Its known that shadow fronbenchers John McDonnell and Diana Abbott are not alone in their widely reported concerned in the potential consequences for the party should Labour not have done all they can to have halted a Tory Brexit in its tracks. And there has been a huge groundswell in protests, petitions and public pleas from Labour members especially, who became visibly more agitated and exasperated as the months of triangulation dragged on.
But it remains that no matter how hard the members, supporters, young people and MPs had pushed, some resistance would’ve remained in the upper echelons of the party. And it made some sense. There are MPs in the party who are resolutely opposed to a referendum; and there is the concern of holding onto the fragile coalition of voters in Northern Labour heartlands, some of which voted to Leave by high margins, and the more socially liberal, urban base of the party in London. Until recently, chartering the soft-Brexit territory was deemed the safest way to go to avoid alienating either of these bases.
The Independent Group changed this equation. Supporters of a people’s vote don’t see a soft Brexit as a compromise but a pointless concession. They are tired of the posturing and ambiguity. Corbyn might’ve been capable of taking this in his stride come a general election before TIG, assuming these disaffected remainers had no place else to go. Now there is a genuine alternative arising with unquestionable momentum. And there appears to be real appetite for it too. In what is surely anything but a coincidence, a poll out on the day Corbyn made his fateful commitment to a confirmatory referendum found TIG could win 18% of the votes, while Labour fell to 23%. The verdict was in: TIG poses a direct threat to Labour’s prospects of winning an election. And it needed to act fast.
But what of John Mann MP, who took immediately to the airwaves to claim Corbyn’s conditional change of heart would be sure to cost the party dearly at the next election? He told the PLP meeting, where Corbyn announced the change on Monday evening, that “the price will stop you being prime minister.” But the Brexit supporter, as Peter Kellner forcefully argues in The Guardian yesterday, needs to show some evidence for this claim, for the polling suggests the exact opposite: 80% of Labour supporters, excluding don’t knows, think we were wrong to leave the EU. Almost every poll shows support for a people’s vote at about 70% among members too.
Stephen Bush is right that Labour backing to a people’s vote is would be a ‘necessary but not sufficient’ condition for securing one. Tonight, Amendment A will see Labour’s alternative plan voted on and, in all likelihood, comprehensible rejected. At that point, Corbyn has vowed to move forward with advocating a referendum as the final stage in the party’s conference policy. If it happens, it will one more essential step in the direction of securing the vote our country desperately needs.
Building a fairer society cannot possibly start by making our country poorer. Enabling a Brexit deal to pass which leaves my generation with fewer opportunities and lower living standards would make such a vision all but impossible. Labour is right to champion calls for party democracy and follow the wishes of its members and supporters. The Independent Group produced the first tangible consequences of continuing triangulation, and they’ve helped propel the Labour leadership into action. We can only hope they hold their nerve and this country gets a people’s vote before its too late.