How Labour Activists Are Pushing the Party to Back Remain

The party's position on Brexit is gradually getting less confusing and ambiguous, with an emphasis on "gradually".
July 30, 2019, 8:00am
A Labour placard at the People's Vote march in October
A Labour placard at the People's Vote march in October. Photo by Kevin J. Frost / Alamy Stock Photo

On Monday 15 July, the torturously named left-wing anti-Brexit group Love Socialism Rebuild Britain Transform Europe, formerly known by the catchier but more controversial moniker, Love Socialism Hate Brexit, held a meeting in a packed committee room in Parliament.

Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, key Corbyn ally Diane Abbott and shadow foreign minister Emily Thornberry were all there. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor who has stood side by side with Jeremy Corbyn for four decades, sent a message of support.

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The organisers of the meeting were thrilled. “The last year has been an absolute rollercoaster,” said Michael Chessum, an activist with Momentum and the group Another Europe is Possible. Chessum describes himself as “hard left, hard Remain”. He believes this position – left wing, but also anti-Brexit – is beginning to move Labour’s policy.

“We’ve shifted things more than I thought possible,'' he told me. “Back then it didn’t feel like we would be in a position now where John McDonnell is openly sending messages of support and half the shadow cabinet speaks at our events.”

Chessum’s optimism seems well placed. Jeremy Corbyn’s words in recent weeks have built on what he wrote earlier this month: that the new Tory prime minister must put any deal he makes with the EU (or a No Deal) “back to the people in a public vote”. In those circumstances, Corbyn has written that “Labour would campaign for Remain”.

A frontbench source who also supports Labour backing a second referendum was more cautious. “Currently the policy is just about there. But there’s a fear, come an election, that the Clause V committee could end up imposing a fudge,” the source said, referring to the process by which the party decides its manifesto for elections. “We could yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” said the source.

On Brexit, as with other things, Labour has been riven by internal conflict. “When you have an unstable centre, then almost every potential troublesome issue is prone to take on that hue,” said the source.

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There are two obstacles standing in the way of Labour’s Europhiles. Both will need to be negotiated when the party’s manifesto is decided and both could result in the “fudge” Remainers fear.

First are the fellow MPs who support Brexit because they represent Leave-voting seats. Then there are the important party figures who have a certain fondness for leaving the EU on ideological grounds, or who just think a democratic vote shouldn’t be overturned.

The Unite union leader Len McCluskey, a resolute Corbyn ally, is still not sold on a second referendum. Like some influential voices around Corbyn, McCluskey holds long-standing left-wing critiques of the European Union and he has previously said voters could see a second referendum as a betrayal.

Nevertheless, in a sign of how the tides are turning, Labour affiliated trade unions – including Unite – have agreed that the party should campaign for a new referendum and support Remain against any fresh Tory deal.

In a sign of how personalities often overshadow policy, McCluskey is locked in a feud over Brexit and much else besides with his one-time flatmate Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour party and a persistent critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s.

Watson has attempted recently to present himself as Labour’s EU champion. Last month he released a statement under the title “Proudly British Proudly European”, which called for Labour to “come out as explicitly pro-Remain”. The statement was accompanied by an emotively soundtracked video in which Watson called the European Union an “enduring, deep, benevolent collaboration unique in the history of the world”.

Second referendum campaigners on the left are dismissive of the idea that the deputy leader is leading the pro-EU charge. “This has come from grassroots pressure,” says Michael Chessum. “In the past few months, Tom Watson has tried to spin a line that he’s the man behind the anti-Brexit shift – that’s horseshit.”

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Other influential figures in the leader’s office – deemed too powerful and insular by some MPs – are unconvinced by a second referendum. Much of the reporting about Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s director of communications, paints him as a Brexit-loving vampire.

According to a report in the Times, Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s chief of staff, screamed “we’re not selling out our class” when he suggested that the party throw its weight behind a second referendum – although the party denies this happened.

Such voices are likely to become increasingly marginal. With British politics is gearing up for a general election, Labour’s pro-Remain stance could solidify.

The party will be keen not to haemorrhage Remainer voters to the Lib Dems and one way to do that is to rob them of a USP by coming out strongly against Johnson’s hardline Brexit stance.

While the two parties are acrimonious in public, some Labour sources insisted behind the scenes that Corbyn needs to think about what he could offer Jo Swinson’s Lib Dems if the opportunity to form a coalition presented itself.

For a long time, there was a belief among many on the Labour left that Brexit was not a fundamental issue – that it distracted from the real divisions in society, between “the many and the few”. But circumstances have changed.

Boris Johnson has assembled perhaps the most right-wing cabinet ever witnessed in office. The Brexit Party is a real threat. Meanwhile, society has become more polarised on Brexit. The prospect of a compromise – a soft-Brexit that all but hard-Brexiteers and Remainiacs could live with – has evaporated.

As the Labour party conference approaches in September, and as the prospect of an election looms, it now seems very likely Jeremy Corbyn would go into both fully behind a second referendum. If Labour won power before any second referendum, it would look to negotiate its own deal and then put that back to the people.

There are some pro-EU figures who think Corbyn should do more to combat perceptions of ambivalence on the subject. But there is a shift. As Michael Chessum says, “People are waking up to the fact that Labour’s only clear path to victory is to oppose Brexit clearly”.

@oscarrickettnow