Getting to Grips with Labour's Brexit Puzzle

Is it "constructive ambiguity" or just a lot of different people disagreeing their way through a constitutional crisis?
December 12, 2018, 1:58pm
John McDonnell
John McDonnell walks past anti-Brexit protesters outside the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. Photo: Simon Dack / Alamy Live News

With the country in disarray as Theresa May faces a vote of no confidence from her own MPs, having kicked the can down the road in an attempt to save her job, the position Labour will take come crunch time remains in discussion.

We are in a moment when whole decades seem to happen in the space of a week, and yet nothing actually changes. Britain remains a car stuck in the mud, its wheels spinning frantically, going nowhere. Or perhaps the better metaphor is a car sitting in front of Angela Merkel, our lame duck prime minister trapped inside because the door won’t open.


An organic crisis created by the Conservative party now requires a response from everyone, however bewildered and exhausted by the whole thing they are. As with everything related to Brexit, the situation is ever-changing and confusing, even – or particularly – for those at the centre of the action. What was impossible two weeks ago now seems possible.

A lot has been said about Labour’s position on Brexit being one of "constructive ambiguity", but that take imagines a carefully and cunningly maintained illusion. In fact, the situation is that of a number of different views, concerns and opportunities bumping into each other and jostling for supremacy.

Last week in the Guardian, Jeremy Corbyn laid out his opposition to May’s deal, highlighted what Labour would do differently and wrote that if there was no election following the voting down of the deal, then all options – including campaigning for a public vote – would be on the table.

At Labour conference in September, delegates voted in favour of a Brexit motion saying that holding a second referendum should be an option. However, that cuts against their 2017 election manifesto, and when questioned about it by VICE a Labour party spokesperson said: "Our manifesto clearly laid out how we respect the result of the referendum and would negotiate a Jobs First Brexit." So it’s on the table, but not something they’re emphasising right now.


Nevertheless, those at all levels of the party backing some form of second referendum had said they were feeling quietly confident. Last week, a Labour source told VICE: "Us backing a second referendum is now more likely with May’s deal looking like it will be rejected." That was before May delayed her Waterloo on Monday. That was before her MPs tabled a vote of no confidence in her. Has that dented hopes for a second referendum? This morning, that same Labour source said: "It’s very hard to predict what will happen," which is a bit of an understatement.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of the union Unite and a key Corbyn ally, has reportedly told Labour MPs that backing a second referendum could be seen as a "betrayal". Some of the most influential people advising Corbyn are from McCluskey’s orbit and share his reservations about a second referendum. Some see the crisis in the establishment caused by Brexit as an opportunity to install the most left-wing Labour government since the war.

At least a third of Labour MPs represent seats that voted Leave, and most do not want to obstruct the wishes of their constituents. Corbyn takes the argument that a second referendum would be undemocratic – by undermining the first one – very seriously. Then again, "betrayal" is not a view shared by John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, nor Keir Starmer, Labour's shadow Brexit secretary.

Many of the most visible figures in the People's Vote movement are from the New Labour old-guard – think Andrew Adonis, Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair. That makes Corbyn nervous of being co-opted by the kind of people who hate him, and who are representative of an establishment that Leave voters were rejecting in the first place.


But while Corbyn is critical of the EU and no doubt sees the potential route to power thrown up by the Brexit crisis we find ourselves in, he’s not the staunch, secret Europhobe some fevered Remainiacs imagine him to be. Besides, plenty of people around him are pushing for a second vote. His constituency, Islington North, is a Remain stronghold – and among a sizeable chunk of MPs and the membership as a whole, there is support for a second referendum. "They will let Corbyn know that not backing it will have consequences," one insider said.

The public line from Labour top-dogs is that they want a general election – for May to "get out of the way". But a frontbench Labour source said that even if an election were to happen, "the widely acknowledged problem is what to fight the manifesto on. The leadership know if they fight on a manifesto of Brexit alone, the base won’t come out to campaign and we’ll haemorrhage support either to a breakaway centrist party or the Liberal Democrats. Our own vote would be suppressed."

The "only viable option", the source said, would be for Labour to run on a "soft Brexit offer with a final vote at the end on soft Brexit or Remain".

In all the confusion, it’s worth setting out the two basic positions Labour could coherently take.

The first is that Brexit is happening, so the positives in that need to be found. That essentially means taking a "Lexit" (left-wing Brexit) position that focuses on the more anti-democratic, neo-liberal nature of the EU and highlights what a left-led Labour party could do in government outside of the capitalist club. While the wider parliamentary Labour party is not into Lexit, there is support for it among some people in positions of power and among those who believe it is the only way of making the best of a bad situation. It could also represent the easiest way into Downing Street.


The second position is that Brexit is a bad idea: that it should be mitigated and, if possible, stopped. That would mean a second vote. A frontbench source backing a second referendum told VICE: "The world has changed very quickly and very significantly since we had a referendum. We have Trump in the US, the far-right on the march across Europe, a fascist in charge in Brazil and a clearer idea of the enormous threat posed by climate change. To leave one of the few organisations that might, if radically reformed, help us challenge these things on a global level seems misguided."

Michael Chessum of Another Europe is Possible, a group that has been lobbying Labour to push for a second referendum, stay in the EU and reform it from within, said: "The argument I think we have won is that there’s only one type of Brexit: Tory Brexit. Even if Labour could negotiate a new deal, it wouldn’t be much better."

For Chessum, any second referendum campaign to remain in the EU would be led by Corbyn and would be completely different to the campaign led by David Cameron in 2016. It would acknowledge well-established left-wing critiques of the EU and emphasise a desire to tackle right-wing elites in Brussels as well as at home.

Hanging over everything is frustration that what was for decades a marginal issue in British politics has, because of the efforts of one wing of the Conservative party, been put front and centre. Talk of leavers and remainers gets in the way of talking about the "divide between the many and the few".


Brexit has become a super-sized culture war that cuts across the wide social coalition Corbyn is seeking to build, and distracts from urgent issues relating to public services, poverty, inequality, work and so on. Brexit is now both a part of all these issues and something that is keeping them from being addressed.

And yet here we are, and for all sorts of reasons. The many and varied views on a second referendum within the Labour party continue to be heard.

A motion of no confidence has been called by Tory MPs, but then what? A second referendum might be on the table, but not yet. A general election seems more likely, but who knows?

The crunch has been postponed – we’re all going to be spending some more time living in the Conservative party's Brexit purgatory, and the struggle within the opposition looks set to continue. To repeat what that understated Labour source said: "It’s very hard to predict what will happen."