The People’s Vote: Labour's October Surprise?

Pressure is mounting on Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership to embrace a People's Vote; if they do it would be a game changer, argues political expert Patrick Sullivan

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Jeremy Corbyn: Time for the People's Vote?
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Patrick Sullivan
On 17 October 2018 11:29

This weekend the Cooperative (Co-op) Party held its annual conference in Brighton, branded “Cooperatives Unleashed”. The Co-op Party is a sister party to the Labour Party and there are currently 37 Labour (Co-op) MPs in Parliament.

A debate and vote on the Party's Brexit policy, and whether it should support the growing clamour for a People's Vote was at the forefront of their conference agenda. Opening the conference Gareth Thomas MP, Chair of the Co-operative Party said: “It is because of the scale, severity and length of the impact Brexit will have that the NEC thinks you conference should help decide the party's position on the big current questions around Brexit.” 

The conference was not unaware of Mr. Thomas' own sympathies for taking the issue of British membership of European Union back to the electorate.

Mr. Thomas, MP for Harrow West, was one of the earliest supporters of the People's Vote, even tabling an early day motion in the House of Commons, this May, which would have legislated for it. After the conference almost unanimously voted for a People's Vote, Mike Gapes, the Labour (Co-op) MP for Ilford South tweeted: “Delighted @CoopParty Conference overwhelmingly votes for “Britain's Relationship with the European Union” document and six statements including “once negotiations are concluded there should be a public vote on whether or not we should leave the EU on the terms proposed.” Labour (Co-op) MPs are not bound by the conference vote, as the Co-op Party doesn't have a formal whipping system, but it would be highly unusual for its MP to ignore the publicly expressed wishes of almost the entirety of its membership.

The Co-operative Party also had a high profile new member, this conference, Lord Andrew Adonis, a key figure in the campaign for a People's Vote. Reacting to the news on twitter Lord Adonis called the Co-op Conference vote a “Big boost to the people's vote campaign within the Labour party”.

Earlier that morning, at Brexit Breakfast, he had addressed a packed room of over 150 delegates, who came to hear talk about the growing support for a final referendum. The delegates then added their voices of support through their conference vote. The Co-operative Party's endorsement of a People's Vote comes just as they are ratcheting up the pressure on the Labour leadership. The campaign for the People's Vote is having a large march from Pall Mall to Parliament, with hundreds of thousands of people expected to attend.

The People's March is taking place on Saturday 20th October. The People's March is receiving a lot of assistance from specialist third party groups set up to ensure representation from all parts of the Remain coalition. Amongst these is British in Europe, which was set up by Unison to support members of the British community in Europe on the question of citizens' rights. Unison is the UK's largest Trade Union and the third biggest Trade Union affiliate to the Labour Party, after Unite and GMB.

The aims of the People's March are twofold. The first is to provide a visual counter-narrative to what they probably predict will be another weekend news cycle dominated by reports of internal Conservative Party squabbles. The second is to apply pressure to wavering politicians, not least of whom is Jeremy Corbyn.

The Labour leader attributes his victory to “movement” politics having being prominent in both the anti-war and anti-austerity “movements”, even serving as chair of the Stop the War coalition between 2011 to 2015. Some organisers are hoping that Mr. Corbyn having never met a rally he didn't want to address, decides to take the stage at Saturday's rally to announce his Party's support for a People's Vote. It would certainly make for excellent television, and whilst it would not literally break the internet, it is bound to go viral and generate a great deal of enthusiasm on social media.

This last one is especially important to Mr. Corbyn given that a large part of his success has come from taping into the energy of his Party's netroots. No one knows this more than Alastair Campbell, whose understanding of the media is second to none. Knowing that Mr. Corbyn's intervention would make the People's Vote a reality, he made a public, bold and open offer to the Labour leader through Twitter, on Monday evening: “At Party conference you agreed if this Tory Brexit farce does not lead to a general election you would support @peoplesvote_uk with the option to Remain. So would one of you like to speak at the rally after Saturday march? @jeremycorbyn @Kier_Starmer @johnmcdonnellMP All welcome”

Mr. Corbyn is the political protege of Tony Benn and for the majority of his career, has taken the Benn-ite line on Europe, even voting to leave the European Economic Community in the 1975 referendum.

Despite this Europe could never be said to be an issue which set Jeremy's passions afire. Whilst for the majority of his career Mr. Corbyn was thought of as something of a patron saint for lost causes, Brexit would not be one of them; perhaps it is because of who he would a stage with. During the mid to late 90s and early 2000s, Mr. Benn, was a mainstay of anti-EU events, often as the solitary speaker from the left; this was at a time when the entire embryonic Brexit movement couldn't even fill a church hall. Mr. Corbyn did not join him; this was the rare occasion in which the disciple decided not to follow the prophet.

Mr. Campbell made his bold offer to Mr. Corbyn because he knew it was one that the Labour leader couldn't refuse, and to whom there could be no down sides of taking up. For the overwhelming majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) so fundamental is membership of the European Union to the nation's future that it transcends whatever internal party squabbles might have come before. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 referendum, the PLP was fuming due to the consequences of Mr. Corbyn's inaction and, as a result, over two dozen members of his Shadow Cabinet resigned, with 172 of his MPs supporting a motion of no confidence, in their leader. By coming out and making the People's Vote official Labour Party policy he would be able to unite the Party around his leadership; in an even greater way than he was able to divide it through his laissez-faire approach to the 2016 referendum.

The anger felt in 2016, would turn into the appreciation felt in 2018, for making the decisive move that would enable a People's Vote and he need do no more than that to win their hearts. In one move he would be able to the Party's former leaders, with whom there have been tense relationships, behind his leadership. He would also neutralise the attack that he was somehow dangerous on foreign policy, as the foreign policy establishment would consider him to have been right on the most defining foreign policy decision in a generation. A decisive move by Mr. Corbyn to endorse a People's Vote on Saturday would put the government into checkmate.

As Robert A. Caro wrote in his masterful biography of Lyndon Johnson's years as U.S. Senate Majority Leader: ““Vote-counting” - predicting legislators' votes in advance – is one of the most vital of the political arts, but it is an art that few can muster, for it is peculiarly subject to the distortions of sentiment and romantic preconceptions.” Vote counting is not this governments strong suite, they might as well be counting sheep for what it is worth sometimes.

Downing Street is said to be expecting to get their deal through Parliament with the votes of Labour MPs who are reluctant to do the the work of the Conservatives European Research Group for them by causing a no-deal or hard Brexit through their inaction. Gareth Snell, Labour (Co-op) MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central articulated this sentiment in a tweet yesterday saying: “I'm sure no self respecting Labour MP will walk into the same lobby as Andrea Jenkyns and the hard-right ERG when the options are known”. Conservative Whips are trying to sell the choice these MPs as a binary one between Deal or No Deal, but unless Noel Edmonds is suddenly elected as the new speaker; the choice is a false one.

The People's Vote is a third choice, for instance. If Labour were to change its policy to endorse a People's Vote it would currently have the support of the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party It would also be able to count on the approximately 30 member strong true-Remain caucus of Conservative MPs, including Dominic Grieve QC and Anna Soubry. Ms. Soubry has made it clear that she would be willing to walk into the division lobby with Labour MPs, if it meant delivering a People's Vote. For MPs like Ms. Soubry, so fundamental is membership of the European Union to the nation's future, that it transcends day to day party political skirmishes.

On October 8th, Ms. Soubry, when talking about the People's Vote, at The University of Nottingham said: “One of the things that is really interesting is the fact that you see people working on this completely across party, actually in a way, I don't think that has ever happened before...I don't think there has ever been such a cross-party working, with such confidences amongst us, as we then work out how we are going to advance this campaign and how to persuade people, over to our point of view” Downing Street is deeply concerned by the growing support for the People's Vote and the Prime Minister even saw fit to address the issue during her speech to the Conservative Party Conference, a fortnight ago, saying: “They call it a “People's Vote”. But we had the people's vote.

The people voted to leave. A second referendum would be a “politician's vote”: politicians telling people they got it wrong the first time and should try again” This is now the official Conservative Party line but it is one that is unlikely to be effectively deployed this weekend. Government spokesmen parroting this talking point are going to find themselves doing so whilst the audience at home views them on split screen, showing hundreds of thousands of real people marching for a People's Vote.

So it is evident that Mrs. May and the majority of her Parliamentary Party will never go into the division lobby in favour of a People's Vote.

Despite this there are rumours of many more than the reported 30 Conservative MPs, willing to break ranks with their Party and go into the lobby to vote for the People's Vote. All of this adds up to Jeremy Corbyn having the votes to write the People's Vote into the books of law and earn his place in the history books.

Patrick Sullivan is a political commentator based in London @PatJSullivan

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