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Any other Labour leader would instinctively back Remain in a People’s Vote

  • The Labour leader has made a nominal promise to push for a second public vote. But the truth is he will be intensely relaxed if it never comes to pass

  • Chuka Umunna MP

Yesterday, when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was asked how he would vote if a people’s vote on Brexit were held, he said, “it depends what the choice is in front of us. If we’ve got a good deal in which we can have a dynamic relationship with Europe … then that might be a good way forward.” You would perhaps expect this of a Conservative leader but not a Labour one. Without hesitation the majority of Labour voters would have answered “of course I’ll vote to Remain”.

I cannot think of any Labour leader in my lifetime who would not have instinctively said “Remain” but the party has changed irrevocably under the current set up. Indeed, Corbyn is not the only one – a number of those from the 2015 intake of MPs who are mooted to succeed him are on record as being even more hostile to the notion of a people’s vote.

I am not at all surprised by Corbyn’s answer. He voted against the UK joining the EU in the first place. His campaigning for Remain in 2016 can best be described as lukewarm, at worst it was obstructive. Alan Johnson, who led the Labour Remain campaign, was candid about the problems he faced dealing with the leader’s office: “At times it felt as if they were working against the rest of the party and had conflicting objectives.” 

In Tim Shipman’s book All Out War, Alan said “Jeremy’s advisers – Seumas Milne, Andy Fisher – absolutely wanted to leave.” Similar experiences were relayed to me by others who were part of the umbrella Britain Stronger In Europe campaign.

If there were any doubt where Corbyn’s real views lay, the day after the referendum he wasted no time in foolishly demanding Article 50 be invoked immediately – before Gina Miller’s Supreme Court case had even secured a say for parliament in the matter. Mimicking Theresa May, he then went on to claim the UK should not participate in the single market – stating, wrongly, that it was legally impossible in spite of the fact non-EU members Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein are part of it. He sacked three frontbenchers for voting for my amendment to the 2017 Queen’s Speech which demanded the UK at least remain part of the single market and customs union, and that leaving with no deal be ruled out. 

He now refuses to wholeheartedly back a people’s vote on the terms of Brexit with the option of staying in the EU on the ballot, save in extreme circumstances. That is why he whipped Labour MPs to abstain on the cross party TIG amendment last week calling for a people’s vote – it was supported by all the other opposition parties. Corbyn’s actions ignore the support of significant Labour affiliated originations such as the GMB, the TSSA and Community trade unions, for giving the people a final say on whether we go through with Brexit. 

The wrong timing was, as usual, cited as the reason for the abstention. But with less than 12 days until exit day, and given his record, we cannot afford to give Corbyn a veto on whether giving people the final say on Brexit should be put to a vote in the Commons. The truth is he will be intensely relaxed if it never comes to pass – he always was and is a Brexiter.

Perhaps the group which is most disappointed with Corbyn’s Labour Party are younger generations who enthusiastically sang “oh, Jeremy Corbyn” at Glastonbury in 2017, in the expectation he would help block a hard Brexit. Now they hear him declaring he wants to facilitate one. 

Yes, a number of Labour MPs in Leave voting areas have reservations about supporting a people’s vote but, as one Labour MP from such an area in the North East put it to me last month, there is zero chance of getting enough Labour MPs in Leave seats to support it given the absence of leadership on the issue from Corbyn.

After the 2016 referendum, I thought it was right that parliament invoked Article 50 and at least tried to square the impossible promises of the Leave campaign. I did not think it appropriate to call for another national poll before negotiations started, which is why I advocated a soft Brexit in the aftermath of the result. 

However, as I stated in the House of Commons at the end of 2016, “if the deal that is reached at the end of this process is substantially and materially different from that that many of the Leave voters believed they were promised, we could legitimately ask for a second referendum.” When it became clear after the December 2017 EU Council that this was the case I threw all my energies into campaigning for a people’s vote. It is a crying shame the leadership of the opposition failed to do so.

The argument was always bigger than the fact Leave campaigners like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage broke their promises. It goes to the heart of one’s values. A key progressive value is patriotic internationalism. We seek to protect the sovereignty of the nation state which is the UK but we are resolutely internationalist too because we cannot hope to build a good society at home in isolation from the global forces that are buffeting our people around, be the issue climate change, the impact of technology or global terrorism.

We are much better placed to address these problems and to build a fairer, more equal Britain by pooling power and working closely with other liberal democracies which share our values. There is no better vehicle for us to do this in our own back yard than EU membership which is why I will always argue for it.