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Explainer: Why the UK Labour party is holding a vote on calling for a second Brexit referendum

Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t rule out the possibility yesterday as members vote on the motion at the party’s annual conference.

Image: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images

MEMBERS OF THE UK Labour party are set to vote at their annual conference tomorrow on a motion calling for a second Brexit referendum, with members set to vote in favour of such a measure.

The 5,000 or so pro-EU demonstrators that marched to the opening of the conference in Liverpool yesterday put more pressure on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to back proposals to put the Brexit question to the people again.

Party members are demanding action as Theresa May’s government has reached an “impasse” with the EU, furthering concerns that the UK could leave the bloc without securing deals on important matters such as trade, immigration and Northern Ireland.

Corbyn told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday that he is open to the idea of a second referendum if his party agrees to it, and signalled his party may choose to reject a Brexit deal in the House of Commons, if one is agreed with the Conservative government and the EU.

So why is Labour asking for a second referendum? And could people be asked if they don’t want Brexit to happen?

Labour opposition

Like David Cameron’s Conservative government, Labour advocated to remain in the EU during the referendum campaign in 2016.

Leader Jeremy Corbyn had actually been a long-time critic of the EU, so was seen as something of a reluctant Remainer during the campaign.

While a number of the core working class Labour voters actually voted for Brexit, a vocal wing of the party has consistently called for the UK to remain in the EU and for a second referendum to be held. 

Delegates including trade union members and local party members sat down with Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer at the conference yesterday to draft the motion set to be voted on tomorrow.

The key part says: “If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”

Corbyn said yesterday that the final Brexit plan could be voted down by his party “if it didn’t meet our tests”, sending the government “straight back to the negotiating table”.

It’s still unclear on what that the final Brexit deal will look like, after EU leaders roundly dismissed Theresa May’s Chequers plan last week.

May is under pressure herself from Brexiteers in her own Cabinet, as she faces them down at a meeting today.


She’s steadfastly saying Chequers is the only show in town, but with the EU dismissing it, and members of her own party doing the same, it is unclear how the situation can move past the current “impasse”. 

Malta’s Prime Minister gave a surprising boost to calls for a second referendum last week, claiming that EU leaders are “almost unanimous” about the need for a second vote.

“We would like the almost impossible to happen, that the UK has another referendum,” Joseph Muscat said.

Unsurprisingly, on the other hand, Theresa May’s government and the ardent Brexiteers are against a second vote taking place.

“The public has delivered its verdict and I as Prime Minister will deliver upon that,” she said last week. 

What form could it take?

That’s the important question. 

Backing any calls for a second referendum raises the prospect of including an option to remain in the EU on the ballot.

The question in the last referendum was simple. It asked people if they want to remain in the EU or if they wanted to leave it.

Putting such an option to the people was ruled out by shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who said that any referendum should be on the exit deal itself, and not on whether Britain should remain in the EU.

Prime Minister's Questions Corbyn in the House of Commons with ally John McDonnell Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Speaking on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, McDonnell said: “If we don’t get a general election then yes, we’ll go for a people’s vote.

If we are going to respect the last referendum, it will be about the deal, it will a negotiation on the deal.

This strategy – if it was adopted – would likely be met with dismay by many activists calling for a remain option to be included in any referendum.

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And, given the current mathematical situation in the House of Commons, it doesn’t appear likely at this time that a second referendum could be called.

With the support of the DUP, May’s Conservatives enjoy a slim majority in Parliament.

It would take all of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and others to vote for a second referendum and some rebel Tories to also join the cause.

Considering that there are a small number of Brexiteers within the Labour party, that appears unlikely at this stage. 

Time is also short for this to happen.

Everything has to be agreed between the UK and the EU by November at the latest, with Britain set to leave the EU in March 2019.

The Electoral Commission would need to draft guidelines to send to all houses in the UK, with 28 days the designated amount of time for campaigning.

A question would also need to be determined, which won’t be easy, because the result raises further questions. If the British people reject the plan secured by Theresa May’s government with the EU, what happens then? The answer to that is far from clear.

Irish Labour leader Brendan Howlin is over in Liverpool for the conference and said he hopes Corbyn’s party champions Irish interests during the Brexit negotiations. 

“Obviously, the best outcome for Ireland would be one where there is a second referendum, in which the British people have the opportunity to democratically decide, based on new information, about the different options for the UK’s relationship with the European Union,” he said.

Ireland would warmly welcome an outcome where the British people decided to remain in the EU.

While the British people getting the opportunity to vote to remain in the EU looks unlikely for now, Labour backing calls for a second referendum would certainly heighten the pressure on Theresa May as she finds her current plans to steer the UK out of Europe increasingly at risk. 

About the author:

Sean Murray

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