A People’s Vote?

*This article was first published in The Herald on 06/08/18

By Alan Roden

THERE is a lot that Labour could learn from the way the SNP handled referendum defeat in 2014.

Alex Salmond – then still a statesman and not just a puppet for Putin – fell on his sword but vowed the ‘campaign continues and the dream shall never die’.

Contrast that with Jeremy Corbyn’s rush to embrace the EU referendum result the day after that contest, and his immediate call for Article 50 to be invoked.

The two men reacted differently because while Salmond spent his political life campaigning for Scottish independence, Corbyn is a Eurosceptic who put in the least amount of effort possible for the Remain campaign.

Salmond was right – the campaign for independence has continued. The Scottish Parliament has voted to back a second independence referendum and thousands of Saltire-waving supporters demanding to ‘end London rule’ are marching in towns and cities this summer – seemingly oblivious to the fact that this does nothing to win over the hearts and minds of No voters.

Corbyn was wrong – triggering Article 50 in 2016 means we would right now be heading off the cliff-edge with a ‘no deal’ Brexit. As it is, that’s still a very real possibility as Liam Fox confirmed yesterday.

Labour voters overwhelmingly back Remain – regardless of age, class or constituency – and passionate Leave voters make up only a tiny proportion of the party’s support across the UK.

But Corbyn still can’t bring himself to promote the benefits of the European Union, and he stubbornly refuses to back Single Market membership. There is no SNP-like campaign coming from the Labour leadership to reverse or even soften Brexit, even though party members are crying out for it.

The fight is left to organisations like Open Britain, which is battling for another EU referendum – a so-called People’s Vote on the final deal.

Former Labour leadership contender Owen Smith backed this idea in March and was sacked, while Diane Abbott said she would ‘argue for the right of the electorate to vote on any deal that is finally agreed’ – and escaped punishment. Inconsistency is hardly anything new for Corbyn’s Labour Party.

But more importantly, John McDonnell, Tom Watson and Keir Starmer have all left the door open for a second referendum. McDonnell, who has talked a great deal of sense on the anti-Semitism crisis engulfing the party while Corbyn pathetically flounders, is said to want it kept ‘on the table’ – although he would prefer a General Election.

The TSSA union – firm backers of Corbyn – supports a People’s Vote, a petition of Momentum members on the issue has reached around 4,000 votes, and scores of local constituency parties will demand a second referendum when they gather for the annual conference in Liverpool next month.

Sensible Labour strategists know they risk alienating young voters if they continue along a pro-Brexit path, but Corbyn and his aides are determined to miss the glaring open goal.

Theresa May is losing control of her own party, with her Chequers deal under attack from all sides. Yet Labour is barely ahead in the polls when it should be streets ahead, and it has spent the summer completely failing to address the stain of anti-Semitism in its ranks. Long-serving activists are walking away, while ordinary voters look on in utter disgust. 

This could have been the summer when Labour led the campaign for another EU referendum, working to increase public support and securing the parliamentary numbers to give people a say on the final deal. Instead, it’s spent the summer suspending councillors, alienating Jewish communities and reminding voters that Corbyn has shared platforms with a litany of unsavoury characters.

Scottish Labour – which fought hard for its autonomy – could add its own voice to the growing chorus for a People’s Vote, but almost certainly won’t. The party is now so wedded to Corbyn’s Labour that any divergence is unthinkable.
So if the UK leaves the EU without a deal next spring, it won’t only be the Tories who are culpable.

A key argument used by opponents of another vote is that people – particularly in Scotland – are fed up with referenda. You can’t just keep re-running votes until you get the correct answer.

But another referendum would not be a direct re-run of the in/out contest – it would be a vote on whether to ratify or reject the Prime Minister’s deal. And given we now know that the Leave campaign cheated, the argument for a People’s Vote is compelling.

It also has majority public support according to opinion polls, unlike a second independence referendum – something that Nicola Sturgeon once insisted was vital before she would push for another vote on leaving the UK.

There is cross-party backing, with Tory MP Sarah Wollaston joining the campaign last week after previously expressing her own doubts. Yet Scotland’s First Minister remains largely silent, expressing sympathy without signing up to the campaign. You won’t see her on the stage at the People’s Vote rally in Edinburgh later this month.

There is a strategic reason for this. The SNP is refusing to fully endorse the campaign lest it jeopardises the party’s independence crusade.
The Nationalists got what they wanted in 2016: a Leave vote across the UK and a Remain vote in Scotland. They’re getting what they want now: a UK Tory Government treating Holyrood with contempt and dragging the country towards the abyss, aided by a complicit Labour Party.

But a People’s Vote could mean the UK remains in the EU, destroying Sturgeon’s mandate for another independence referendum.

It would also set a precedent if Scots vote in favour of independence in any future contest. The divorce negotiations between Scotland and the rest of the UK would almost certainly be far more problematic and painful than the Brexit process, and there would be demands to put the final deal to the people.

Never again could the SNP peddle the type of myths contained in the 2014 White Paper.

So Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t want a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal in case it kills the dream that should ‘never die’; and Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t want a People’s Vote because he refuses to see the benefits of the EU. Meanwhile, Theresa May doesn’t know what she wants.

At this time of national crisis, we are being let down by our leaders. We deserve better.