Pro-EU campaigners pressing for the Labour Party to support a second referendum are up against two factors (aside, that is, from it being a fundamentally awful idea, and there being no time left to hold one): the opposition of the leadership, and the strategy of deliberate ambiguity.
The first is tricky. They’re asking Jeremy Corbyn, who spent years as a vocal Eurosceptic, and people like Len McCluskey, whose view expressed today is “We’ve had a People’s Vote, they voted to leave”, to change or ignore their views. That’s hard but not impossible. For all the hype about Corbyn’s supposedly immovable dedication to unchanging beliefs, in recent months he has become visibly more willing to flex, duck and weave in order to preserve both his hide and his project. If the pressure seems to become threatening, and conversely if the change in policy appears to be an opportunity, then the Man Of Principle may be willing to switch his line without any qualms.
The second poses different problems. First by accident and then by design, Corbyn’s strategists have developed ambiguity into a productive strategy that has become a hallmark of his leadership. In their battle to hold together an often disparate and fractious Party and electoral coalition, they prefer to handle difficult issues by implying that they agree with and will deliver for all sides. That way those who want to believe are able to, and they can plough on with some vaguely plausible smokescreen to cover them from criticism. That’s particularly the case on Brexit, where Labour has worked hard to persuade voters from opposite positions to believe they agree with both of them.
For obvious reasons, a firm commitment to a second referendum – a sore loser’s vote, in effect – would be a threat to that strategy. A lot of voters loathe the idea, particularly if it’s a route to ignore the original referendum and stay in the EU. It’s seen as a repeat of the EU’s bad old habit of making people vote again and again until Brussels gets its way, which offends not just Eurosceptics but a wider range of people’s sense of fairness. Backing such a scam could cost a lot of votes, in crucial seats.
Nonetheless, under pressure from Tom Watson among others, it seems that Labour’s position is creeping closer to just such a crunch. Corbyn himself has now said he will respect the decision of Party members at his conference. There is great excitement among those who failed to accept the result of one referendum that they might now get to take part in a second.
Does that mean such a commitment from Labour is genuinely in the offing? Not…necessarily. As explained over on LabourList, any motion that actually comes to a vote will be the product of what is called compositing – agreeing between the 125 different people and organisations who have tabled various competing Brexit motions on something that supposedly is a workable meld of their ideas. That leaves plenty of opportunity for further ambiguity; be it naming another referendum as one of a range of possible further options, or hedging it about with rules, tests and hypotheticals (not unlike Gordon Brown’s tests on joining the Euro, which mercifully helped to prevent us entering the Single Currency).
Implying support for a second referendum, while maintaining deniability about actually supporting one, would be a tightrope walk. But they’ve tiptoed across this chasm on a high-wire thus far already, so it wouldn’t be a new experience.