Today’s Labour NEC meeting was the latest skirmish in the ongoing conflict between hardcore Remainers and the Labour leadership – a struggle between specificity and vagueness. They met to agree the contents of the Labour Party’s European election manifesto, right down to the exact wording of the second referendum position. This was anticipated in some circles to be the moment at which the Opposition would unequivocally commit itself to a second referendum in any circumstances.
Writing in The Observer, Will Hutton declared it “a battle…that will settle the future of the Labour party – and arguably the country” and described the referendum question as an “issue that cannot be fudged”. This being the Labour Party in 2019, of course, one of the decisive choices on offer was itself a fudge – the leadership’s existing position of continued ambiguity.
It was perhaps inevitable that Jeremy Corbyn, the political Willy Wonka himself, has duly supplied more fudge. After a marathon meeting, Labour’s new position is unequivocally to allow further equivocation. The BBC reports a Labour spokesman as defining it thus:
“The NEC agreed the manifesto which will be fully in line with Labour’s existing policy to support Labour’s alternative plan and if we can’t get the necessary changes to the government’s deal, or a general election, to back the option of a public vote.”
The key words are “if” and “option”. Tom Watson and others wanted a guarantee of a second referendum, with Remain on the ballot paper, in any circumstance. But this text disappoints them, making only the option of a referendum a mere consideration in a third-place scenario.
That will cause some ructions for the Labour leader. So why has he forced through the decision?
For one thing, the would-be Remain challenge in the European elections is flopping. ‘Change UK – The Independent Group’, AKA ‘Keep The UK The Same – The Forgettable Mouthful’, are currently struggling in the polls so badly that they are even behind the Brexit Party in London. That reduces the perceived need to woo Remainers.
Meanwhile, Nigel Farage is openly gunning for Labour voters after chalking up early success among Conservatives. That increases the possible price of pandering to Remainers.
What’s more, Labour believes its strategy of ambiguity to be working – not for the EU, necessarily, which is not its priority, but for itself. It has held together its embattled coalition better than Theresa May, and the polls show that while 42 per cent of voters believe it to be an anti-Brexit party, 25 per cent don’t know its position, 13 per cent believe it to be pro-Brexit and 20 per cent believe it to be neither pro- nor anti-. If Corbyn’s hope is to not talk about Brexit and instead talk about other topics, his strategy appears to be muddying the water sufficiently to allow him to do so.