A Second Referendum Without a General Election Would Be the End of Corbynism

by Holly Rigby

8 July 2019

Ben Terrett/Flickr

Tom Watson, the Labour party’s ‘Iago-in-residence’, is back centre stage once again. Last week the deputy leader launched a petition to force Jeremy Corbyn to unequivocally commit to a second referendum on leaving the EU, in which Labour would campaign to remain. Whilst it isn’t clear how many of the reported 10,000 who have already signed up are actually Labour members, Watson is certainly not alone in his demands. 

Panicking at the results of the European elections, and ignoring the result of the recent Peterborough by-election, there are some on the left, like Paul Mason, who are now joining the second referendum chorus. Many of those arguing for a switch in Labour’s position make the case that Corbyn’s Brexit strategy is simply no longer possible. The Tories, they argue, will never vote for their own demise, and Labour does not have the numbers in parliament to force a general election on its own.

However, the same is also currently true for a second referendum; multiple votes in parliament have shown there is no majority for holding one. Watson’s cabal know this, so what’s their plan? It seems what they are banking on is the growing likelihood of a Boris Johnson-led, no deal Brexit being the only offer on the table, particularly given the EU is highly unlikely to enter into any further negotiations with Johnson, no matter how much he protests he will make it so.

When faced with no deal as the only possible Brexit outcome, it’s clear the balance of forces and alliances in parliament who would want to oppose a no deal Brexit could shift dramatically. But there are two possible ways for Labour to capitalise on this shift: either by calling for a no confidence vote, which would force a general election, or demanding a second referendum instead. 

It’s plain for anyone to see what the Tories would prefer. A second referendum would see Johnson’s Tories and Farage’s Brexit party form a powerful alliance behind a kamikaze no deal Brexit campaign. A general election, on the other hand, sees Boris Johnson hemorrhaging votes to a recalcitrant Brexit party, whilst simultaneously having to defend nine years of Conservative austerity that has left the social fabric of the country in tatters. Given the existential threat a general election poses to the Tories, why would Watson be advocating so stridently for a second referendum instead?

The answer should be clear to all: whatever the outcome of a second referendum, Corbyn will be forced to go. If the second referendum resulted in another leave vote, this would happen almost immediately. A no deal leave vote would see Johnson and Farage strengthened exponentially, remainers apoplectic, and the blame laid solely at Corbyn’s door. It will not be the neoliberal ‘People’s Vote’ campaign or Watson’s internal band of saboteurs who will be held responsible for the nightmarish consequences of a Johnson-Farage victory. It will be Corbyn.

In the case of a remain vote, a coup against Corbyn may take slightly longer, but would be no less inevitable. A remain vote would be no victory for Corbyn, nor for the left more broadly. Labour’s ‘remain and reform’ approach failed to convince anyone in the first referendum, and swapping in the word ‘revolt’ won’t change this significantly second time round. Instead, it will be the neoliberal alliance of the People’s Vote who will claim the victory if a second referendum produces a remain vote. Why does this matter? Since Corbyn’s election in 2015, the neoliberal centre, both inside and outside the Labour party, have been in the political wilderness. But both securing a second referendum, and then achieving a remain vote, would empower and embolden them once again. 

What’s more, Corbyn would spend any second referendum campaign being hammered by the Johnson-Farage Brexit alliance, and a remain win would see Corbyn himself become despised by leave voters across the country who would see Labour’s change in position as a betrayal. The idea Corbyn could remain ‘above the fray’ a la Harold Wilson is a fantasy. Coupled with the relentless attacks on him over the last 18 months in particular, the soft coup would be all but complete.

There might be some who suggest Corbyn has nothing to fear from another leadership contest given the loyalty of the mass membership to the project. I would not be so sure. Brexit and the antisemitism crisis have left the membership in a state of confusion, paralysis and despair. Not only this, but it is no longer just the right of the party that think Corbyn must go. I have been deeply saddened by the private whisperings of friends and comrades, many of whom are deeply embedded in positions of influence in the Corbyn project, about the fact they too believe Corbyn now must be replaced. 

Many seem to forget that any future successor to Corbyn must still win 10% of Labour MPs and MEPs, alongside 5% of local members or 5% of local union members, in order to get on the ballot paper. This means it simply won’t be Rebecca Long Bailey, Laura Pidcock or Dawn Butler who will be the next leader of the Labour party. Instead, it is much more likely to be a ‘palatable’ soft left candidate such as Angela Rayner or Emily Thornberry who will take Corbyn’s place instead.

We must remember that Corbyn himself poses a unique threat to the establishment that any other potential leader would be unable to replicate. He has spent his life at the centre of the social movements against British imperialism and capitalism, and it is these movements which ultimately brought Corbyn to power. If four years of relentless and insidious attacks against him are successful, and he himself never enters 10 Downing Street, it will be a defeat by the British establishment that the left will struggle to recover from. Any Corbyn successor who tried to confront the British state in government would simply be defeated. There will be no Corbynism without Corbyn.

I believe the EU is an unreformable, neoliberal institution, but my argument here is not about the relationship of a socialist government to the EU. It is about the potential impact of a second referendum on the future survival or demise of the Corbyn project. Given Corbyn’s commitment to party democracy, it seems highly unlikely there will be a dramatic shift in Labour’s strategy on Brexit before Labour party conference in September. A second referendum may feel more and more like a fait accompli, but there is still time to make the case to the wider membership about why backing a second referendum before a general election would be an existential threat to Corbynism itself. I just hope the left realises the dangers that lie ahead before it’s too late.

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