Labour must back a peo­ple’s vote be­fore the clock runs out

Ti­mothy Gar­ton Ash

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Ti­mothy Gar­ton Ash

Over the next few weeks, Britain faces a stark bi­nary choice. It is not the black­mail choice that Theresa May mis­lead­ingly poses: my deal or no deal. Nor is it the choice Jeremy Cor­byn still im­plau­si­bly claims: her bad Brexit or his much bet­ter Brexit. The real choice we must make be­fore B-day (cur­rently 29 March) is this: blind­fold Brexit or demo­cratic time­out. As par­lia­ment takes back con­trol, we ur­gently need the Labour front bench to join MPs from all par­ties in get­ting us to the time­out. By time­out I mean a pe­riod of demo­cratic de­lib­er­a­tion lead­ing up to a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum, in which we de­cide, on the ba­sis of ev­ery­thing we now know, how we should ad­dress the real prob­lems that con­trib­uted to the vote for Brexit in 2016, what kind of coun­try we re­ally want to be – and whether we can do that bet­ter out­side or in­side the EU. For this, our EU part­ners will ex­tend ar­ti­cle 50 and give us the nec­es­sary time.

Ev­ery­thing else – May’s deal, no deal, cus­toms union, Nor­way plus, Canada plus, com­mon mar­ket 2.0, make your own la­bel – is just a vari­ant of blind­fold Brexit.

This clar­i­fies what might oth­er­wise ap­pear like to­tal con­fu­sion. In all these vari­ants, what Brexit ac­tu­ally means would only be de­ter­mined in a drawn-out ne­go­ti­a­tion af­ter we had left the EU. And once you are out, you are out. Whatever the goals set by the Bri­tish govern­ment – and both the govern­ment and the goals might change – we would be ne­go­ti­at­ing from a po­si­tion even weaker than we are in to­day.

A Labour govern­ment com­ing to power in these cir­cum­stances would be like a street cleaner hav­ing to gather the horse dung af­ter a Tory hunt has passed down the high street. It wouldn’t be long be­fore the pub­lic started blam­ing Labour rather than the “Tory Brexit”. One of the delu­sional ideas still whirring around West­min­ster is that, hav­ing “done Brexit”, we can rapidly get back to ad­dress­ing our real prob­lems, such as hous­ing, health and ed­u­ca­tion. Brexit won’t be done for a decade, and the eco­nomic cost of even the soft­est Brexit will leave less money avail­able for al­ready stretched pub­lic ser­vices. The peo­ple hard­est hit will be Labour’s work­ing-class voters.

An­other delu­sion is that it’s up to us to de­cide whether to ex­tend ar­ti­cle 50. Not so. It also re­quires the una­nim­ity of the EU 27. No­body knows what EU lead­ers would do in ex­tremis, but they have re­peat­edly said that they will not ex­tend it

just for more ne­go­ti­a­tions. There could be a short tech­ni­cal ex­ten­sion to al­low Britain to push through the nec­es­sary leg­is­la­tion. Oth­er­wise, it would re­quire a clear de­ter­mi­na­tion from London to have a ref­er­en­dum or a gen­eral elec­tion with the op­tion of Britain re­main­ing in the EU.

Here, then, is the choice be­fore Labour. Cor­byn’s speech yes­ter­day re­mained in de­press­ing de­nial-and-di­ver­sion ter­ri­tory: elect a Labour govern­ment to ne­go­ti­ate a bet­ter Brexit, but the real prob­lem is a suffering ma­jor­ity that has been im­mis­er­ated by a ra­pa­cious elite. This is just cakeism with red ic­ing. In the next two weeks, the choice will be­come real.

Un­less some­thing wholly un­ex­pected hap­pens,

May’s deal will be voted down next Tuesday. Labour will then pro­pose a mo­tion of no con­fi­dence, po­ten­tially lead­ing to a gen­eral elec­tion – but that mo­tion, too, will be de­feated. If the govern­ment re­spects the cross-party amend­ment dra­mat­i­cally voted through the House of Com­mons this week, it should come back within three par­lia­men­tary work­ing days of Tuesday’s vote to say what it pro­poses to do next.

May has got all the Ir­ish back­stop re­as­sur­ances that she is likely to get out of Brus­sels. Un­less a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Labour MPs swal­low the mind-stretch­ing propo­si­tion that a post-Brexit Con­ser­va­tive govern­ment is go­ing to be a bet­ter pro­tec­tor of work­ers’ rights than the EU, an at­tempt to push her deal through on a sec­ond vote will fail. If the dis­si­dent Con­ser­va­tive Dominic Grieve and his fel­low sig­na­to­ries to that cross-party amend­ment are sup­ported in their in­ter­pre­ta­tion by the Speaker, there will be the pos­si­bil­ity of amend­ments to the govern­ment mo­tion. By this pro­ce­dural means, or an ex­plic­itly “in­dica­tive” vote, par­lia­ment could test the sup­port among MPs for dif­fer­ent op­tions.

Crunch time for Cor­byn comes then, or very soon there­after. If he can over­come his own Lex­iter (left­wing Brex­iter) in­stincts, then Labour can lead a cross-party par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity to take the Brexit ques­tion back to the peo­ple, in a well-pre­pared sec­ond ref­er­en­dum. The onus would then be on the govern­ment to re­spect the will of par­lia­ment and put through the leg­is­la­tion. If it re­fused, or proved in­ca­pable, then par­lia­ment it­self would have to take even more de­ci­sive con­trol over the process. A benign side ef­fect would be to curb an over-mighty ex­ec­u­tive, and cre­ate a more mod­ern, demo­cratic bal­ance be­tween leg­is­la­ture and ex­ec­u­tive.

The very method of get­ting to a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum will al­ready have demon­strated some­thing of cru­cial im­por­tance: that this is not sim­ply a re­peat of the first. It’s not Blairite, met­ro­pol­i­tan, lib­eral elites telling the be­nighted peo­ple to vote again un­til they give the right an­swer. No, this is part of a much larger process – per­haps in­clud­ing a cit­i­zens’ as­sem­bly, as sug­gested in a re­cent Guardian ed­i­to­rial – which is a pos­i­tive demo­cratic re­sponse to the vote for Brexit. If this verb­less phrase does not sound too Blairite for Cor­bynist ears: tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit.

So this process would be as much about un­der­stand­ing the real causes of the Brexit vote, and ad­dress­ing them, as about our re­la­tion­ship with the EU. The new peo­ple’s vote would then be a ref­er­en­dum on Britain’s fu­ture – who we think we are, what we want to be, and how we best get there. A con­ven­tion be­ing held in London to­day aims to kick­start this de­bate.

For Labour to un­der­stand the real bi­nary choice that we face – blind­fold Brexit or demo­cratic time­out – and plump de­ci­sively for the lat­ter would be the best thing for the whole coun­try, and for Europe. It would also, in­ci­den­tally, be wel­comed by a large ma­jor­ity of Labour party mem­bers and sup­port­ers, while fur­ther di­vid­ing the Con­ser­va­tives.

I don’t for a mo­ment un­der­es­ti­mate all the dif­fi­cul­ties down this route. There is no good way out of the mess Britain has got it­self into. But this is the least worst path, bring­ing un­ex­pected pos­si­bil­i­ties for demo­cratic and na­tional re­newal. Go for it, Labour – or the party, this coun­try and our con­ti­nent will re­gret the missed op­por­tu­nity for ever more.

ILLUSTRATION: NATE KITCH

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