Steering Labour off the road to nowhere

Steve Freeman & Phil Vellender argue for a simple yes/no vote on a Tory deal

Since December 2018, British politics has been deep frozen in a ‘ratification crisis’. It climaxed on 15 January 2019, when May’s Withdrawal Agreement (WA) was decisively rejected by 230 votes. There are now two ways out of the ratification crisis – via parliament or via the people. May is strongest in parliament, whereas Corbyn demonstrated in 2017 that he fares better talking directly to voters. Crucially, many Labour supporters want Corbyn to take the case against May’s WA directly to the people via a referendum campaign.

If May believed her deal had popular support, logically she too would appeal to the people for their backing in a ratification referendum (RatRef).  Let’s be under no illusions: using all available parliamentary mechanisms, May can still emerge victorious from the current debacle. If her WA is ratified in parliament, she will gamble on an ‘I humbled the EU’, Falklands-style general election soon after. If Corbyn can’t find a democratic response to the ‘ratification crisis’, defeat beckons. He has tried everything in parliament and has so far failed. His best route now is to advance his case for Europe, directly, through a RatRef, Yes/No referendum. Let Labour’s watchword be democracy – the many decide, not the few.

A potential open goal awaits Corbyn. Occam’s razor would suggest a ratification referendum, with the single question: Yes or No to May’s deal. Corbyn cannot presently force May out by parliamentary means. Demanding both a GE and that May abandons her main ‘no deal’ weapon while the WA is still on life support is a non-starter. May will limp on.

Democratic trade union principles and practice can help Corbyn now. Unions in conflict with employers will initially use a ‘trigger ballot’ to win support for strike action. Unions negotiate with the other side and present any deal to the rank and file in a Yes/No ballot.

We should apply this democratic process to EU withdrawal and rule out a ‘Remain question’ on this May deal ballot paper. Including it would be a mistake and one which the Labour Right fully understands can ensnare Corbyn and further divide Labour supporters. Ratification does not exclude the idea that we might remain, but leaves that for a future ballot, as circumstances dictate.

Strategically, a RatRef shifts the debate on to Labour‘s terrain of democracy – the people decide. Corbyn can brand the Tories as scared of the people while Labour campaigns for a people’s voice. Defeating the WA in a RatRef really is Corbyn’s only realistic route to achieving a general election on his terms. Naturally, Article 50 will require extending to allow a RatRef to take place. A RatRef will divide the Tory party, whereas including a Remain option on the ballot paper now will further divide both Labour and the country.

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