What price a People’s Vote? 

Bryn Jones fears another referendum could lead to electoral defeat for Labour

Judging by my email inbox, the case for a second referendum on EU membership seems overwhelming. The left from Lib Dems to Momentum clamours for the Corbyn leadership to champion a People’s Vote. However, these campaigners rarely assess the wider implications on political divisions and Labour’s prospects of getting into government. Yet the evidence of the electoral impact of a Labour commitment to a PV shows it is more likely to be negative. The most likely electoral outcome of a referendum gained and even won by its ‘Remainer’ advocates is a Tory rather than a Labour government.

PV campaigners claim a significant shift amongst former Leave voters towards ‘Remain’. Yet closer scrutiny of opinion polls suggests ‘Leave’ has a good chance of winning again. The most optimistic polling puts an anti-Brexit vote on only 40% – the same level of support expressed for Leave in polls just before the fateful June vote, in which, of course, Leave won 52%. In Leave strongholds wider issues of identity and populist nationalism have not changed and may have strengthened by the drawn-out Brexit process.

What if another referendum was secured? Irrespective of the outcome, the electoral consequences for Labour could be dire. The TSSA union, a strong advocate of a PV, reportedly claims Labour could lose 45 seats in a snap election unless it adopts an anti-Brexit position. It also, allegedly, claims ‘Brexit energises Labour remain voters’ disproportionately, and warns: ‘There is no middle way policy which gets support from both sides of the debate’. As this report’s methods remain unpublicised we cannot check its evidence. Assume, however, that its 45 lost seats figure is correct but assess the other side of the coin: that Labour-supporting pro-Brexit voters also base election votes on their Brexit preference. What would be the consequences of their switching away from Labour?

Note that to get the General Election votes needed to form the next government, Labour needs to add to its present total another 64 seats. According to Richard Johnson’s Lancaster University analysis, in the 20 Labour-held marginals most vulnerable to the Tories, 16 constituencies voted for Leave. So, other things being equal, that would reduce the positive balance of TSSA’s 45 ‘holds’ to 29, raising the overall target of must-win constituencies to 80. Most of these have to come from Tory marginals where Labour came second in 2017. This is because the Conservatives, not Labour, are in second place in every English Lib Dem constituency and the SNP came second in every Scottish Lib Dem seat. Johnson calculates that only three of Labour’s targets in Tory-held marginals had Leave votes of less than 40%.

Discounting the more complex Scottish case, I analysed 45 Tory-held Labour targets in England and Wales, of which 37 had Leave majorities. Of these 17 were near or above 60% pro-Leave majorities. Adopting again the TSSA hypothesis, that Brexit preferences will directly influence General Election party choices, there are unlikely to be enough switchers from Leave to Remain to turn most of these seats into Labour gains. Instead, Labour would not win between 17 and 37 of it most promising gains from Tories. The 64 seat gap would not be closed.

Castigated by pro-Brexit media, mere support for a referendum by Labour, irrespective of the outcome, would doubtless alienate many pro-Brexit voters. Barring a startling number of Liberal Democrat victories in Tory seats, the above electoral arithmetic indicates another neoliberal Tory government. The longer-term consequences of another bitterly fought and divisive referendum campaign would further handicap Labour’s project. Continuation of the Brexit saga through a referendum campaign, whatever its outcome, would strengthen and embolden nationalism, crypto-fascism and ethnic supremacism – both within the Tory party and in emerging outfits, such as Farage’s infant Brexit Party.

Against these spectres a partial Brexit opens up much more attractive scenarios. If Labour establishes the case for a close economic alignment with but outside the EU, it could then win a General Election. Labour could begin to implement its emerging social democratic alternative to neoliberal inequality and austerity. Such reforms might then serve as a model for the left in member states and eventually EU bodies. In a less polarised UK, Labour might also, in the fullness of time, propose entry into a sufficiently reformed EU that would contradict the bureaucratic behemoth caricature that has fuelled Brexit hysteria, paranoia and our current dystopia.

Bryn Jones

Bryn Jones is the co-editor of Alternatives to Neoliberalism and a member of Bath CLP.