If Brexit doesn't mean Brexit, Labour will need a clear strategy to win public support
Owen Smith today announced that as Labour leader he would attempt to block the triggering of Article 50 until Theresa May promised a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal, or a general election.
‘Under my leadership, Labour won’t give the Tories a blank cheque,’ Smith said.
“The British people were lied to by the Leave campaign – they deserve to have a say on whatever exit deal the Tories strike with the EU.
Theresa May says that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – but nobody knows what Brexit looks like. It could involve trashing workers’ rights and environmental protections, opening our NHS up to foreign competition, making it harder for us to trade with our neighbours and damaging our economy.”
EU policy is one of Smith’s strongest weapons in the Labour leadership race, since Corbyn is widely perceived as being ambivalent about Europe, unlike the vast majority of Labour members who strongly supported Remain.
Indeed, serious discussion of EU policy is welcome in a contest that has scarcely touched upon the primary challenge facing the country in the years ahead.
However, any Brexit policy is extremely complex — as the Tories are learning the hard way — and we have four five key questions for Smith on the viability of this plan.
1. Does he have the parliamentary support?
While it’s possible that the Lib Dems and the SNP (along with Caroline Lucas and the SDLP) would support Labour on this, it’s not certain and Smith would have to court their support.
Additionally, he would have to win over a handful of Tories in order to tip the government’s majority.
Pledging to block the government on as significant an issue as this is a major commitment for a prospective Labour leader and, if it fails, Labour is left with a whole lot of egg on its face.
2. How will it look to the public, especially Labour’s target voters?
‘We didn’t like your decision, we’ll have another referendum’ was how John Humphrys characterised Smith’s proposal on the BBC’s Today programme, voicing a common critique that with this policy Labour would arrogantly disregard the will of voters.
Polling published last week suggests that almost 70 per cent of people believe, as the prime minister does, that Brexit must mean Brexit, and 56 per cent believe that ignoring the decision or calling a second referendum would be unacceptable.
Smith responded to Humphrys that he is calling for ‘a bit more democracy not a bit less’, but that argument would have to be very carefully pitched to avoid the perception that Labour’s Westminster elite is simply telling the public that it knows best.
4. Could Labour win a second referendum?
Smith has argued that the Remain camp didn’t fight hard enough in the previous referendum, and in particular that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t do enough to put forward the progressive case.
He has made it clear that (apparently irrespective of the deal the government has negotiated) he ‘will fight tooth and nail to keep us in the EU.’
But given Labour’s poor electoral performance in recent years, and the poor performance of progressive causes more broadly, what would Smith’s strategy be for ensuring a different outcome?
3. Would this incentivise an anti-immigrant negotiation strategy?
Few on the left would disagree with Smith that Britain’s decision to leave the EU was, in many ways, the product of right-wing populism and blatant dishonesty.
However, the risk of a second referendum is that it encourages UKIP and the Tories to repeat the same behaviour.
If the prospect of a second referendum is hanging over the government in negotiations, there’s a risk that they will prioritise the populist cause of controlling immigration rather than the issues Smith is trying to promote — trade, economic growth, workers’ rights and the environment.
5. What about the other EU states?
Perhaps more importantly than anything else, Smith’s proposal is predicated on the assumption that, should UK voters reject whatever deal the government has reached, the EU will welcome them back with open arms.
There are questions about whether this is legally possible following the triggering of article 50, but we should also ask whether the other 27 EU states, after two years of extremely costly negotiations, will actually be willing to put the decision back to the British people.
These questions are not intended to discredit Smith’s proposal, which certainly warrants consideration.
Rather they highlight that, if Brexit is to mean something other than Brexit, Labour must have a clear answer to inevitable criticisms, and a clear strategy to win public support for remaining in the EU after all.
Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.