Referendum 2.0? Five questions Owen Smith needs to answer

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.

See also: Corbyn pledges to scrap House of Lords and ‘democratise our country from the ground up’

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10 Responses to “Referendum 2.0? Five questions Owen Smith needs to answer”

  1. Martin Clarke

    This comes across as very arrogant of Owen Smith. He is saying to the electorate, that as our self appointed better, he knows what is best for us and how dare we disagree with him. We are to have another referendum and this time we are to vote in the right way. A way which pleases him.

  2. Chris Lovett

    The “leave” campaign was the most dishonest I’ve ever known. Given that the referendum was incredibly poorly designed – to depend simply on a majority vote with no qualifications such as an electoral majority – the 36% of that electorate who voted “leave” just isn’t enough to base such a massive decision of national importance on. In my opinion the whole thing should be kicked firmly into the longest possible grass. Or put again when there’s the slightest idea of conditions the UK might expect from the 27. (Which will obviously include freedom of movement of peoples and an obligation to continue to pay in to the EU budget, if the country wants to continue free trade and financial passporting.)

  3. John Woods

    I agree with Owen that the deal we have with Europe is the best one we could get and that Europe needs the UK as much as the UK needs Europe. As for the 52% that voted Leave, most of them voted against their best interests and many have admitted that they never expected to win to anyone who asked. The only people who will gain from Brexit are the Farmers and the Fishermen, both of whom were sold down the river by the Industrialists and Financial Services when we went in in 1973. Some say that it took Edward Heath’s diplomatic skills to overcome the resistance of the French but they were all looking for another net contributor (France is still not a net contributor, to my knowledge).
    How to manage Immigration is the main issue aand most of the negotiation should concentrate on this. I believe that David Davis and Theresa May will decide that the sending of the Article 50 letter should be delayed as long as possible while the French and German elections are held. Time enough in 2018/9 to decide whether to put the renegotiated terms to the Commons and then to the country in the 2020 General Election.

  4. Andrew Bailey

    The mantra is “Brexit means Brexit” but I could say ” lunch means lunch.” What do I mean “-some butties and a packet of crisps or a banquet ” There is a difference and once we know which it is how does it belittle democracy to give the people a say on how acceptable the terms are?

  5. Steve Mizzy

    Seems to me that Owen is displaying real leadership on this issue.

    Lets see what kind of deal the Govt is offering before we sign off on it. If it really disadvantages us, if it really has significant shortcomings and if the terms are nowhere near what people expected then its surely right to reconsider and put it to the electorate.

    The Labour position was to remain in the EU. Owen is honouring that in a way that the current leader has chosen not to.

  6. CR

    The idea of any second referendum is utterly undemocratic and will be seen as such by the British people.

    Project Fear has been shown to be a damp squib and uncontrolled immigration is still a major issue outside the M25. Simth, Labour and the Lib Dems are on to a hiding with this and UKIP would be rubbing their hands with glee if it were to come about.

  7. Holman

    A second referendum is an empty promise. But it plays well with Labour MPs who are potential defectors – like passing out the the life jackets before the ship hits the iceberg. It is part of Owen’s case for being leader of the defectors.

  8. David Davies

    Pfizer (4th choice Blue Labourite) is following his Master – The War Monger. He pretended to be a tory in order to get elected, then proved that it was no deception.

    JC is the ONLY politician with any semblance of integrity, despite incessant vitriol for all quarters. There would be 649 vacancies, if the electorate were only allowed to vote for honest candidates. The truth hurts, which is why the elite – and their willing accomplices in the commentariat – are desperate to silence this `no hoper’.

  9. Mick Hills

    What Owen Smith and all democrats should be highlighting is the great danger of holding any referendum. One question to cover very complex issues and the opportunity to lie on such a seemingly small subject matter. Its impossible to lie on a group of political issues across the board as in a general election covering the running of our country through the differing issues, defence, education, the economy etc. Smith is in danger of upsetting 52 percent of the voting public. If you were his campaign manager what would your reaction be to that, “good idea Owen, go for it”. Don’t think so actually but revealingly he did say decide it on a general election if not a referendum. I have no doubt he had in mind the back stop solution for Jeremy Corbyn, defeat and removal after a early general election. Or am I being cynical?

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