Forget a referendum re-run. But another Europe referendum with a different question is inevitable

by Dan Cooke

At the time of writing there are over 3 million signatories. In coming days it will probably continue to climb. But however many people eventually sign the petition for a referendum re-run it can only be an exercise in frustrated misdirection. The Leave vote creates a new political reality which only a time machine could undo and no democrat can ignore.

Yet, as we search for a path forward, it will become increasingly clear that the public does have to be consulted again before Britain finalises its exit from the EU – and that another referendum to approve or reject the terms of exit is the right way to do so.  For Labour, even if it succeeds in electing a new leader, an explicit commitment to such a referendum in its manifesto for any snap election will probably be the only way it can build a national coalition of support. This means taking the position that Brexit is not inevitable because if exit terms are not approved the logical consequence is that Britain remains in the EU.

The key to understanding the referendum’s chaotic aftermath (and probably the result itself) is the false choice it presented between a known and unloved status quo and amorphous alternative that the Leave campaign skilfully preserved from any concrete definition. Only now is there beginning to be serious scrutiny of the real alternatives available, ranging from membership outside the EU of the European Economic Area or “EEA”, allowing Britain to preserve most Single Market rights, to a range of essentially theoretical alternatives that are only beginning to be sketched out.

Unsurprisingly, a dividing line is already beginning to crystallise around those (in both the Remain and Leave camps, and in all parties) who favour the EEA option and those who see it as inadequate.

As the country stares into the abyss of uncertainty the EEA option offers the understandable appeal of deliverability and certainty. Britain could leave the EU, join EFTA (the European Free Trade Association which we left in 1973, with its remaining members being Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein) and, in this modified capacity, remain party to the EEA Agreement, which we originally signed in 1994 and which is now the primary legal instrument for the Single Market.

This could certainly be accomplished within the two year time-frame for negotiating exit from the EU after an Article 50 notification. Who can say the same about any bespoke trade negotiation which would need to be approved unanimously by the remaining 27 member states, several constituent parliaments and potentially referenda in several of those states (for example, the Netherlands recently held a referendum which blocked an EU trade detail with Ukraine)?  Attempting to craft, negotiate, agree and ratify anything more ambitious than EEA membership in an acceptable time-frame – while business confidence and political credibility drains away month by month –  would be a zip-wire act that even Boris Johnson could not relish.

Big business will be surely rally strongly behind the EEA as the safe option and will be a powerful lobby as the Conservative Party decides its new leadership and policy. It is notable how quickly Phillip Hammond – as one of the very few senior Tories to have broken cover by the weekend to answer any questions at all about the post-referendum reality – clearly stated that retaining Single Market membership would be a red line for him.  There have been further hints from other since then.

Prominent statements from big employers, likely to follow HSBC in making membership of the Single Market the test for whether or not their swiftly relocate jobs outside the EU, will only reinforce the salience of this choice. There may also be hopes that swiftly agreeing to remain in the Single Market will take the wind of the sails of Nicola Sturgeon’s calls for another independence referendum.

However, the arguments against presenting EEA membership as a valid response to the referendum result are obvious and powerful. One of the “four freedoms” defined by the EEA is freedom of movement and there is no realistic prospect of unpicking this within the context of that existing treaty.  It is surely inconceivable that Boris Johnson, or any prominent Leaver, could go into a Tory leadership election –  let alone face the public in a General Election – having jettisoned the position that Britain should “take back control” of immigration policy in a way which is incompatible with EEA membership.

It is certain the Tories will not be able to fully resolve these tensions and a competent opposition should be able to make enormous mileage from the confusion and bitterness that will result. However, they present just as great a trap for Labour against the background of a likely early election. On the one hand, quickly and firmly committing to the EEA option offers the chance for Labour to broaden its appeal by capturing support from the recently mobilised coalition of Remain voters and to re-build its credibility with business. But over-selling a solution which completely ignores the concerns about immigration which motivated many in the Labour heartlands to vote Leave could consign Labour to despised irrelevance among many of its natural supporters.

The signs of a split on this issue among Labour MPs – until recently overwhelmingly united by the case for Remain – are starting to emerge even as they make common cause in challenging Corbyn.  In recent days, Gloria de Piero, speaking for many Northern MPs, has cited Corbyn’s failure to respond to concerns over freedom of movement in the campaign as a reason for his unsuitability to lead, while Sadiq Khan – now the de facto spokesman for London’s financial sector – has argued it is “crucial” to retain Single Market access and so accept freedom of movement.

There are also democratic arguments against membership of the EEA outside the EU. Rather than equal involvement in shaping regulations we would have to accept the “government by fax” with limited consultation rights recently warned against by Norway’s PM.

It is certainly not Labour’s job to argue away these flaws. Labour would have no credibility if it argued the EEA option is a better deal overall than the EU membership which the party overwhelmingly supported in the referendum. Similarly if Labour now attempted to argue that EEA membership truly addresses the concerns of those who voted Leave, it would only transfer to Labour the opprobrium properly owed to the Tories for calling the referendum without a plan and to the Leave campaign for their glib and undeliverable promises.

Instead Labour’s position in an early election should be that, in deference to the result of the referendum, we have a duty to identify a deliverable option for leaving the EU and that a renegotiation built around EEA membership is the least bad option to maintain the key benefits of the EU which we campaigned for, while addressing some of the concerns of Leavers regarding the political dimensions of the EU.  In this context, it would be right to assure the public that the final decision remains theirs, and so full details of what that proposal involves will be put to them for approval in a referendum before an irrevocable commitment is made.

This would mean giving the public the choice whether to implement the original Leave vote on the basis of negotiating EEA membership outside the EU,  or to reject the best option for leaving and therefore to remain in the EU for the foreseeable future (and argue from within for reform). While critics may complain this is in fact just a re-run of the original referendum on terms that exclude more radical change, it is undisputable that a new government would be entitled to pursue to EEA option without a referendum and a decision to put the choice to the public is certainly a more democratic way to pursue this route.

This should be a very different referendum campaign from the one just witnessed. A Labour Prime Minister should not campaign “head, heart and soul” to persuade a jaded public of a preferred outcome,  but instead channel Harold Wilson in 1975: facilitate a public information campaign identifying the pros and cons of what is on offer, step back, and allow all ministers and MPs to campaign for the decision they favour. Whatever the outcome, those who believe there is another more radical option for life outside the single market would be free to continue to make their case through the political process  – but may struggle for a hearing as the public tires of those “banging on about Europe”.

Today, in a divided country, the closest thing to a unifying force is the emerging sense of distrust and powerlessness triggered by a vicious referendum campaign followed by complete confusion over what the future holds. In an early election, the best strategy for Labour is to promise that the public will be empowered to resolve this unfinished business soon with a final decision on a concrete and realistic alternative.

Dan Cooke is a Labour member and business lawyer

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9 Responses to “Forget a referendum re-run. But another Europe referendum with a different question is inevitable”

  1. ad says:

    This could certainly be accomplished within the two year time-frame for negotiating exit from the EU after an Article 50 notification.

    I though that after we trigger Article 50, the EU gets to dictate terms anyway? So what does it matter what we want?

  2. Tafia says:

    People avoid the issue of Article 50.

    One that is invoked – and it will be very late this year or early next, that’s it, game over. It is irreversible, irrevokable, unpausable & permanent.

    The EU is adamant it will not negotiate either formally or informally until Article 50 is triggered, and the longer that passes without it being triggered the more unstable our economy and the economies of the EU and G7 will get.

    A second referendum over anything is utterly pointless because by the time there would be anything to have referendum over, Article 50 would have been triggered and we will be out 24 months later whether negotiations are concluded or not or even whether they have started or not or what a referendum result is or is not.

    Personally, I side with Wales First Minister over this – get on with it, get it triggered The sooner there is a definate end date, the better it will be for everyone – it gives everyone something definate to focus on. At the moment, the two big parties are letting the UK down dreadfully and both should be ashamed of themselves.

    It’s like Sajid Javid said this morning – ‘we’re all Brexiteers now’

  3. Mark Livingston says:

    Corbyn has the most sensible and pragmatic policy. We should be in Europe working for a more social Europe. Europe has to change; and the required changes must be more than just cosmetic adjustments. Labour should be working with like-minded parties across the continent to achieve this.

  4. John P Reid says:

    The difference in 75 was Wilson was PM, not leader of the opposition, middle class liberals, in the labour parties, denial that the working class doesn’t hold the parties convictions ,is emaberraimg,I’ve heard Kate Green, Seema Malhotra, Polly
    Billington, Liz Kendall, all say ,we lost move on, we’ve go to accept our working class core votes reasons.
    And the London elite, even ,when having working class refugees, Ecenomic EU migrants and BEME. People, say that the London centre doesn’t understand the working class have just ignored them

  5. Mr Akira Origami says:

    No rush on invoking article 50, we need the German led EU dictatorship time to think too.

    “Germany has much to lose because it exports roughly twice as much to Britain as it imports from the U.K. That ratio helps explain why German Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly responded to Britons’ vote by advocating a measured response amid calls from other EU members for a hasty severance.”…….

  6. @Mr Akira Origami

    I think you are mistaken. We have a trade surplus in services, but an substantial deficit in manufactured goods

    But services are harder to export without being in the single market.

    As fullfact says, “If the UK does trade under the General Agreement on Trade in Services agreement, then our market access will be far more limited than it is currently.”

    A particular fear is the impact on the city of London. Journalist Ben Judah warns that there is a strong chance of a deal that marginally reduces immigration, but means the City lose passporting rights. As he says, this could mean “The next Tory muchkin leader would then be a hideous position: have his tax base slasshed at by loss of banks as his voters rejoice”.

  7. John P Reid says:

    Tafia- During the deputy leadership election last year , my Question was read out at the Fabians at a Parliament hustings “Jon Cruddas says that members are burnt out,how can we motivate them to help, without appearing we’re bullying them” the question was directed towards Tom Watson,the candidate that was trying to re organise canvassing, but I’d noted his nature, of insisting on people following him,would put people off,
    In the end I was one of 400 people who voted Ben Bradshaw first ,Tom Watson second, in fact most of us 400 ,Live in Essex.
    Ben Bradshaw had been nominated by failed 2015 election Candidates from Essex areas, Gavin Callaghan, Mike Le surf, Polly Billington and Sam Gould, stating he understood labours Southern discomfort,

    Essex voted to leave the EU,last week, seeing labour leave ,from Brendan Chilton who’d voted Liz Kendall first, Jeremy Corbyn second, work with Vote leave to get the Unionised working class vote out.

    Jeremy Corbyn had been a critic of the EEC as it was for 40 years before his victory, there are time when leaders disagree with their parties policy, will argue they disagree ,but have to quietly respect, the parties policy, after 1987′ Neil kinnock roped lsbour accepting a multilateral disarnment, but conference voted against it, yet Neil argued he’d push for it to become policy, Edward Heath never really believed in the 1970 manifesto, going along with Enoch Powell ideas, until Heath did the u-turn. Harold Wilson disagreed,with Callaghan stopping Barbara Castles in place of strife, but couldn’t enforce it.
    So Jeremy Corbyn accepting party policy on remain,meant he couldn’t actively canvass for leave, yet clearly was only being Luke warm to remain,as he’d disagreed with the EU,for several years.

    Liz Kendall had said before David Cameron come back with his re negotiations she would canvass for remain,in the referendum,but on Leaves victory Friday, She had took to Twitter, to ingratiate leave, saying while she disagreed, she would work now, for the future,respecting many labour voters reasons for their choice.
    It was this attitude,that went so far away from Ben Bradshaws comments on the world at one, calling for Jeremy Corbyns departure, stating that Corbyn hadn’t argued for the EU, as it was our policy, and our core vote hadn’t supported us as Corbyn wasn’t passionate enough.

    Bradshaw had Defined our heartlands,as skilled working class who’d voted for us 3 times in the past, but the leave voters weren’t voting against labour ,as out heartland vote , weren’t voting Tory either ,as the Conservative Prime minister had backed remain.

    During the EU campaign a lot of keen new labour supporters had hostility on the door step, many people when asked ,saying that the labour remain canvassers didn’t realize why the working class, want soverignity, control on the economy, borders, democracy
    What we were saying didn’t appeal to them about keeping workers rights via the EU parliament, about getting back our money to spend on the environment or the ECHR
    Yet when leave said the creeping move towards unknown experts knowing best,and advisors saying they could tell the working class,they would run the NHS better with
    the Tories in the city. The lack of acceptance of the political class that we’ve sleep walked to a lack of debate at elections saw or traditional vote, the working class, go against us, resulting in a nasty campaign, where many labour remainers ,felt the lack of sport from our leader,meant even if they’d lost and took the abuse,as they were doing it for the party ,to have a sense of comradeship,as we’d done what we could even if the public disagreed, it would have been worth it, but as the party hasn’t come out well for it, and the leader wasn’t there for them, they will have felt bruised and not having been support from the person who should have lead them.
    Yet Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t have argued for remain if he didn’t really support it,
    There’s are many things Corbyn, needs to do, to stop ,the Conservatives, dominating the agenda, whether going to working class areas, with aging populations, who see population increases, staring social services, to Midlands and the Luton area, that see local government taxation spent on transport,when it should be spent on housing.
    But Jeremy couldn’t have argued for this without it appearing in sincere, Ben Bradshaw understands ,Essex Man(for want of a better description,of the target vote) but he’s wrong to put the blame on Corbyn,let alone feel the parliamentary party speaks for the party,or that there’s a alternative that has connected with the parts of the electorate we need, to win. The party unless we realize, Jeremy is causing the remanence of our core vote to reject us at council election, will not want anyone to the right of him, if Jeremy was ousted, there couldn’t be a compromise candidate that could at least keep our core vote and keep, the new members happy, Tom Watson or Angela Eagle, could act as a balancing act candidate, but both sides would blame each other still if we lost heavily the next election, saying that those two were either still to left wing,or the Corbynistas would say, we’d have done better with Jeremy, a Brexit candidate would leave a sour taste in the remainers who felt abused ,during this campaigns,mouths.

    Anyone to the right of Eagle, be it Yvette Cooper, Stephen Kinnock, or Jon Cruddas wouldn’t be able to unite, the current front bench and the back benchers, Liz Kendall’s support from Blue Labour brexiters like Rowenna Davis and Lord Glasman, and her dignified speech on remains defeats, would appeal to our Brexit vote, but her defeat in 2015 would make it impossible for her to run,

    John Mann has said this isn’t the time for a election ,but to conceal we’ve ignored our core vote,also turns a blind eye to Ukip appealed to labours core vote.

    The labour remain team, having seen so much anger from working class leave voters have felt anger,and retorted with quotes of Racism ,yet the remain camp, have not realized their snobbery ,in patronizing the working class, this attitude has even less appeal to the electorate, and either a moderate or a labour leaver would see the remain camp feel all th a use they received was for nothing,yet labour leavers having abuse from the Emily thornberrys looking down on us, playing the victim card,and how badly treated she felt her team had been, to then ignore the real suffering the working class have had through pay freezes,while positive descrimination , saw them ignored,
    Until either the Islington lot of Emily thornberry, realize that the working class who haven’t had the breaks in life she has,and she isn’t one of them, and her playing the victim, for student voters, who’s worse case scenario,is they’ll have a debt to pay off when they’re older, or Ben Bradshaw,so concerned with appealing to the aspiring middle class, while keeping the working class vote trade unionist, that there’s a whole section of the working class, not in Unionised jobs, or middle class, who aren’t in public sector jobs, where their biggest concern is whether baby sitting duties are so expensive,it means if their partner is in work,it’s not worth them working,to spend all their wage on child care.

  8. madasafish says:

    >Mark Livingston

    We should be in Europe working for a more social Europe.

    Well we are leaving the EU so that’s failed.

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