How Momentum could move Corbyn towards Brexit referendum
The FT's chief political correspondent Jim Pickard talks to Labour's grassroots pressure group Momentum and pro- and anti-Brexit MPs about a petition for a second referendum which could move leader Jeremy Corbyn towards a softer Brexit policy.
Written by Jim Pickard. Produced, filmed and edited by Josh de la Mare. Additional filming by Petros Gioumpasis. Images from. Getty and Reuters.
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Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain's opposition Labour party, has been sitting on the fence over Brexit for the last two years. But Jeremy Corbyn is coming under increasing pressure from some of his young radical supporters to change policy and back a second referendum or at least hold a public vote on whatever deal Theresa May comes back from Brussels with at the end of the year.
Until now, Mr Corbyn has enjoyed the full backing from his own support group of more than 40,000 grassroots members called Momentum. Now, one member of that group thinks that things should change.
Over the past two years, things have been a bit quiet in terms of Brexit, especially from the left of the Labour party.
Alena Ivanonva has launched a petition which, if it goes to 4,000 signatures, or 10% of Momentum membership, will force a referendum of the group's entire membership on whether to have a second vote on Brexit. Already, it has attracted close to 3,700 names.
I campaigned very hard for Remain because I believe in the potential for, especially, a Labour-led government within the EU to radically reform what the EU is about. And so I thought I need to do something because time is running out. We're getting closer to conference this year. And we're not really talking about this enough.
This may not be music to the ears of Mr Corbyn, who's tried to walk a tightrope between the mostly pro-EU Labour membership and a large number of Labour voters who backed Leave.
We could focus on trying to really run the arguments of the referendum, oppose Brexit at every turn, and be a party that represents the 48% who voted Remain in the referendum, and only 48%, or we can rise to the democratic challenge set before us to represent the whole country and bring people together by putting forward a progressive vision for a post-Brexit Britain.
Critics of Mr Corbyn point out, accurately, that, for decades, he has been a Eurosceptic. But Matt Zarb-Cousin, his former spokesman, says that the Corbyn proposals for staying in a customs union, but not the single market represent a much softer Brexit than the Conservative vision.
I don't think Jeremy Corbyn is a Eurosceptic. He wants to protect jobs, first and foremost.
Corbyn's team believes that shifting to a more openly anti-Brexit position could anger several million working class Labour voters who backed Brexit.
They have constituencies that are majority Leave and constituencies that are majority Remain. And from our position, you can't do much to stop Brexit anyway. You can't even get a meaningful vote on the final bill.
Many Labour MPs who tried to force out Corbyn in 2016 now find themselves on the same side as your Europhile members of Momentum. Alison McGovern is a leading Remain Labour MP on the right of the party.
A lot of parts of the Labour party, Momentum included, are now thinking that they should have a say on the Brexit deal, and the British public should have a say. It's notable that a lot of the trade unions have had this conversation about policy conferences too, now that we might, relatively soon, know more about what it actually means. I think people are wondering if the House of Commons can't sort it out because it's a hung parliament, maybe we need to go back to the British public.
On the other side of this debate are a number of pro-Brexit Labour MPs who maintain that a hard core of Labour voters want to leave. In particular, they fear there's a failure to support a crackdown on immigration which would infuriate swaths of longstanding supporters in the Midlands, northern England, and Wales.
I think Labour has got the right policies, that we accept the result of the referendum, and that means we accept we are leaving. We supported Article 50. And quite rightly, we want to make sure we get as good a deal as possible. And that means that we can trade as easily as we possibly can, that there's an end to freedom of movement, and we can come to, if it's possible, to some sort of customs arrangement as well. And I think, importantly, for the Labour party, is also looking to the future and saying what are the sort of areas of industrial policy, economic policy that maybe we haven't been thinking hard enough about whilst we've been in the European Union.
Alena Ivanonva feels that a move for another referendum will not undermine Corbyn, and that the grassroots need to be heard.
We have proved twice that the membership of the Labour party wants Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour party. If we have trust in our membership to do that, then we can trust ourselves to just have a friendly discussion about this one major issue.
But those in team Corbyn think that caution remains the best way forward, and they would prefer a more nuanced approach.
Even the majority of people that voted Remain think the result should be respected. Now, once we get the deal, it could be a case that people think, actually, this is worse than staying in the European Union. It looks like it might be going that way. So I think it would depend on whether public opinion changes by the time we get the deal, whether there is a move to have another referendum.
In the last week or so, Theresa May has come back from Chequers with her white paper on Brexit offering a softer option than before, which she will now negotiate with the European Union and put to Parliament. Alison McGovern says there's no guarantee there's a majority of MPs could either agree to those May proposals or to an even softer Brexit or to a hard Brexit with no deal.
No one party can call all the shots. There are two ways to deal with that. Either you get everybody together and try and find a compromise and listen to what all the different groups say. Or we say, once we know what the deal is, then the British public had better vote and say, is this actually what they wanted?
Caroline Flint, a former cabinet minister from the New Labour era now finds herself on the same side as the current Labour leadership, at least on Europe. Both agree that Britain should try to negotiate the best deal possible, but if necessary, have another general election rather than a second referendum.
My message, to unite those in our party and organisations outside our party trying to influence it, we have to make the big decisions here about how we're going to move forward. Labour is not in government. And are we going to stand by and allowed a no-deal option to emerge out of all of this, which I think would be terrible. Or are we going to make sure we can get the best deal possible?
All in favour, please yell.
Meanwhile, there were also signs of movement among the powerful unions who pay the bills for the Labour party. Unite, the biggest union, recently voted to keep open the possibility of a second referendum vote.
All eyes within the Labour party will be on its annual conference in September in Liverpool and the question of whether, this time around, delegates will get a chance to vote on Brexit policy.