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Labour must stop its sleight-of-hand on a second Brexit referendum or risk alienating working people

5 min read

Backing a second European referendum will show Labour is "tin-eared" and damage its election chances, says Melanie Onn MP.

Unless something truly ground-breaking happens - say, a second sun emerges, there’s a plague of locusts or Parliament finally succumbs to the Victorian sewage system and seeps into the Thames - it is likely that the UK will be having European elections ‪on 23 May.‬ 

This will not be by design, by preference, nor with much enthusiasm. So little enthusiasm, in fact, that Conservative association members in the Midlands have withdrawn their labour and refuse to campaign for the party’s MEPs.

It will be a joyless campaign for many, stuck in Tory-led Brexit political limbo, unable to muster any gusto that might persuade a wavering voter that opting for their usual party of choice is the right thing to do.

For those Labour MPs who had hoped that the Prime Minister might be in a position to Tippex over some of her red lines and bring forward an amended deal that would satisfy most (if not all) of their concerns about the previous iterations, time is running out. That option is going further into the distance, beyond the long grass.

There was speculation that ‪Tuesday 30‬ ‪April‬ could have seen ‘MV4’ - but another week seems scheduled to pass without business of any real significance in the House. And at the time of writing, worryingly, just 25 sitting days remain in this Parliamentary session. 

So without the opportunity for a wider group of MPs to make a positive choice over a revised Withdrawal Agreement, it seems we, as politicians, whose business is politics and politics being the blister-inducing job of electioneering, will be out on the knocker trying to convince ordinary folks to use their vote for a parliament we were meant to have left weeks ago.

And their choice will be telling. It will be a test of the EU, a test of the country’s antipathy or zeal towards it, a reflection of the current Brexit mess and likely to bring about extremes in opinion - a clear divide, exactly like the 2016 referendum, between the cities, the student regions, towns and coastal areas.

And let’s not forget why there is that divide. Students have a sense of positivity about their purpose and future, cities have thrived, grown and offered increasing opportunities. The status quo works well for them, and they are (mainly) satisfied and hopeful. 

Towns and coastal areas, on the other hand, have felt the impact of 10 years of economic squeeze, 40 years of industrial decline that membership of the EU has not arrested, geographic isolation, and have been left reliant on working for a shrinking public sector, seasonal tourist trade or zero-hours contract factory and retail work. Is it any wonder they want a change they hope will be for the better? That is their cry for satisfaction and a hopeful future.

In November 2000 Labour’s Robin Cook told eurosceptics to reflect on why they wanted the UK to get off the bus as so many were queuing to get on. He went on to talk about the need for a prosperous Europe, the need for reform to ensure we were part of a force for social good that invested in “labour as a resource worth investing in”.

Somewhere along the line, precisely because people in all parts of the UK have not felt invested in, more people decided to ring the bell to get off. 

Since the referendum there has been no suggestion from Labour or the People’s Vote campaign about how the EU should be reformed to be improved or to speak to those who have become sceptics - just a clamour to try to undo the outcome of the referendum.

It has been suggested, ahead of Tuesday’s Labour Party extraordinary NEC meeting, that Labour would decide (two days before the local elections) it will run on a platform of supporting a second referendum on any deal. 

While that may have been somewhat undermined by the leak of a leaflet that failed to mention this point, it still begs the question: why?

Surely if the momentum in the country is - as we have been told by the likes of Lord Adonis - behind a second referendum, then all those People’s Vote activists will recognise that these elections are the prime opportunity to get turnout above the usual 30%, have a clean sweep of Remain parties and put to bed the concerns of MPs in Leave seats. But views in the towns and coastal regions really haven’t changed all that much since 2016, and in some cases have hardened towards a preference for a no-deal exit from the EU.

The Labour Party was established to be the voice of working people and those under-unrepresented by MPs 100 years ago. In the Midlands, we have lost mining communities to the Conservatives.

Continuing to back a second referendum, a sleight-of-hand position which by nudging and cajoling incrementally, really only has one definitive intention, to revoke the 2016 referendum and remain in the EU. It will send a message of a tin-eared Labour Party, unconcerned by the views of the heartlands it needs to hang on to in order to form a Government.

Any decision about the Labour Party fully endorsing a second referendum on any deal must be made, not on the basis of bolstering potential future leadership ambitions, but in the full knowledge of the impact that decision will have on the future electability of Labour as a potential Government, whether that is in 2022 or later this year.


Melanie Onn is the Labour MP for Great Grimsby

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