Jeremy Corbyn has come under pressure this week to back a second referendum after a YouGov poll found that seven in ten Labour members wish for it to be party policy. So far, Corbyn has resisted such calls for a so-called People’s Vote. In this week’s Spectator, I explain why the Labour leader is reluctant to go near one – at least for the time being.
With the Tories in turmoil over Brexit, it’s quite possible — some cabinet members believe probable — that the government may soon collapse with a new general election called. This is Labour’s great hope – and Corbyn hopes to trigger a snap poll by defeating the government in a confidence motion after the meaningful vote. However, in order to make the most of such an opportunity – whether it is this year or in two years’ time – Labour must also get through Brexit without fatally wounding the party’s electoral chances in the process.
While party members and many Labour MPs have their hearts set on a second referendum to stop Brexit, a number of Corbyn’s advisers believe this would badly hurt Labour’s electoral chances by alienating towns that voted heavily to leave, such as Mansfield, where the Tories had a surprise victory in the snap election. Winning support in Leave towns is seen as crucial for winning a Labour majority.
Internal Labour polling also suggests that there is no huge appetite for a second referendum among the population at large. Instead, the overall feeling is one of apathy and ennui. Focus groups in the Midlands — an area with numerous swing seats and several Labour marginals with two-figure majorities — found even Remain voters sceptical of the idea of a People’s Vote. Were Labour to endorse a second vote, there’s concern that Labour Leave voters might accuse the party of Brexit betrayal and defect to Ukip, the Conservatives or not vote at all. This is viewed as a greater risk to Corbyn than annoying Remain voters, who are seen as less likely to vote for anyone else. Just look how the beleaguered Liberal Democrats fared in 2017 running on a pro-EU slate. It follows that unless public opinion changes, Corbyn is unlikely to make a second vote a priority.
Overall, Corbyn’s allies are confident that so long as they can navigate Brexit successfully, things are going their way. And that when the Brexit tide eventually does roll out, the Tories will be found to be swimming naked. ‘They’re going to have to find out what they’re actually for– in a way that they haven’t since the referendum result,’ says one Labour staffer. Theresa May’s paralysis on Brexit means that the Conservative party’s domestic agenda is threadbare. This is what Corbyn’s hope rests on: that record numbers now think that the country is moving in the wrong direction. And that there has been a reversal in public opinion in the past five years in people who thought tackling the deficit was more important than investment in services and communities.