So after months of prevarication, Labour have announced that they will back a second referendum under any circumstances and will campaign for Remain to stop a ‘no deal or a damaging Tory Brexit’. The reaction has dismayed Labour MPs in vulnerable Leave-leaning seats, but delighted Nigel Farage. Indeed, the decision has played perfectly into the Brexit party’s strategy of targeting working-class voters in the North and Midlands.
Three months ago, many assumed that a Tory wipe-out at the next election was inevitable. But now the tables are turned and it is difficult to see anything but electoral doom for Labour. The Brexit party will surely siphon off Leave voters in Labour’s industrial heartlands. But if you are a dedicated Remainer in a metropolitan area, why go for Labour’s Remain-light offer when you can have the real thing by voting Lib Dem or Green? Already Labour are below 20 per cent in some general election polls and it is hard to see how they will survive a four-way squeeze in any snap election.
The only thing that might avoid this doomsday scenario is if the Tories manage to take the UK out of the EU by 31st October. Given that the dreadful withdrawal agreement is now dead in the water, that means, somewhat ironically, only a ‘no deal’ Brexit can save Labour. Once the UK has actually left the EU, divisions in the country will slowly start to heal. The Brexit party will perhaps be neutered once we leave and Labour can try to win back voters by re-focusing the debate on domestic issues such as education and the NHS where they have a comparative advantage.
But, that depends on voters forgiving Labour for their current shenanigans, which would be far more than the party deserves. By backing a second referendum, the party of principle has abandoned a fundamental principle of democracy: when the country votes on an issue via an electoral process agreed in advance by all sides, the winning decision has to be implemented. If the losers of a vote refuse to accept the result, democracy is dead. Respecting the will of the people is not just a slogan, it is a cornerstone of the democratic process.
It would be an honourable stance to campaign for another EU referendum and also to campaign for the UK to re-join the EU in that referendum. But only once the result of the first referendum has been implemented. It really is that simple.
The fact that it is three years since the original vote does not change anything. Indeed, the spectacle of the losing side trying to delay implementation of the result for years in the hope that people will change their minds makes things worse, not better.
It was clear back in March that Labour’s promise to respect the result to leave was an empty one. Labour MPs where whipped to block Brexit and a majority voted in favour of another referendum. It was for that reason that I resigned from the Labour party after over 30 years as a member. Now, the party is not even pretending to respect the 2016 vote.
Of course the Tories were also responsible for blocking Brexit back in March and, like Labour, they paid the price in the local and European elections. But the Conservatives have recognised the problem. They have kicked out their leader and it looks like they will elect one who actually believes in Brexit. There is still little reason for the electorate to trust the Tories again, given that Theresa May so brazenly broke the promises she made at the last election. But at least they are making an attempt at redemption.
Labour could also have chosen to change course and embrace the democratic mandate given by their Leave-oriented constituents. Instead they have opted to move even further towards Remain. In the process, they are sucking up to big business interests like the CBI and the rest of the EU-loving establishment. This approach may have the support of a majority of party members and activists but that doesn’t make it any less of a tragedy for a party founded on universal suffrage and putting power in the hands of ordinary people.
Labour turning its back on democracy is particularly sad for stalwart leavers such as Kate Hoey, Dennis Skinner and John Mills, whilst Tony Benn must be turning in his grave. But all good things come to an end, and the end of the Labour Party is now no more than it deserves.
David Paton is Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School. He is co-editor of the International Journal of the Economics of Business and is a member of Economists for Free Trade. He resigned from the Labour Party in April of this year after over 30 years’ membership. He tweets at @cricketwyvern