The Labour Party National Executive Committee is right to have rejected an attempt by Tom Watson, the deputy leader, to tie Labour to a confirmatory vote on any Brexit deal that may be cobbled together in talks with the Tories.
Any attempt to concede to such a demand or to support a second referendum would have been an electoral own goal and would have damaged Labour’s attempts to campaign on policies that would attract both Leave and Remain voters.
Nigel Farage and the far right parties would have had a field day with their slogans of “Betrayal” in the local elections and the possible European elections, and many Leave voters would have had their frustration with the established political parties confirmed.
It was ironic that in the run up to the NEC vote those in politics and the media who have been the most vociferous in their criticism of Jeremy Corbyn were the same people who were relying on him to salvage their beloved European project.
One of the most strident of these voices, Will Hutton in the Observer, elevated the vote to an almost existential level: “Is Labour to be the party of Europe in uncompromising opposition to the rise of an ugly, hard-right, English nationalism? Or will it continue to temporise over Europe, so enabling the centre of political gravity to shift towards the English nationalist right?”
This false polarisation combines the politics of despair with a flawed characterisation of Europe. Does Hutton wish to stereotype all those who voted Leave as dyed in the wool reactionaries who can simply be written off? Does he really believe that the EU represents the epitome of progressive politics?
It is clear that many Leave voters were motivated by a sense of alienation and of being abandoned and taken for granted by the political establishment.
It is equally clear that the EU is the embodiment of neoliberalism and anti-migrant politics, and is faced with the dramatic rise of the far right in nearly all its member countries.
In fact Labour and Corbyn have already made too many compromises with the policies of the right. By entering into talks with Theresa May in an attempt to get a Brexit deal through parliament they enabled her to declare: “We agree with Labour on many things, for example we are both opposed to free movement of labour.”
By retreating over free movement unnecessary concessions were made to anti-immigrant sentiment. The adoption of support for a customs union and some aspects of the single market was a further concession to the politics of big business, and undermined the case for clear and unequivocal anti-austerity and anti-racist policies in Labour’s manifesto.
It is not as if May is in a “strong and stable” position. The three-way split within the Tories between the hard Brexiteers, the “softer” versions and the out and out Remainers appears increasingly bitter and may even be terminal.
May herself faces a further demand to resign in June from grassroots constituency parties and has already indicated that she will resign whenever her Brexit vote is agreed in parliament. Her position will be further weakened by the results of the local government elections on 2 May, regardless of Brexit. And if the European elections go ahead, Farage and the Brexit Party will have a field day at the Tories’ expense.
If a deal with May were to be agreed Labour would be tying itself to a divided and sinking Tory ship instead of distancing itself as far as possible from the wreckage.
Surely in these circumstances Labour should be highlighting the policies that proved so popular in the 2017 general election and which will provide the basis for the general election to come?
Taking back control of the public utilities, getting private companies out of the health service, committing to a proper Living wage, building social housing and campaigning against all forms of racism are the kind of popular policies that will gain traction in an election.
Agitation for such an election will have increasing credibility the more the Tories are seen to be imploding. Fighting to kill them off will have greater appeal among working class voters than giving them a helping hand.