This time last year, supporters of a new Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom were regarded as eccentric Remoaners—people who haven’t come to terms with the fact that they lost the June 2016 vote to remain in the EU.  

Peter Kellner
Kellner is a nonresident scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on Brexit, populism, and electoral democracy.
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Today, as MPs start to return from the summer holidays, the People’s Vote campaign is gathering strength. If, as seems increasingly possible, there is no agreement acceptable to the European Union, the British government, and the British Parliament on how the UK will leave the EU, the clamor for the people to take the final decision may become irresistible.

Over the next four weeks, the main tactical aim of this campaign will be to persuade Labour Party leadership to support a people’s vote. With the Conservative Party ruling as a minority government, and with at least twenty Conservative MPs strongly opposed to Brexit, a clear decision by Labour to call for a new referendum would tilt the arithmetic of Parliament toward that outcome. The issue will come to a head at Labour’s annual conference in late September.

To understand the tensions within Labour, a brief historical recap may help. From the 1950s until the 1980s, the party was divided on Europe, with the leadership alternately supporting and opposing UK involvement in the post-war European project.

After Labour’s crushing general election defeat in 1983, when it promised to withdraw from the European Community (as it then was), the party changed tack again and settled into a positive and increasingly enthusiastic advocate of the EU. As time went by, the anti-EU ranks of Labour MPs dwindled to just a handful. By the late 1990s, it was no longer accurate to describe Labour as divided: for all practical purposes, it was united.

However, one of the tiny band of refuseniks was Jeremy Corbyn. In the early 1980s, before he became an MP, Corbyn and I were members of the same local Labour Party in north London. Whenever the issue of Europe came up, he condemned Brussels as the headquarters of a capitalist conspiracy against the workers. As an MP, from 1983, he voted against almost every piece of pro-European legislation, such as laws to implement the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties.

Three years ago, Corbyn was elected party leader despite—rather than because of—his anti-EU views. Overwhelmingly, those party members who were keenest on Corbyn’s candidacy were and are enthusiastic pro-Europeans. It was his wider, left-wing ideology that appealed to local party members, who thought that Labour had drifted too far to the right.

Nine months into his time as leader, Corbyn had to decide what to do in the 2016 referendum. Should he stay true to his long-held, anti-Brussels beliefs, or side with the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs and local party members? In the end, he fudged it. He refused to take part in any of the events organized by the Remain campaign and restricted his public statements to some half-hearted comments in which he said he would vote Remain—but in terms that showed he had not fundamentally changed his views. In one television interview, Corbyn was asked to express his views on a scale from zero (strongly pro-Brexit) to ten (strongly pro-Remain). He said “seven.” It was scarcely a ringing endorsement and did nothing to boost support for Remain among Labour voters.

His weakness in the campaign, alongside his general performance as party leader, led to a revolt by Labour MPs immediately after the referendum. Most of his leadership team—the shadow cabinet—resigned their posts and returned to being backbench Labour MPs. Then, by a massive margin of 172 to 40, Labour MPs passed a vote of no confidence in his leadership.

At most times (and, indeed, in most democracies) such a vote by a party’s parliamentarians would force a leader’s resignation. But Corbyn clung on. He owed his position to local party members. In a second leadership election three months later, Corbyn comfortably won again.

Today, Labour’s formal policy on Brexit is as awkward as Corbyn’s own position was two years ago. It says it accepts the result of the referendum—but wants to maintain the benefits of the single market, customs union, and all the EU agencies. Nobody has ever explained quite how Britain can leave a club and yet keep all the benefits of membership without paying for them—or, indeed, the point of sticking to the club’s rules without having any say in them.

However, the real purpose of this stance is not to set out a coherent long-term policy, but to find a tactic that will not alienate either the majority of Labour voters who are pro-EU or the shrinking minority of anti-EU Labour voters. If Corbyn can keep those two groups together, he thinks he can use a crisis over Brexit this autumn to force, and then win, a fresh general election. He is resisting calls for a new referendum because that would leave the Conservatives in government, albeit, in all probability, with a new prime minister.

Yet Corbyn’s position is beginning to fray. An early election is highly unlikely: the rules make it impossible in practice to hold one unless the current government either wants to (which it doesn’t, and won’t) or a majority of MPs dismiss the government with a vote of no confidence (which, again, is highly improbable, for even the most avidly anti-Brexit Conservative MPs don’t want to risk Corbyn becoming prime minister; and nor do the ten Democratic Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland, who help to keep the government in office).

And so increasingly, Corbyn is coming under pressure from Labour MPs, local party members, and leaders of the strongest pro-Labour trade unions to abandon his opposition to a referendum. For them, the most critical task of UK politics in the months ahead is to stop what they regard as the catastrophe of Brexit. The chances are growing that they will persuade Corbyn to change tack.

In all this there is, potentially, a delicious irony. Suppose Labour’s stance does change. Suppose that, as a result, a Brexit crisis this autumn does lead to Parliament calling for a new referendum. Suppose that a majority of British voters decide to remain in the EU after all. It may be that Corbyn—a strident, lifelong, socialist opponent of Brussels and all its works—will end up joining the ranks of those political leaders who deserve the gratitude of all pro-Europeans for his role in preserving UK membership of the EU.