On Wednesday, ahead of the Opposition’s unsuccessful motion of no confidence in Prime Minister Theresa May, a group of 71 Labour MPs and 13 Labour MEPs signed a letter calling for a public vote on May’s EU Withdrawal Agreement should the no confidence vote fail, which it did.
Among these were five of Labour’s 13 Merseyside MPs – Luciana Berger (Wavertree), Louise Ellman (Riverside), Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood), Conor McGinn (St Helens North) and Alison McGovern (Wirral South) – as well as all three of their North West England MEPs – Theresa Griffin, Wajid Khan and Julie Ward.
— Liverpool for Europe (@Liverpool4EU) January 15, 2019
The letter supports Labour’s opposition to May’s deal, criticising the Prime Minister’s decision to postpone a vote on the deal until after Christmas, and highlights that toppling the Government and securing a General Election may prove impossible. It suggests the alternative is to seek an extension of Article 50 and hold a public vote on the deal, allowing, in the signatories’ view, the people to reflect changes in facts and views since the referendum.
Louise Ellman, MP for Riverside, the constituency containing both the University of Liverpool and John Moores University, told The Sphinx that ‘It is now clear that all options for leaving the EU put us in a far worse position than the current situation.’ Labour’s effort to bring about a general election through a vote of no confidence was defeated, she highlights, reiterating her call for an extension or revocation of Article 50.
‘Whatever the outcome of current discussion,’ Ellman says, ‘there should be a public vote, with the option to remain in the EU.’
Julie Ward, an MEP since the 2014 European Parliament election, says more than two years of negotiations and billions of pounds of spending on preparations have resulted in Theresa May proposing a deal that received the biggest parliamentary defeat in modern UK history.
Wajid Khan, who replaced Afzal Khan when the latter was elected MP for Manchester Gorton in June 2017, sees a need for a general election in order to oust a Conservative Party ‘wedded to an austerity ideology’, believing Brexit threatens the country’s economic wellbeing as well as the programme Labour hopes to implement.
Khan reiterates that Labour Party policy is to push for a referendum if a general election is not immediately attainable.
Ward also supports the call for a General Election, saying ‘The country desperately needs an anti-austerity Labour government in order to end years of crippling cuts that have hurt the most vulnerable in society the hardest.’
She claims, however, that the only way forward from the current parliamentary deadlock is to give the people the final say. Ward, like Khan, feels Labour should back the case to remain in the EU in a referendum, believing this to be necessary for the implementation of Labour’s ‘visionary and radical manifesto commitments of 2017’.
Is there support for a second referendum?
Both Wajid Khan and Julie Ward claim Labour members in Liverpool and the North West would welcome a People’s Vote, and this appears to be backed up by polling data.
According to a survey – carried out among 1,034 Labour members before Christmas as part of an academic study into attitudes in political parties – 72 per cent think Jeremy Corbyn should back a second referendum while 88 per cent would back remain in such a vote.
In September, on the eve of the Labour Party Conference at which members opted to keep a People’s Vote on the table should calls for a general election fail, a YouGov poll of 1,054 members found 86 per cent wanted a second referendum.
There is a 14 per cent gap between these two figures, but either way they indicate an overwhelming support among Labour members for a vote on the final deal. Supporters of a People’s Vote, both in Labour and in other parties, have taken this and ran with it in their campaign to whip up support.
In the 2016 referendum, Liverpool voted 58 per cent in favour of Remain while the North West as a whole voted 54% to Leave.
Other districts in Merseyside also backed Remain – Sefton and Wirral both voted roughly 52 per cent in favour. Some, however, swung the other way. In Knowsley, the vote was flipped (52 per cent for Leave) while in St. Helens the gap was more substantial (58 per cent for Leave).
While Labour members and many of their constituents in some parts of Merseyside may be happy with another chance to express their views on Brexit, this will not be so for others. 64 per cent of Labour-held constituencies by the time of the referendum over two years ago voted to Leave.
Conor McGinn, a signatory to the letter calling for a People’s Vote, took a different position to that of his constituents in 2016, and he may have a hard time selling the idea of a second vote to them.
Supporters may have a difficult time advancing their cause even within Labour as Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has said the Party will consider a public vote if the UK is heading towards a no-deal Brexit. He reiterated on Thursday 17 January Labour’s support for a general election, saying an election is the best option ‘to break the deadlock and find a solution that works for the whole country.’ More motions of no confidence in the Government may be on the horizon.
Brilliant to be here at a packed European Movement Merseyside event in Newton-le-Willows. Always good to talk alongside St Helens North MP @ConorMcGinn about the Tory #BrexitShambles. pic.twitter.com/88XIFHBJe6
— Theresa Griffin MEP (@TheresaMEP) January 18, 2019
There was a clash on 3 November between far-right Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (alias Tommy Robinson) supporters and anti-fascists counter-protesters around Moorfields station in Liverpool. One person detained by police during the demonstration was claimed by their companion to have been attacked by “the left” for trying to explain the benefits of Brexit.
On 9 December, a planned ‘Brexit Betrayal’ rally in Liverpool, timed to coincide with a rally in London led by Yaxley-Lennon, failed to materialise. Counter-protesters occupied Derby Square ahead of the planned demonstration.
What about on campus?
On campus, views are mixed. The University of Liverpool Young Conservatives say they ‘support the Conservative Party in not campaigning for a second referendum.’
The Labour Students group say they ‘continue to believe that the best solution to the impasse in Parliament and the best thing for students and young people is a General Election’, saying that ‘After nine long years, it’s time to vote out the Tories and elect a Labour Government that will work for the many not the few and deliver a jobs-first Brexit.’
Liverpool Guild of Students Vice-President Jonathan Foster, whose motion for the Guild to support a People’s Vote gained over 70 per cent support on Friday night, says ‘It’s fantastic to see MPs from across the political spectrum come together to make sure everyone, but importantly students and young people, have a say on the terms of Brexit. The Government is clearly in chaos, and the only way forward now is a People’s Vote.’
The People’s Vote motion will be discussed at Guild Summit on February 19th and will become Guild policy if passed.
What is likely to happen?
As things stand, there is no parliamentary majority for Theresa May’s deal, anyone else’s deal or even no-deal. The one thing there is currently a majority for is Theresa May’s government, so the prospect of there being a general election on the horizon seems unlikely. Conservative MPs may not like May’s deal, or even her government, but they’d rather the latter over not being in power.
May has offered to talk to opposition parties and politicians in the hope of finding a deal they’ll support, but Labour has ruled out negotiations unless May rules out a no-deal Brexit, and those who have met with May so far have been left unconvinced of her sincerity.
Labour’s Brexit Conference Motion says “a no-deal Brexit should be rejected as a viable option and calls upon Labour MPs to vigorously oppose any attempt by this Government to deliver a no-deal outcome”. It’s right @jeremycorbyn demands PM rules it out.https://t.co/ZX0vQutnN6
— Dan Carden MP (@DanCardenMP) January 17, 2019
Irrespective of whatever happens in Westminster, the EU must agree. The EU has constantly reiterated that they will not re-negotiate any aspect of the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement. They are open to extending or revoking Article 50, but only in the event of a general election or second referendum. Brexit co-ordinator for the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt MEP, deemed it ‘unthinkable’ to consider extending article 50 beyond the May European Parliament Elections.
What we will not let happen, deal or no deal, is that the mess in British politics is again imported into European politics. While we understand the UK could need more time, for us it is unthinkable that article 50 is prolonged beyond the European Elections. #Brexit #EPlenary
— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) January 16, 2019
The Prime Minister eventually might view a People’s Vote as the only means to get her deal through with neither the support of Parliament or a renegotiation with the EU. Referenda are certainly not a fait accompli as her predecessor David Cameron found out. Armed with that, there is the conundrum of what the question would be since Brexiteers and Remainers would want their preferred options (No Deal and Remain respectively) on the ballot paper.
Ultimately, Theresa May might attempt to run down the clock, leaving her deal as the only available option. Perhaps in this scenario, Conservative MPs’ impulse for power and unity may triumph over their Brexit divisions.
If May tries that tactic, Labour could find themselves backed into the People’s Vote corner sooner than expected. ITV’s Paul Brand reports Labour Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, has hinted the Party could have to back the campaign for a public vote if the Prime Minister fails to reach a consensus on a new deal on 29 January.
Important speech from @Keir_Starmer today. We’ve said all along that sticking by Single Market and Customs Union rules provides the strongest guarantee for jobs and rights. If the PM can’t deliver that, then the people need to have the final say.
— Frances O’Grady (@FrancesOGrady) January 19, 2019
What would be new about such a deal is hard to envisage given May’s reluctance to compromise on her red lines or to negotiate with opposition leaders as well as the EU’s lack of incentive to give further ground to the UK.