Should Jeremy Corbyn adopt an unequivocal commitment to holding a second referendum? Under normal circumstances, it should be an easy question to answer: democrats who think of referendums as a useful injection of direct democracy into our system of representative government, should be in favour. And those who are sceptical of referendums should be against.
Alas, our circumstances have stopped being “normal” from the moment Leave won the June 2016 referendum.
The strongest evidence that we live in abnormal times is the curious observation that many who lambasted David Cameron for holding the first referendum, and who are generally inimical to the use of referendums in representative democracies, now support a people’s vote to reverse the first one. To complete the paradox, many who are, in general, in favour of referendums today oppose a second vote.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am an enthusiastic supporter of people’s direct votes as long as they are embedded fully into representative democracy, as in Switzerland.
It is a model that has served progressive causes well at many levels. For instance, it is standard practice in labour disputes that, once trade union leaders strike a deal with employers, they put it to their members. European progressives who opposed the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, Greece’s “bailouts” etc, have always demanded that negotiated international treaties should be put to plebiscites.
From this perspective, under normal circumstances, it would make perfect sense to demand that Jeremy Corbyn commits to a people’s confirmatory vote. The reason why our circumstances are anything but normal, and our political climate so poisoned, is the ticking countdown clock, and the deadline effect that comes attached to Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty.
But, if they fail to agree by the end of the two years, the company closes down immediately, damaging both sides (though not symmetrically). Finally, the employer side is allowed, unilaterally, to approve extensions of the two-year period, but only via another fixed deadline.
What would happen under such conditions? When the negotiation endpoint is fixed exogenously (eg by the law), both negotiating sides have a powerful incentive to leave their last concession for that last moment. And when one of the two sides has the monopoly of the right to extend the negotiation, bargaining power tilts in its favour massively.
In such a world, the employers know that the trade union membership’s right to vote on the final offer is irrelevant. Indeed, it would be in their interest to insist on a terrible deal so as to put those members in a bind: “Accept a deal that is awful by design, vote the deal down at the price of retrenchment, or seek an extension during which to reconsider the wisdom of having mandated your leaders to negotiate with us better terms and conditions.”
In short, the effect of the Article 50 deadline was designed to leave no room for a meaningful confirmatory vote, and to railroad a hapless prime minister into a humiliating defeat. While it is technically possible to hold a Final Say referendum before October, when the Article 50 process expires, the result will seem illegitimate in the eyes of a large minority if a fresh referendum is not preceded by a genuine people’s debate.
Whichever side wins, one thing is for certain: it will be the last such referendum we see in the UK for a century. Those of us who think that democracy is an end in itself should be terrified by the idea of a second referendum that becomes the tombstone of all future people’s votes.
But the question remains: should Jeremy Corbyn commit to a second referendum? I think he should. On one condition: that Article 50’s ticking clock has been removed and the all-important people’s debate is given the time and space it needs to unfold. What would that mean in practice? It depends on the situation a future Labour government inherits from the Tories’ calamitous reign.
A Corbyn government forming after a Tory Brexit should immediately kickstart a people’s grand debate on the UK’s business model, internal constitution (eg the Northern Ireland question, and the creation of one or more English assemblies) and, of course, the UK-EU relationship. The new referendum to follow would include the option of the UK rejoining the EU, staying within a Norway-plus arrangement, or going it alone.
And if the new Labour government is elected while Article 50 is still ticking away, it should pave the ground for the same democratic process, either by revoking Article 50 for as long as it is necessary or after first concluding a customs union-based withdrawal agreement. A Corbyn-led Labour Party has the power to rise above the new sectarianism and create the circumstances where people’s votes actually count.