Labour against Brexit: what do we do now?

Open Labour Brexit debate

By Emma Brennan and Sean Gainford, on behalf of Labour Against Brexit campaign

Last week, the House of Commons overwhelmingly supported the triggering of Article 50 to begin negotiations for the UK withdrawal from the EU. Amongst its supporters were the majority of Labour MPs, despite nearly all of them having supported the Remain campaign during the referendum. Only 52 Labour MPs fulfilled their duty as our elected representatives, using their conscience and informed judgment to do what is best for their constituents and country, and voted against the Bill. The Bill’s process has now moved to the House of Lords and we hope that they will pass some amendments, but we do not expect major changes.

So now we need to focus on how we – as a party, and as Labour members and supporters who oppose Brexit – move forward from here.

Labour Against Brexit states that the party should:

(a) Continue to make the case that Remain is better for the people of the UK, as the evidence shows that leaving the EU would be damaging for our economic prosperity and would hit hardest the very people that Labour has spent over a century trying to support. To also make clear that leaving would be a major retrograde step, away from closer collaboration with other countries on the biggest issues of the day, such as climate change, and that the Leave campaign was based on false promises and lies.

(b) Continue to fight for our core Labour values of equality, opportunity for all and social justice, and continue to be an internationalist, tolerant and outward-looking party, and make explicit the link between all of this and EU membership. Remain was our official party policy during the referendum campaign, as well as our policy for the previous 30 years. When we have lost elections in the past, we never just quit fighting and gave in to the damaging policies of the successful party. And that is despite dealing with policies that could affect people for only a few years, not a policy that will last a generation.

(c) Return to the party policy that was democratically decided upon by Labour delegates and affiliates at our Conference, that: “Unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable, then the option of retaining EU membership should be retained. The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through Parliament and potentially through a general election or referendum.”

Essentially, we are calling for no change to the long-term and democratically made party policy on membership of the EU. We are simply requesting that the Labour leadership demonstrates consistency and conviction with respect to the party’s long-held approach and beliefs, andfor democratic decision-making to be respected.

Unfortunately, our party has fallen down the route of short-termism, focusing on two by-election results over the long-term best interests of the country (including the best interests of those two constituencies) and has therefore decided that being pro-Brexit is the way forward. This is not the move of a principled party and takes us further away from our core values and beliefs. If Labour wins Stoke Central, it is likely to strengthen Corbyn’s belief that he has taken the correct stance. If Ukip wins, it could allow him to demonstrate that we need to be even more pro-Brexit. Bothof those beliefs would be false, and this is a no-win situation for Remainers in the Labour Party, although it goes without saying that the former possibility is far more preferable for all of us.


So could continuing to make the case for Remain really do us any harm? The polls are not on Labour’s side at the moment, and further polls looking at the public’s current view is that if the referendum were held today, Remain would win. So Labour essentially has now backed a losing side. We have lost thousands of members in the last few weeks over this issue, and many more thousands are angry. Additionally, approximately two-thirds of Labour voters supported Remain. Anybody who is a staunch Brexiteer will vote UKIP or Tory anyway, and many who are staunch Remainers are being lost to the Lib Dems or Greens. In Labour, we have the potential to earn back the votes of those Remainers, and also earn the votes of the millions of people who simply want to listen to a sensible party that speaks and acts with honesty, passion and conviction, not a party that believes in one thing but goes against its convictions and does the precise opposite.


In addition, Remain voters are the most likely to vote in other elections, therefore supporting Remain could give us the best chance of gaining those all-important marginal seats by taking pro-EU Tory-Labour swing voters. On the issue of calling for a second referendum on the final deal, with an option to Remain, we are slightly less enthusiastic than some others. On the one hand, we relish the opportunity for another chance to promote the benefits of EU membership. On the other hand, we fear that another referendum campaign would again be filled with lies and cause yet further divisiveness, and even danger for minorities and politicians. We also still maintain the position that matters which are so complicated and enormous should be agreed upon by Parliament, as our MPs are elected to understand the minutiae of detail that the rest of us are too busy with our lives to fully get to grips with.


Ultimately though, we understand that there is a popular argument for saying that Brexit was ‘the will of the people’. We can, of course, make a strong argument against this claim in terms of who was allowed to vote, lack of requirement for a minimum turnout or supermajority, and of course lack of the ‘type’ of Brexit sought being on the ballot paper or presented by the Leave campaign. Yet we recognise that the best way we will end this debate fully in the eyes of the public is through another referendum at the end of the process. This time, however, voters will have a much greater awareness of what Leave ‘looks like’ than they did last year. The result would therefore be much more conclusive.


Open Labour’s is holding its inaugural conference on March 11th – sign up here to join us


  • This motion will go before West Lancashire Borough Council at its Full Council meeting on Weds 22nd Feb, with a view to roll out of similar motions across the North West, though probably differently worded in the metropolitan area which voted Remain:

    “Social & Economic Consequences Of Brexit – Motion Included on the Agenda at the Request of Councillor Mckenna on Behalf of the Labour Group

    That given the potential for negative social and economic consequences of so-called Brexit, along with possible opportunities, this council seek to work with other like-minded local authorities, especially but not solely within the Liverpool City Region area and Lancashire, to research and as appropriate pursue any lobbying or legislative means, so as to ensure that our local and combined authorities acquire and use to best effect, a substantive place in the negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union following a ‘triggering’ of Article 50 (2).

    That the Council resolves that the Chief Executive, in consultation with the Leader, write to her counterparts in authorities in Liverpool City Region and Lancashire, setting out initial proposals for a joint approach to this matter.”

    The crucial bit of the wording is ‘legislative means’. This is what it refers to:

    As such, it is not a full frontal attack on Brexit, which you accept in your last paragraph is not a viable option, though you fail to address this key issue in the rest of your, in favour of an understandable but ultimately pointless wishfulness. Instead, the motion(s) represent he start of the process, via existing legislation, of localising a different set of political debates with a view, over time, to eating away at what Brexit means.

    You as Labour Remain are welcome to support this initiative by working to approach councils in the way I have done mine, and then widening the strategy to inciude Metro Mayors.

  • Yes, the 3 line whip to force though Brexit was totally wrong, totally unprincipled. I’m close to giving up on Labour and joining the Green Party.

  • The result of the great referendum was so close as to fall within the margin of statistical error!
    Some regions of the UK were massively ‘Remain’; some were massively ‘Leave’ but there was no genuine nationwide, region-wide consensus.
    Looking at the referendum results across the regions of the UK a sensible statistician would conclude that the UK electorate was presented with a bloody stupid question to which it didn’t know the answer.
    But on the basis of this Mrs May, Mr Johnson and their myrmidons are going to take us all to hell in a handcart.
    We have to fight this. Mr Tony knows and he’s put his head above the parapet. The centre left must follow his example.

  • I am apalled with the way the party in general has handled Brexit. Kier got jus facts wrong in terms of the northern support for Brexit and JC’s 3 line whip was madness. My MP Peter Kyle luckily voted with his concience and voters ie against article 50.

  • Trevor FIsher

    I welcome this, but while the debate on fighting for Remain is complex, it comes down to 2 issues. (a) Labour’s Policy (b) The Second Referendum. FIrst things first. Labour’s policy is clear and cannot be abandoned by a leader. The reality on the street is that the world knows what Labour’s policy is, and bill posters in Stoke in the final week of the Stoke Central byelection shout that “Labour wants to Keep You In, Trust UKIP to keep you in”. To change the policy to win in Leave seats like Stoke Central has two appalling consequences.

    Firstly, the party has to abandon Remain seats, handing them to the SNP in Scotland (no change there) or the LIb Dems in England and Wales. It then has an uphill battle to convince Leavers that it not the Tories or UKIP are the real Leavers. And the party would split, as on this issue the overwhelming majority including left, right and centre want remain. Secondly, while it loses credibility, it must lose votes as Remainers split away without getting many Leave voters, and has to walk into the lobbies and the campaign forums arguing the same case as UKIP and the Tories. Which is what it is doing in Stoke Central. It may hold at least one of the two Leave seats on Thursday, and as you say, Corbyn is going to argue for more of the same.

    However internally the Party cannot accept a leader who walks into the lobbies with the TOries and abandons the party’s supporters. Its a recipe for civil war.

    THe second key point is that there has to be a referendum. This will not go to a General Election (nor should it) as May has offered parliament a vote on the deal in 2019. It is a non-concession as the vote will be take it or leave it, and the TOry majority in parliament will vote for it. Job Done. UK is out.

    The only way to stop this is a second referendum. Only a referendum can reverse a referendum constitutionally (once parliament has given away its powers, it cannot take them back without severe difficulty) Yes it is going to be difficult, but Brexit is the defining issue of the next two years. So (a) force the government to conduct a referendum on the deal and (b) win it. Not easy. But unless this happens, a tame parliamentary vote will seal our fate.

    Labour alone will not win (2a) and (2b) it will need a broad front alliance. But it can lead the campaign and then it is in pole position for the battle to come.

    Trevor FIsher.

  • I am surprised that there is no response to my position, which is that a full frontal attack on BRexit is unavoidable, but must be targeted at a second referendum

    it is madness to think that Britexit can be nibbled away at or that Britain could re-enter the EU at some point when BE has already given more fuel to anti EU forces across the continent. THen there is Trump. He wants to destroy it.

    So the battle lines are drawn and if Labour Remain wants to be take seriously – and it does not seem to have a web site and attempts to contact the authors have so far failed – then it simply has to accept that the concession of a parliamentary vote on the deal is a nonsense, the MPs will fall in line again, but the principle of the deal having to be considered having been conceded, AntiBrexiteeers have to argue that this has to be (a) as a second referendum, properly conducted this time and (b) it is not the take it or leave it deal May is attempting, but the option of remaining in the EU and reforming it is on the ballot paper

    Which is what Labour Party Policy actually says. I write before the SToke Central by election and am well aware of why the front bench capitulated. I hope Labour holds the seat. THe Stoke Sentinel today published a poll which says 26% for Labour, 25.8% for UKIP. And as the writers say, a loss will be seen as needing more concessions, as will a win. The party will disintegrate. A return to party policy recognising that a general election will not happen soon enough to stop the deal going through in 2019 is now imperative. There are two years till May has said she will bring forward a deal.

    Those two years must be the cue for a massive cross party campaign for a referendum, and Labour has to be at the head of it.

    Trevor FIsher,

  • I initially signed up to Open Labour but as I voted to Leave the EU I am now unsure what to do. Your advice please

    • Well Jeff, this doesn’t reflect our official position. We just thought it was an important part of the debate.

      The main thing really from Open Labour’s point if view is that we have a good concentrated campaign on protecting workers rights, and the right of people already here making their life to remain in the country.

You may also like

No Brexit Generation Game For The Welfare State by Matthew Donoghue & Mikko Kuisma | 07.01.19 | In: Comment Brexit, it is claimed, has widened an intergenerational divide. Baby boomers voted for Brexit, while millennials remained silent. This argument remains... Read More
Healing Our Divided Country by Nick Lowles | 19.12.18 | In: Comment Brexit is paralysing Britain. Parliament is deadlocked and the British people appear equally divided. They are frustrated and angry. And all the while, other... Read More
Brexit, Brexit and more Brexit! by Open Labour | 28.11.18 | In: Editorial At our Summer Conference we launched our first pamphlet, Owning the Future: the Left’s Relationship with Europe - a collaborative initiative with Unison and... Read More
John McDonnnell speech to Open Labour conference by Open Labour | 28.11.18 | In: Editorial At Open Labour conference this summer, John McDonnell talking candidly about Labour's approach the economy, Brexit and the leadership's... Read More