Labour has finally agreed to back a People’s Vote unequivocally on any Brexit deal. That includes any deal it might itself negotiate after winning a General Election. It will campaign for Remain against No Deal or any Tory deal. Whether it will try and negotiate its own deal after it wins a snap General Election will be decided quickly as soon as that General Election is called.
This differs slightly from the proposal put forward by five biggest affiliated trade unions, which proposed that Labour would negotiate its own Brexit deal after winning a General Election, but leaving open whether Labour would campaign for this new deal or instead campaign for Remain against the deal it had negotiated. That part of the proposal has yet to be agreed, and may not be agreed, depending on decisions still to be taken.
Will this change in policy be enough to win back 2017 Labour voters who now say they will vote LibDem or Green because they want to remain in the EU? The policy still looks ambiguous compared to the LibDem's policy of calling for a People’s vote whether they are in power or not. Any interview of a Labour politician will now take a predictable form, with “what would you do if you win a General Election” being the first question. Labour have not left ambiguity behind completely.
Postponing the decision on what to do before any General Election makes procedural sense and also some political sense. If the polls start moving back towards Labour from now on then Labour can think job done. If they don’t then it becomes clear Labour need to commit to Remain as part of its General Election manifesto. Of course this is a game with voters and not a game against nature, and voters may realise this and could keep saying they will vote LibDem or Green in order to keep the pressure on Labour.
Another important factor will be if this new policy allows senior figures to start aggressively campaigning for Remain, rather than simply explaining Labour’s Brexit policy. They need, at a minimum, to start appearing at People’s Vote events. The official opposition has a huge (and some would consider unfair) advantage over other opposition parties in getting more airtime, and if they can use that to make the case for a People’s Vote that may win some votes back.
The post-election policy put forward by the 5 unions does have one advantage over the LibDem policy. The question for those supporting a People’s Vote is what deal do you put up against Remain? No Deal is not an actual deal, and would also fail to learn the lesson of 2016: don’t give voters an option that parliament thinks is disastrous. However May’s deal now has few backers, and if it won against Remain it is a pretty hard form of Brexit. The Union’s proposal would, if negotiations were successful, put a softer form of Brexit up against Remain, so it would be less of a disaster if Remain lost a People’s Vote.
Whether voters will see it that way depends crucially on Labour’s position on their negotiated deal. Leaving it open is not a vote winning strategy, because the natural presumption is that a Labour government that spends a lot of time negotiating a deal will want to support it in any referendum. Remain supporters may also reason that Remain would easily beat May’s deal, but might find beating a softer Brexit with Labour support a more difficult task. There is no point arguing that this strategy reduces risk in case Remain loses if it also increases the chance of Remain losing.
If the party wants to retain the proposal of the 5 unions and also win votes, it has to commit to support Remain whatever the results of those negotiations. Only then will Labour’s policy on Remain be seen to be comparable to that of the LibDems. This proposal, together with a commitment to support Remain, has the disadvantage of prolonging Brexit but the advantage of reducing the risk if the referendum is lost.
If this is all beginning to sound a bit convoluted, it is and it doesn’t need to be. If Labour’s only concern was to increase the chances of winning the next General Election it would have adopted a Remain strategy full stop. In other words Remain in all circumstances including a Labour government. Labour could have even gone one better than the LibDems and agreed to put revoking A50 on the table if it won a General Election. The fact that it didn’t simply reflects the minority within the party who either prefer Lexit or are MPs in Leave areas who fear losing their seats.
This minority within Labour have already done enough damage to the Labour cause. They have revived the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats and Greens as an alternative to Labour. By keeping Labour’s policy after a General Election unclear, they further risk the solidification of the support for both these parties among former Labour voters..
None of this matters for the Remain cause, because as I have argued for some time there is very little chance of a Labour government ever achieving Brexit even if it wanted to. But voters, including Remain voters, have yet to be convinced of that. Why should they, when the pro-Brexit minority within Labour have not been convinced either and continue to resist Labour adopting a Remain strategy. Indulging this minority for too long could cost Labour crucial votes, and Labour does not have votes to spare.