As polls shift towards Remain, campaigners urge Jeremy Corbyn to change his line
EVEN as Brexit negotiations are being speeded up, talk of missed deadlines and a possible no-deal outcome seems to grow. That strengthens the groups such as People’s Vote and Best for Britain that are campaigning for a referendum on any Brexit deal, with an option to remain in the European Union instead. Polls on whether people want another vote are inconclusive and often heavily dependent on the question’s wording. But if Parliament cannot agree to a deal and the alternative becomes to leave without one, most voters seem to prefer a new referendum.
Campaigners are focusing their efforts on Labour and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. He is a long-standing Eurosceptic. Labour’s position is to respect the result of the 2016 referendum but demand a Brexit that passes six tests, notably to protect jobs and the economy. On this basis it seems sure to oppose any deal that Theresa May brings back from Brussels. If Parliament defeats this, Mr Corbyn wants a general election, not another referendum. The party worries that supporting another referendum might cost it Leave voters, by seeming to align too closely with a Remain-backing establishment. Complicating its position are fears that the real ambition of anti-Brexit (and anti-Corbyn) Labour MPs now is to start a new centrist party.
Yet some senior Labour figures are more equivocal. Both John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, and Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, have been careful not to rule out a referendum in any circumstances. A parliamentary rejection of a deal may not trigger an election, and an election might not change the dynamics of Brexit. Hence the case for another vote, which is now endorsed by many of Labour’s leading trade-union backers. Several unions support moves to persuade the Labour conference in late September to call for a new referendum.
One reason for this is the perception that public opinion is shifting. Recent surveys by YouGov, a pollster, seem to support this. Peter Kellner, a former president of YouGov, concludes from the latest evidence that what was a 52-48% Leave majority in June 2016 has switched to a 53-47% Remain one. He says the shift against Brexit is most marked in Labour seats, especially in the north, which voted strongly for Leave. This has led some campaigners to argue that Mr Corbyn’s fuzzy position on Brexit could deprive him of as many as 4m new votes. Labour insiders dismiss such claims. Brexit is widely identified with the Tories in any event. And they think any shift in public opinion is too small to justify a stronger pro-Remain position.
A report due out next week from NatCen Social Research, based on continuing surveys of the same panel of voters, suggests that the public mood is indeed changing. Concerns about immigration, a huge issue in June 2016, have receded. Fully 60% of respondents would accept free movement of EU citizens in exchange for keeping trade as free as now. At the same time the panel has become markedly more pessimistic about the economic consequences of Brexit, with 51% expecting to be worse off as a result. The researchers find that this new pessimism has been decisive in shifting both some previous Leave voters, and most of those who abstained in June 2016, towards Remain.
Mrs May’s Chequers proposal, which emerged after most of the NatCen research was conducted, may have accelerated this shift. As Sir John Curtice of Strathclyde University, who supervised the study, notes, Chequers is hugely unpopular with Leave voters, who see it as too soft. Yet at the same time Mrs May gets little credit for it from Remainers. And voters from both sides fault her for incompetent handling of the Brexit negotiations. Demographic change also counts, as young people are overwhelmingly anti-Brexit.
All this should create openings for the opposition. Yet no matter how much the party tries to shift the debate to other issues, Mr Corbyn’s perceived ambiguity over the EU and a possible fresh referendum continues to be a problem for Labour. And that is why the party’s conference in September, the last before Brexit is due to happen, is likely to see fierce fighting over the issue.
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