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Editorial: The left should be wise to Watson's wiles

LEN McCLUSKEY’S appeal to Labour members not to be “seduced” by calls for a second referendum is vitally important.

This newspaper, among others on the left, predicted that the Labour right would seek to manufacture a crisis for their own party to take the heat off the Tories following Theresa May’s resignation announcement.

This is precisely what it did when David Cameron resigned in 2016, conjuring up a revolt against Jeremy Corbyn when the Conservative Party was at its weakest. Deputy leader Tom Watson’s foray in the Observer is transparently the same kind of “trick,” to use McCluskey’s apt description, and even Labour members who sympathise with the idea of a second referendum should not be taken in by it.

Watson’s rhetoric is as anti-democratic as it is dishonest. “Never again” can Labour find itself on the wrong side of a historic choice, he wails. This is to completely misrepresent the party’s position.

Labour backed Remain in the 2016 referendum and its leader campaigned energetically for that outcome. This newspaper disagreed with that position and still does – but Watson’s implication that the party sat on the fence is simply wrong.

What Watson is complaining about is that the party accepted the result of the vote, something which it, like the Conservatives, promised to do.

While Remain supporters claim overwhelming evidence that the public mood has changed, polls are notoriously easy to manipulate and answers to questions about a second referendum or how people would vote in it vary wildly depending on exactly what is asked. 

What is clear is that the Remain and Leave camps have grown farther apart and more unwilling to compromise than they were in 2016. This is a huge headache for Labour, since its natural supporters are divided on the question. 

Is it a problem the party could have avoided? Some on the Eurosceptic left argue that Jeremy Corbyn should have taken an anti-Establishment Leave position in 2016 and made the arguments against the EU’s neoliberal treaties and undemocratic nature that readers of this newspaper will be familiar with. It is not clear, though, that given the balance of forces in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the attitudes of most of the trade unions this would have been a realistic option for Corbyn even if he had wanted to take it.

It might have been possible to take a firmer line following the electoral advance of 2017, when Corbyn’s enemies were disoriented by the party’s unexpected success and when the membership, united around a campaign which put ending austerity, fighting poverty and public ownership at its heart, were less inclined to go to war over the EU. But we are where we are – and the party’s prospects are far rosier than Watson’s siren song suggests.

The Tories are about to begin a summer of infighting over the leadership. Michael Gove’s pitch is one we are likely to see from others – that the Tories need a Thatcherite ideologue capable of taking on the socialist challenge that Corbyn’s Labour represents. Unlike 2017, their party is seriously scared and no longer sees the opposition leader as a joke.

An election in which socialist ideas are pitted against capitalist ones would be a fantastic opportunity for the Labour left to regain the initiative, bridge the divide among working people over the EU and mount a mass campaign for the overwhelmingly popular policies of public ownership, better pay and higher taxes on the rich and corporations. Labour can justifiably weaponise issues like the Donald Trump state visit and the need to renationalise British Steel because they genuinely illustrate the ideological gulf between them and the Tories.

Watson’s second referendum cul-de-sac would simply entrench existing divisions in the movement. That, no doubt, is why he proposes it.

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