Labour’s position on a confirmatory referendum seems to shift daily, but even if every Labour MP backed one, we’d still need either government support, or Tory MPs breaking the whip. And there are still Labour MPs holding sincere reservations about the prospect, including colleagues I respect tremendously like Gloria De Piero and Lisa Nandy.
Like them, I campaigned to remain in the European Union yet represent an area where a majority voted to leave in 2016. We all see at first-hand the damage the Tories are doing to our communities, and we share a determination to secure a Labour government elected on a genuinely transformative platform.
And the reason I believe the voters must have the final say on Brexit isn’t because I reject their concerns. Far from it. Concerns about trust in our politics, and the voters we have lost, are obviously valid. Ultimately, I support a referendum because I think leaving would cause far more serious and far more lasting damage. The anger that would then be unleashed by the mismatch between the promises of 2016 and the reality of Brexit will make present discontents seem a walk in the park.
Sunderland’s economy is heavily dependent on car manufacturing. Already we’re seeing it start to move away from Britain. If leaving the EU becomes a reality, I fear that in sector after sector, town after town, factories would close, jobs would be lost and families would struggle.
If we end up in that world, I don’t want to have voted for it. I don’t want to be seeking re-election in the shadow of a hollowed-out Nissan plant, where supply chain industries have collapsed, explaining that I was simply doing what local voters asked of me many years earlier as thousands of people are put out of work. We have to stop that happening. We have to tell our people the truth.
People vote, not places. Sunderland didn’t cast a vote for leave. The people of Sunderland cast more than 130,000 separate votes, both ways. Obviously more of them were for leave than remain, but I meet plenty of people who are desperately worried about what is happening to our country. They might not always ask for a fresh referendum, though plenty do. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t welcome one, or that they would regard one as a betrayal. People like these are to be found in every marginal seat. Our concern for the working people of this country should be based on their interests, not just “where do they live and what was the result there in 2016?”
Nandy is right that Labour has lost votes from previous supporters, and to point to both the fragility and pattern of Labour’s 2017 support. Our party is there to embody our values: a set of ideas about the sort of society and economy we want to shape. We need to earn support afresh in each generation, to look anew at how we build a coalition of people who share our values and believe in our vision – a coalition big enough and distributed widely enough to win power.
Our strategy for victory must be based on our values, and on today’s society, not just our past support and past election victories. So we need our choices now to be about the future for our country, about creating a social democracy of hope, not of nostalgia. The only way out of this mess is a confirmatory referendum on a defined Brexit deal, and then for Labour to fight with all we have to win the argument to remain in Europe, and rebuild Britain.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 2nd June 2019. You can read the original here