‘Why I believe Labour must back a peoples vote’

One voice: People’s vote supporters protested outside the Labour Party conference in Liverpool. © Getty
by David Lammy

British Labour Party politician and MP for Tottenham since 2000. One of five children raised by a single mother, he won a choral scholarship to The Kings School in Peterborough and went on to study at Harvard Law School.

As pressure mounts on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to support a second referendum on Brexit, David Lammy argues that the party must adopt the policy for its own survival.

In 1981, the Gang of Four split from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The new party did not come close to power, but it won a huge number of votes — 7.8 million in 1983 — and kept Labour out of government for a generation. In this time, Margaret Thatcher set fire to the fabric of British society: depriving schools and hospitals of funding, annihilating British industries, disempowering unions and accelerating privatisation.

Growing up in Tottenham with a single mother who worked several jobs to put food on the table, I experienced first-hand how splits on the left let Thatcher turn Britain cold.

Today, Labour’s vision for a fairer society faces a similar threat. The development of a new centrist rival has been an open secret in the Westminster tea rooms for months. Funding from individuals and big business is rumoured to be already in place. As the New Statesman reported, a split has become “inevitable”.

Preventing a vote on the biggest political decision this country is facing would be a betrayal.

There is one key reason for this: Brexit. Recent polling showed that 100 constituencies that voted to leave the EU have now switched support to Remain. Of those asked, nearly twice as many support a new referendum on the government’s final deal than oppose it. But voters who recognise retaining EU membership as the biggest issue of our time are being deprived of an electorally significant opposition party to support.

With just months remaining until we leave the EU, the clock is ticking for us to save the country from this hard-right Tory fantasy, which was built on xenophobia, lies and a law-breaking campaign.

If the official opposition does not stand by the inevitable results of Keir Starmer’s six tests and oppose Brexit, a new party will, with the clear purpose of restoring the UK’s economy, our country’s place at the top table of diplomacy, and stealing the open, internationalist vision that for so long has been associated with Labour. Whether it eventually wins 20 seats or 200, a new party will more than likely block us, the Labour Party, and condemn Britain to at least another decade of disastrous Tory dominance.

In the 1980s, Labour had no simple way to kill off the SDP. Today, we can do it with a single press release. A new centrist party without the Brexit issue to distinguish itself would be like a rocket without fuel. By calling for a referendum that crucially offers Britain the right to remain in the EU, Labour would capitalise on the public’s change of mood. It would also unite Labour members, 75% of whom want a vote, as well as the PLP, which at heart remains strongly pro-EU.

Much of the excitement around Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader has been based on his promise to democratise the party. For this, he deserves credit. But to honour this promise, the party conference must be allowed to determine Labour’s Brexit position. Preventing a vote on the biggest political decision this country is facing would be a betrayal.

The strategic argument for Labour’s opposition to Brexit has emerged over time, but the underlying reasons have been self-evident from day one. The party of Keir Hardie simply cannot vote with the government as it kneecaps our economy, savages environmental and workers’ rights, and constrains the horizons of our young supporters to this small island, against their will.

If we want to build a fairer and more equal Britain, it is time for Labour to stop pussyfooting around and lead calls for a people’s vote.

This is an extract from an article published in The Guardian. Find the full version in Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Should there be a people’s vote on Brexit?


  1. Divide the class into small groups. Each group should choose six political figures who they think have played an important role in Brexit. Discussing as a group, and carrying out some research, write down their political party, whether they support Leave or Remain, and find a quote that they have said about Brexit.

Word Watch

Gang of Four
Four Labour politicians who broke away from the party to form the SDP because they believed Labour had become too left-wing.
When an industry or business is transferred from public ownership — run by the government and paid for by taxes — to private ownership.
The Liberal Democrats are the only major party to publicly support a people’s vote. They are polling at around 10%.
Prejudice against people from other countries.
Keir Starmer
A former criminal barrister who is now Labour’s shadow Brexit minister. He has designed six tests that the government’s deal with the EU must pass in order to be acceptable to Labour. This includes keeping the “exact same benefits” we have as members of the EU’s single market.
Make something accessible to everyone and listening to the voices of members, rather than ruling the party without input from others.
Keir Hardie
A Scottish socialist, politician and trade unionist who founded the Labour Party in 1893.

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