John McDonnell and the People’s Vote: a Leninist moment

Following an exhaustive compositing meeting last night, the Labour Party agreed on a motion that will go to this week’s conference on the next steps on Brexit.  This morning, in a widely-reported interview, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said that Labour would respect the decision to leave and, should there be another referendum, the option to remain would not be on the ballot paper.

To understand why the two positions are incompatible, it’s important to consider what the Labour motion actually says – because it’s a nuanced text that needs to be read carefully to understand its implications.  Put briefly, the main points in the Labour motion are as follows:

  • It reiterates the commitment to the six tests outlined by Labour at the start of this process – which includes a commitment to ensuring that the “exact same benefits” as membership of the Single Market and Customs Union;
  • It contains an explicit statement that there should be no hard border in Ireland;
  • Labour remains committed to obtaining a General Election if the Tories are defeated in Parliament.  But, crucially, if that cannot be secured, then all options must remain on the table, including campaigning for a public vote; indeed the text states explicitly that a Government that has secured a good deal has no reason to be afraid to submit it to a public vote.

So, given that No Deal – which is currently looking like a seriously likely option given that, after Salzburg, there is no basis for a deal on the table – is ruled out; and that a General Election would depend on a substantial Tory vote in favour under the rules of the Fixed Parliament Act, which again seems unlikely, the door remains open to a vote with remaining as an option. (And even it that happened, starting a new negotiation under a new government is just not possible under the Article 50 timetable; it would imply a withdrawal of Article 50, or possibly an extension which would itself have to be negotiated).

Obviously, nothing is certain.  The draft motion is obviously a fudge, and a messy one at that.  But it all depends how the decision is arrived at.  Ultimately it’s for Parliament to decide; a Parliament in which both parties are deeply divided and which is likely to be in the throes of the biggest political crisis for decades; in other words, one in which most bets about party loyalty are off.

And, crucially, the key point is who makes the decision.  With what authority is McDonnell speaking?  Assuming the motion is passed, not with the authority of party policy, which would be clear; Conference would have decided that all options are on the table.

Significantly, what is at issue here is a clash between two visions of what the Labour Party is for, and how it is run.  On the one hand, you have a Labour Party that on all accounts is overwhelmingly behind a People’s Vote and – for very good reasons – is opposed to leaving the EU.  It is based around a consensus view that recognises Brexit as at heart an austerian project, one that Thatcherite in its conception and outcomes; one that will embed austerity for decades, while undermining the NHS, destroying our manufacturing base, and decimating the rights of employees and consumers; that it is something that anyone who calls themselves a Socialist would, in a globalised world in the grip of a growing international trade war, implicitly oppose.

On the other hand, there is the view that, far from being a Party that is member led, party democracy is about the retrospective endorsement by the “rank and file” (in my view a horrible expression) of the decisions of a political vanguard.  As I explain in my book The Theory and Practice of Corbynism, it is a fundamentally Leninist model of Party structure.

In intervening so quickly, John McDonnell is demonstrating clearly that his is a Leninist view of the world; he is seeking to capture the debate and strangle in its infancy any concession to grassroots Labour democracy that is implicit in the motion.  It is really about telling the 150 Constituency Labour Parties seeking a meaningful people’s vote, and the large majority of Labour Party grassroots members who oppose Brexit, that they should know their place.

In my view, the motion may be a huge disappointment – something much more emphatic was needed – but it’s a very long way from being the end of the battle.  The way is still open to Labour in Parliament backing a meaningful vote with Remain as an option, if we in the Labour Party who want a People’s Vote keep up the pressure.  But, thanks to John McDonnell’s inadvertent candour, it’s a moment that reveals the real nature of the Corbynist Labour Party; and tells us, if we didn’t already know, that talk of a “member-led” Party is really so much Leninist hot air.

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