Labour could campaign against Brexit!

Catherine Overton

Catherine Overton

Cat Overton is a lawyer and treasurer of Tower Hamlets Labour Party.

In our current shrill political climate, simply stating that the EU referendum should never have been held in the first place is stridently criticised as being undemocratic.

But my view is that Cameron’s promise of a referendum on our EU membership was a strategic error of epic proportions. Holding this referendum was always going to be, at best, a roll of the dice.

The reasons as to why it was wrong for Cameron to put our membership of the EU to a vote are numerous.

The first reason is a matter of tactics. It is apparent from history that plebiscites often act as lightning rods for popular discontent. The issue of our membership of the European Union is especially complex and is set against the backdrop of years of corrosive EU-bashing by politicians and the media alike. Was it ever that likely that Cameron, even with all the cover of the so-maligned “experts” and support from other political parties, was going to win this vote, let alone by a comfortable margin?

The second, far more important reason, is constitutional. It seems to me that issues of such complexity and of such deep national importance should be decided upon by Parliament and by Parliament alone. It is generally against British constitutional convention to hold referenda; we do not, for example, put the question of the death penalty to a referendum, nor would we (I expect) put to a vote the existence of the National Health Service.

The third is a simple imperative of government. The stakes were and remain far too high to gamble our membership of the European Union on a single referendum vote, especially by a bare majority.

The referendum having been narrowly lost, what now for the Remainers, the eponymous “48 per cent”?

Not everyone who voted to Remain will want to fight the result, but many will. I believe it is incumbent upon the progressive forces in British politics to fight Brexit tooth and nail.

Contrary to what Sky News says, we have not “left” the EU. The UK retains full, unfettered membership of the European Union, pending the invocation or “trigger” of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The refusal so far to trigger Article 50 is a blessing to the Remain side. It gives us hope.

Cameron broke yet another promise when he resigned without triggering it. Theresa May MP, the leading contender for the Tory leadership and likely the next Prime Minister, has said it will not be triggered before the end of 2016. So the Article 50 can is being kicked down the road. Cynics might say this is in part because any sensible politician is aware of the bureaucratic nightmare that awaits the country and anyone attempting to extricate the UK from EU membership, which aside from the difficulties around our economic and trade relationship and involvement in the Single Market, would involve repealing enormous amounts of complex legislation – only to be replaced by what, exactly?

In any event, as Chris Bryant said over the weekend, he believes in miracles, and a miracle could yet happen in the form of the election of a “pro-EU- membership” government in 2020 with a mandate to stop Brexit in its tracks.

The premise of my argument is really that Brexit would be an unmitigated disaster for our country and as things stand there is insufficient democratic legitimacy to justify it.

I agree with Ken Clarke MP and others that, as a matter of constitutional law and logic, the referendum is by its very nature “non-binding” and “advisory” only. It does not have the power of law to demand the Commons to take any particular action. It is for Parliament to decide how to proceed. Indeed, separately, I see no reason – in theory at least – as to why there could not be a second referendum.

So it is incumbent upon the Labour Party to campaign, in the national interest, against Brexit. It is, after all, our official foreign policy that we are in favour of the UK’s membership of the EU. Indeed, staying inside the EU may be the only hope of preventing the very breakup of the United Kingdom itself. David Lammy (Tottenham), Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) and Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) have each explicitly stated that they will vote against any measure in Parliament designed to facilitate the UK leaving the European Union, including, as

I understand it, the triggering of Article 50. Clive Lewis MP, a close ally of Corbyn, has said he believes a second referendum would be required in respect of any post-Article 50 exit package.

Tony Blair put it extremely well when he said that, whilst the referendum was an expression of the will of the people, the will of the people is entitled to change. He was of course alluding to the fact that Brexit is not an inevitability. Campaigning to stop Brexit would be an opportunity for Labour to find a new progressive voice that will speak to the 48 per cent, provided it is coupled with a serious programme to address the chronic under-investment and scourge of austerity that has blighted so much of our country.


Lawyer, Chair of @Wapping_Labour. Treasurer of @TH_Labour_Party. Pro-European, Feminist, Fabian. Happy about our new @MayorofLondon. Horrified by #Brexit.