14 November 2019

Jess Sargeant says Labour’s commitment to renegotiate a Brexit deal and then hold a referendum within six months leaves no room for error. 

Jeremy Corbyn has promised that a Labour government would “get Brexit sorted” within six months.  

The Labour leader says that he would agree another extension to the Article 50 period with the European Union, renegotiate a new Brexit deal with it, and legislate for a referendum – between that deal and remaining in the EU – to take place by June 2020.  

The timeline is extremely tight. It forces Labour to adopt a twin-track approach: engaging in talks with the EU at the same time as laying the legal basis for the vote back home. Labour has chosen the deadline of six months to make a political point on the campaign trail – but, as a result, it will be left with little room to manoeuvre.   

Labour would need to start legislating for a referendum within days of winning the election 

To have any hope of holding a referendum in June, a Labour government would need to introduce legislation almost immediately upon taking office. The legislation would need to specify the wording of the referendum question, the date and the franchise for the poll (who can vote). 

The bill could not be rushed through Parliament, no matter the level of support. During the bill’s passage, the Electoral Commission, as part of its statutory duties, must assess the ‘intelligibility’ of the referendum question to ensure it is unambiguous and free from bias. The process, which involves public research and consultation with campaigners and experts, usually requires 12 weeks.  

If Labour waited until the New Year to table the bill, the ensuing process would last until the end of March at the earliest. At this point, if a referendum were to take place before a Labour government reaches six months in office, the statutory 10-week campaign period would need to begin immediately.  

There would be no time for delay, missteps or problems in Parliament. The timing also means that Jeremy Corbyn would, like David Cameron before him, have to work on getting legislation for a referendum through Parliament while simultaneously negotiating with the EU.  

There is a very narrow window for Labour to secure a new Brexit deal 

Before the 10-week statutory period for the referendum began at the end of March, Labour would need to secure a deal with the EU. So from the moment he took office, Corbyn would have just over three months to complete EU negotiations. Missing this deadline would delay the referendum.   

Yet there is still uncertainty over the deal that Labour wants to strike with the EU – even before the question of whether it can get that deal. The party has some unchanging phrases it uses about the ‘future relationship’, but it has yet to clarify its preferred form of Withdrawal Agreement which sets out the details of 'divorce'. Once detailed discussions with the EU were underway, a Labour government might find that EU law and regulations constrain some of its intended domestic programme, such as nationalisation. This could affect how closely it wanted the UK to be tied to the EU.  

Despite this uncertainty, introducing the legislation for a referendum would require Corbyn to set out the referendum question. The question would, therefore, need to be set before negotiations with the EU had concluded. Or perhaps even begun. This suggests that the Electoral Commission would be submitting recommendations on a question such as “leave with the government’s deal or remain”, despite the government not yet having agreed a deal. But once MPs had sight of a deal, they might want to amend the question or add another option. This would require further testing, and the Brexit timeline would then face delay.  

Labour’s timetable makes it difficult to hold a binding referendum  

Even if the deal, date and question could be settled, holding a referendum would not ‘sort’ Brexit. In the UK, parliamentary sovereignty means referendums are not legally binding – MPs would still need to legislate for the result either before or after the poll. However, referendums can be de facto binding if legislation to implement the result is passed before the poll takes place.  

The best way to provide certainty for voters that the outcome of the referendum would be implemented would be to legislate for a ‘confirmatory referendum’ in a Withdrawal Agreement Bill  (WAB) so that its provisions came into force automatically if approved in a public vote. But Labour’s timetable rules out this option as the legislation needed to hold a referendum would have to be introduced months before any deal was finalised and its associated WAB was tabled.  

If MPs did not pass the WAB before the referendum, a win for Leave would mean the government would need to legislate for the result. And while a second Leave win might make MPs feel that Parliament should not block Brexit, difficulties in passing the WAB – and further delay – could not be ruled out. This prospect would become more likely if Labour were relying on support from SNP MPs who, if Scotland again votes to remain, might feel they have an alternative mandate.  

Labour would be wise to allow a longer timetable to "get Brexit sorted"

‘Sorting’ Brexit in six months might sound attractively decisive and capable of dispatching the problem which has all but paralysed Parliament and government for three years. But committing itself to such a demanding deadline could cause big, early problems for Labour if it formed the next government.  

It would be better, in our view, for Labour to conclude its deal with the EU before starting the referendum process. This would also allow MPs to legislate for an agreed deal with a confirmatory referendum attached. Voters would then be given a clear choice between two defined options – and could be sure that their decision would be implemented. It would allow the Electoral Commission to test the referendum question properly, and avoid the risk of a delayed deal confusing the campaign. If Labour did a deal with the EU within three months as it intends – which is still very ambitious – that would mean holding a referendum at least nine months after taking power.  

This might require more time – but deciding the UK’s constitutional future does not have to be so rushed.