Labour MPs and members of a Jeremy Corbyn government will be free to campaign on either side in the EU referendum which the party plans for June 2020 if it wins next month’s general election, John McDonnell has revealed.
The party has previously said that it will hold a special conference in the spring to decide which side Labour will back in the referendum, but the shadow chancellor’s comments reveal that MPs will not be required to campaign in line with that decision.
The move echoes former prime minister Harold Wilson’s decision to allow his MPs to campaign on both sides of the original referendum on Common Market membership in 1975, and sets the scene for large numbers of Labour members – probably including senior figures like Mr McDonnell, Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry – to fight for Remain against whatever deal Mr Corbyn manages to obtain.
Mt Corbyn announced on Friday that he will remain “neutral” between Remain and Leave in any referendum, which would take place after a Labour-led government renegotiated the Brexit deal with Brussels.
Labour claims it will be able to negotiate a “credible” deal within three months, involving a customs union with the EU, a close relationship with the European single market and protection for environmental and workplace safeguards.
Mr McDonnell told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “I expect that, as Harold Wilson did, individual members of the party and the cabinet will be able to campaign on the basis of their judgement.
“The party will meet and discuss. You know our proposal which is to negotiate a sensible deal, put that back to the people alongside Remain and people will have to make a judgement around that deal as against Remain.”
Asked if he would follow Mr Corbyn in remaining neutral, Mr McDonnell said: “No, I won’t. I don’t think Jeremy’s asking people to do it.
“I’ll wait until I see the details of the deal that we negotiate. I was in negotiations with the Conservatives for six weeks, and I couldn’t see a deal emerging then that could beat Remain, but let’s see what we can negotiate. Whatever we do, we’ve got to arrive at a situation where the jobs in the economy are protected.
“And on that basis, Jeremy’s role – as he says – will be the honest broker. Whatever is then decided will then be implemented by our Labour government.”
Mr McDonnell rejected suggestions that Mr Corbyn was sitting on the fence by refusing to pick a side.
“I think there’s a different type of leadership that we need at the moment,” he said. “We don’t need a leader that will divide the country. It’s divided already, we need a leader who will build consensus. Jeremy’s unique character would enable that to happen in that honest broker role, listening to different points of view but then saying ‘Let the people decide’.
“Whatever is decided by the people, he will honestly and fairly ensure it’s implemented. We need a leader like that at the moment to bring the country back together again.”
Mr McDonnell refused to reveal whether he and Mr Corbyn will step down if they lose their second general election in the space of two and a half years on 12 December.
Asked if this election would be his last if he loses, the shadow chancellor told Ms Ridge: “We’re going to win.”
And challenged over whether he would bet money on victory, he replied: “I’ve given up on gambling. It’s one of my New Year resolutions. But we’re going to win.”
Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Chuka Umunna said: “The Labour Party leadership is betraying Remain voters on the biggest issue facing the country since the Second World War.
“The adoption of a position of ‘neutrality’ in the face of Brexit – a project of an elite made up of Johnson, Farage, Rees-Mogg and the rest – pre-empts the Labour Party Special Conference which was supposed to determine the leadership’s position on whether to back Leave or Remain.
“Saving the NHS and safeguarding our public services will be so much harder if we Brexit but Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are simply sitting on the sidelines, acting as bystanders rather than stopping it happening.
“Liberal Democrats will be the strong voice that Remainers need, fighting unequivocally to stop Brexit so we can build a brighter future.”