The Labour ship is floating in dangerous waters, and it is far from certain that it will ultimately reach a safe harbour. Yet one declaration by Owen Smith, whether or not he succeeds in his challenge to Jeremy Corbyn, opens up at least the possibility of a happier outcome.
This is his promise to hold a second referendum before Brexit is formally implemented. This is a crucial proposal, but one which needs to be strengthened by the assurance that next time the franchise will be extended to 16 and 17-year-olds.
They took part in the Scottish referendum, and there was pressure to include them in the one on EU membership. Yet David Cameron vetoed this on nakedly partisan grounds, believing that this could permanently damage Conservative prospects.
Labour should now commit itself to this, and put it in the party’s manifesto for the next general election. If such a referendum were to be held in, say mid-2017, it would add more than 2 million voters to the register, 75 per cent of them, according to the polls, likely to be pro-remain. On the other hand, a similar number of my fellow octogenarians, the majority of them pro-leave, will sadly have passed away.
It is not enough, however, to depend on changes in the electorate to achieve a better result next time round. Labour must wage an aggressively pro-European campaign to capitalise on ‘buyers’ remorse’, which is already setting in, and is bound to increase as the mounting costs of Brexit become more and more apparent.
The Labour target must be the 48 per cent of voters who backed remain, a large number of whom were supporters of other parties, who will be won over in the face of a Tory government hell-bent on leading the country into an impoverished and inglorious isolation.
Such a campaign might repel Labour ‘leavers’, but they might well be a lost cause, and this should be more than compensated by an increased appeal to Tory and other ‘remainers’.
Win or lose, it would give Labour a positive appeal, in what would, in any event be a very tough and uncertain campaign.
It is fairly evident that such a strategy may well have a greater chance of success if the party is led by Owen Smith. Yet, even under Jeremy Corbyn, it would still be the most promising line for Labour, but only if he shows a great deal more commitment – not to say, passion – than he has recently revealed.