Was Corbyn right to sack Owen Smith, after he advocated a referendum on the final terms of a Brexit deal?

One answer is horror: there’s a compelling case for asking the British public whether the Brexit that is negotiated is what they actually want — not least because the dishonest and contradictory messages from the Leave campaign mean that many who voted Leave will find a large gap between the deal that is offered and what they thought they had voted for.

But an Exit From Brexit means healing the deep divisions that it has exposed, not just a narrow vote the other way in a referendum. That means bringing across many of those who voted Leave, and engaging with why they voted that way. Many voted Leave out of fear, and they still have reason to be afraid. That is particularly the case in the Labour heartlands.

For many on the Leave side, talk of a referendum on the terms smacks of a stitch-up from an establishment that is out of touch. There’s a taste of this in the logic that a referendum is a bad idea because it encourages the EU27 to offer the UK a bad deal. The reality is that the EU27 have a duty to act in the best interests of the continuing members of the EU. The only time when they would have a duty to take note of the needs of the UK is if we stop Brexit still offers a way to get past “the establishment” to some bright new future.

The recent news and rumours around Cambridge Analytica may not help matters. On the Remain side, we are seeing this as further grounds for questioning the vote. But it can also be heard as “the establishment” finding another bizarre story to frustrate Brexit and take away their hope.

In party-political terms this is relatively easy for Liberal Democrats because there is such a strong correlation between support for Liberal Democrats and for EU membership. If anything, we need to be careful to keep faith with those who have joined us over our opposition to Brexit.

But for Labour it is much more complicated. Many of those who voted Leave out of fear are among their core supporters. Labour can do things to reach these people, but many of these link EU membership and the abandonment they felt under New Labour. Moving too quickly risks taking away not just the bright hopes of Brexit, but also the hopes of people who have put their trust in Jeremy Corbyn. Labour might need to hold fire and wait for more public pressure before switching to supporting a referendum on the terms.

Much as I would like to see an immediate exit from Brexit, what this actually points to is continued political chaos, where it is important to stay faithful to the fundamentals for both parties. For Liberal Democrats, internationalism in general, and support for EU membership in particular, are pretty basic. Our vision for improving life for the “left behind” is deeply entwined with our understanding of what EU membership offers.

But for Labour, staying with the fundamentals, might well need to be more around their self-image of themselves as the party of the working class. It is taking a while for the spotlight to fall on what the EU has done for workers’ rights, to help economic stability and to support deprived areas, and for people to start realising that the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg are not be the best allies of those who are struggling.

We do need to work together to find a brighter future than Brexit, and present polling shows there is still a long way to go. While it is difficult for Labour to be as clear as many of its supporters would like, Liberal Democrats have a role in putting the case, both for EU membership and for its relevance to the “left behind”. That means reaching beyond core Liberal Democrat supporters For the moment, the internal struggles of the other parties seem to be mostly about the chaos of Brexit, and shouldn’t deflect from the primary task of addressing Brexit and the divisions it has exposed.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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  • Was Mr Corbyn right?

    It all depends on where you stand on (Shadow) Cabinet responsibility and whether you think Owen Smith was being sincere – or whether he was on ‘manoeuvres’ of some kind.

    Throughout history seeking political martyrdom has always been a method used by youngish politicos to gain attention and to further their careers. Churchill, Macmillan and Wilson all did so at some stage.

  • paul barker 26th Mar '18 - 2:20pm

    Im not sure that LDV should have published this piece, its very confused & where its clear is talking nonsense. All the Polling evidence makes it clear that about three quarters of Labour Voters with an opinion oppose Brexit along with a similar proportion of Members & MPs. Labours problem is that The Leadership back Brexit, its an internal problem.
    Owen Smith was sacked because The Leadership dont feel they can show any flexibility without encouraging the Members to speak up on Brexit.
    The project to reunite Britain is a very long-term one & cant really begin till after Brexit either happens or is stopped.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Mar '18 - 3:37pm


    I have had a weekend engaging online about Corbyn, regarding the mural fiasco. I have experienced intelligent Liberal Democrat discussion, abysmal far left Labour absurdity.

    I am really fed up with this notion that Labour are up for any cooperation. The NewLabour and main Labour old or new, might be. The Corbyn acolytes hate us, they are well to the left of the man, who is daft but more decent.

    He was wrong to sack Owen in the week his office tried and failed to explain his defence of that ghastly mural on the basis of free speech.
    He cannot have free speech for ghastly mural painting and not for thoughtful debating.

    Owen Smith has proved brave and plucky compared to others in his party, twice.

    In breaking collective responsibility a leader can dismiss a spokesman or woman. But Diane Abbot has considered a referendum as well, and was not dismissed.

    Corbyn is increasingly inconsistent. And increasingly embarrassed by his associations.

  • @ Mark Argent
    “It is taking a while for the spotlight to fall on what the EU has done … to help economic stability and to support deprived areas”

    Mark, I wish what you wrote was true, but the EU hasn’t done enough. It was estimated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that the UK should spend an extra £10.6 billion a year on top of I think £1.82 billion being spent by the UK government and the average of £3 billion being provided by the EU to provide the amount of regional aid needed in the UK to attempt to deal with the economic inequality between regions.

    And the EU rules don’t help. I am sure the Greeks and Spanish don’t think the EU is managing the Euro area well. The Stability and Growth Pact has to be scraped and it needs to be replaced with greater transfers from the richest EU countries to the poorest ones to make the Euro area work and for the single market to work better across the whole EU.

    We really need to understand this and get the EU to understand this or even if we win a referendum on the deal the pressure to leave will still be great and we will not be able to deal with the issues which caused the Leave vote in the first place.

  • The May Local Elections are soon..do the people who constantly mock and chip away at Corbyn think that the Lib Dems will reap rewards from Labours troubles…no I didn’t think do.

  • @ Mr Lorenzo Cherin. Calling someone by their first name because you approve of them – and by their surname because you don’t – is a bit of a give away and straight out of the Daily Mail/Express junior trainees handbook. I suggest you hang loose next weekend to regain your sang froid.

    As for Paul Barker, you don’t want LDV to publish Mark’s article? Whatever happened to free speech – or is this a job application to the LDV board?

  • Yes. You can’t have these upstarts continually voting against their own goverment.

  • Yes, he was right to sack him. You cannot be a member of the shadow cabinet and break ranks like this. I totally agree with Owen Smith, but he knew he’d be sacked for this, and he’s now totally entitled to say what he wishes from the back benches.

  • Ian Hurdley 27th Mar '18 - 8:30am

    It might have been better had Owen Smith resigned first and spoken afterwards. Apart from any other consideration, the media attention would then have been primarily on his stance rather than Corbyn’s action.

  • John Marriott 27th Mar '18 - 9:29am

    Here I am, wading in again on this damned EU referendum debate! Isn’t it fair to say that there a quite a few Labour MPs whose constituencies voted Leave? I still think that Corbyn (not Jeremy, David Raw, so you know what I think of him) and his crew really want out so as to reap the benefits, or so they think, if things go pear shaped, especially with the economy (siege comes to mind, when you can justify taking back control in more ways than one). Equally the Cash/Rees-Mogg lot would really like us to be like Singapore, but with the chewing gum etc. And the Lib Dems?

    I need to get out more!

  • You do John, and I’ll come with you. 😂😂

  • According to a letter in today’s Guardian the Labour Party decided at their 2016 Conference to keep open the option of remaining in the EU or having another referendum. If the PM can have Remainers and Leavers in the cabinet why can’t JC have the same in the shadow cabinet?

  • Martin Walker 27th Mar '18 - 2:30pm

    Let’s not kid ourselves that Corbyn is anything other than a hard core, long standing, proponent of socialism in one country, and is as keen as he always has been for us to leave what he sees as the capitalist conspiracy of the EU. His sacking of Smith was not because he was hemmed in, or needed to build the confidence of leave voters, it was because he doesn’t want any opposition to Brexit.

  • Peter Martin 27th Mar '18 - 7:22pm

    Jeremy Corbyn was right to sack Owen Smith from the Shadow Cabinet. Rightly or wrongly, Owen Smith does not accept Labour policy so cannot stay in the Shadow Cabinet. He has to take collective responsibility for the common view or argue against it from the back benches.

    That’s the way it is in politics!

  • John Marriott 28th Mar '18 - 6:58am

    Oh dear, sorry, David, here I go again! Whether one side cheated or both sides cheated or neither side cheated, it still remains (sorry about the pun) a fact that more people voted out than in nearly two years ago. Goodness, is it that long? What those of us who are basically in favour of staying in the EU warts and all should be asking ourselves is WHY? There is clearly something not quiet right and it’s not just immigration. Bringing back the EEC, certainly for certain members might help; but is it likely to happen?

  • “Is it likely to happen ?” No, unfortunately I don’t think it will.

    The party has got itself stuck in a Brexit time warp (combined with its 2010-15 legacy) which it shows no sign of getting out of at the moment.

    Whether things will change when the awfulness of Brexit becomes clear is anybody’s guess. “I told you so” isn’t welcome in personal relationships ; it remains to be seen if its the same in politics.

  • Tony Dawson 28th Mar '18 - 9:20am

    The sacking of Owen Smith was nothing at all to do with the Brexit refernedum issue. it was a flexing of muscles in perparation for Labour’s coming left-right battle of Armageddon, for which there have been many other skirmishes around the country. Brexit is only one lement of this.

    Do you not all see the ‘true Messiah’ of New New Labour waiting in the wings just looking for another war or invasion to start? 🙁

  • Nigel Hardy 28th Mar '18 - 1:04pm

    The sacking of Smith is quite ironic given that Corbyn previously declared himself for openness and honesty. Hmm how times have we heard that line before? The lefts messiah is not amenable to remaining, and does not tolerate differing views to his own, therefore the traitor had to go for speaking the inconvenient truth. Starmer wrote pessimistically at the weekend that there’s nothing that can be done to avoid Brexit – the hard left leadership duo see the single market as a step too far.

    The Labour party is killing itself by the day and the moderates must surely be plotting a mass defection from the party where they can be heard with respect. Unless the leadership get a grip, stamp out anti-Semitic behaviour and tolerate diverse views the party will be dead before very long. And with the Tory party in similar turmoil we are in for a very interesting ride. Grab your popcorn everybody.

  • I agree with the above. Smith’s sacking was a sign of Stalin-like ruthlessness, sending a warning signal to anyone else who steps out of line. As for the referendum result, if you are mis-sold an insurance policy, it surely not necessary to agonise forever on the reasons you bought it. Just correct the mistake as fast as possible.

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