His comments reflect the unease of some top Labour officials about a possible rerun of the 2016 vote. Mr Lavery is one of the party’s most strident opponents of such a move, which he describes as “self harm”.
The Labour chairman told the FT that he was “not sure” about why other senior Labour figures had begun to refer to a “confirmatory ballot” — an idea floated by MPs such as Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesman, and deputy leader Tom Watson.
“I’m not saying it is trying to hoodwink people,” Mr Lavery said. “But it is trying to appease people . . . trying to be something it isn’t. It’s a second referendum.”
The party’s formal position since last autumn is to push for a softer Brexit than Theresa May wants; seek a general election and — if that fails — pursue other options including a second referendum.
Mr Lavery said the shadow cabinet and Labour national executive committee had never endorsed the “confirmatory ballot” phrase. He also rejected criticism about the clarity of Labour’s policy, and highlighted questions about how another vote would work and what the options on the ballot paper would be.
“Would it be Theresa May’s deal, would it be no deal, would it be Remain: people aren’t prepared for that,” he said. Raising the issue of “whether or not the Labour party should be putting itself through what I would describe as self-harm”, he asked: “Is this wise?”
Grassroots Labour members strongly support a second referendum — as do many of the party’s MPs. But leadership figures such as Seumas Milne, head of strategy, Andrew Murray, an influential adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, and Karie Murphy, Mr Corbyn’s chief of staff, maintain that another vote would be divisive and could lose Labour support in its heartlands, where about 3m people backed Leave in 2016.
But Peter Kyle, a pro-EU Labour MP, emphasised that a “confirmatory ballot” had been used in 1998 to endorse the Good Friday Agreement to end the Northern Irish troubles, as well as in 2012, when UK voters rejected proposals on electoral reform.
“It certainly isn’t a good look for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party to suggest the public are too stupid to answer the question ‘is this deal good enough for you and your family?’,” said Mr Kyle.
But, speaking before the collapse of Labour-Tory talks on Brexit, Mr Lavery questioned claims by Sir Keir that up to 150 of the party’s 246 MPs would not back a cross-party deal unless it included a second referendum. “Is it 150 people? I’m not sure what the numbers might be,” he said.
Ahead of European elections on May 23, Mr Corbyn is seeking to convince the electorate that Labour can represent both Leave and Remain voters. But he was recently barracked by many of his own MPs at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, with many expressing anger about his convoluted Brexit position.
Mr Lavery said the PLP had been “very unfair” to the Labour leader: “There has been a lack of respect for the fact that Jeremy is the leader of our party and I would urge MPs and peers to recognise that,” he said. “The behaviour we see at the PLP has been quite different to what we have experienced under different leaders.”