Article 50: with no easy options, Corbyn is doing the right thing
Labour is starkly divided over Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to three-line whip the Article 50 vote to give the government the power to begin Brexit proceedings, and on Brexit more broadly. The odd bedfellows in this debate — with some arch-Blairites siding with Corbyn and steadfast Corbynistas threatening to rebel — speak to the degree to which Brexit flummoxes us, throwing a wrench into the middle of Labour’s usual factional alignments.
As most arguments either way on Article 50 have acknowledged, Labour also faces a bind in its broader electoral coalition. Our current urban-centric voters were predominantly Remain and believe that Brexit (and especially hard Brexit) will hurt working-class people who voted Leave as well as themselves, and they are also being courted aggressively by the continuity-Remain Lib Dems. But the way our vote is allocated, the constituencies Labour MPs represent were Leave, as are most of the ex-Labour or current Tory/UKIP voters the party needs to speak for if it is ever to govern again. Add to that a trend where two-thirds of people now view politics more through their referendum vote than through traditional party loyalties, and UK Labour now faces similar difficulties to the ones that have already torn Scottish Labour asunder.
I’ve felt consistently before, after and since the referendum that it is vital that Labour honour the result. That means clearly voting for Article 50, so I agree with what Corbyn has done. But this issue is fraught and nuanced — politically, procedurally, emotionally — and Labour’s Brexit conundrum is compounded by other severe structural problems we have, further limiting our manoeuvring room. This is a debate where little differences mean a lot — many of the arguments on all sides are understandable and the differences fine, often coming down to distinguishing between least-of-bads. So I’ll list a few reasons I’ve heard given against the leadership’s stance, and give responses.
“We can’t in good conscience vote for something that will hurt the people Labour fights for”
I’ll start with this one as I know it’s sincere, coming from both a good and genuinely fearful place. In my own instinct I don’t feel Brexit is likely to make the country better off either, especially if it involves leaving the single market and/or customs union, hence why I campaigned for Remain (though political union, free movement or European identity were never particular dealbreakers for me, so this isn’t as much of a concession for me as it is for many activist Remainers, I acknowledge).
But one crucial, if disempowering, point in all this that both sides seem prone to overlooking is the Tories have the votes to pass Article 50 without Labour (I’d been forgetting this too). Moreover, even if we did somehow persuade enough Tories and Ulster Unionists to break ranks, the likely outcome would be Theresa May calling a snap election, in which public outcry would fuse with Labour’s general current position to provide May with a crushing mandate to do whatever she wished, on Brexit and everything else we care about. This is not to say that our stance doesn’t matter — far from it, as all MPs have an elected duty to give representation and judgement. But much as with the contentious welfare vote in the summer of 2015 (whatever side you were on in that one), this debate is in effect now more about what Labour stands for than it can be about what immediate policy effect the votes of the PLP will have on the final reading.
This is where my concerns lead back mostly to why we need to use this moment to send a message to Leave voters that we respect the result. We instinctively regard ourselves as ‘the people’s party’ and the Tories as the elitists, but in 2015 we already refused to promise the people a referendum, reminding many of those that Labour was founded for of the gap between them and the people who now run the party day-to-day. That was our original sin on this issue, and being seen to fail to honour the result will be a further breach of trust and only strengthen the impression that Labour is run by paternalists estranged from their lives. This vote is bound up with existential questions about what (and in an age defined more and more by identity politics, who) Labour exists for.
Further, if my side had narrowly won the referendum — against the wishes of a third of current Labour voters, and many more former — we wouldn’t have stood for Nigel Farage hand-waving it as “advisory” or a “fix”. It’s probably partly from that that maybe half of Remain voters now accept the result to some degree. And I also wonder whether we could ever truly get round the fact that many people couldn’t be made to accept the EU as a legitimate, accountable part of Britain’s governance, even if they viewed Remain as matter of economic necessity. If we want to make good on our ideas about rebuilding faith in politics or making Labour more outwardly patriotic, I can’t see how core British values of fair play and democracy can be left out of that, or really any Labour story of how our country should be.
“Oppose on the third reading if we don’t get our amendments”
I’m glad Gina Miller’s brave case succeeded, as it has secured Labour the ability to offer amendments in parliament. The ones Corbyn and Kier Starmer are putting forward are reasonable, and Chuka Umunna’s amendment demanding £350m a week for the NHS is smart politics. Labour must use this opportunity both to shape the actual legislation and to put narrative distance between the Labour ‘People’s Brexit’ and Tory ‘Bargain Basement’ visions.
However, it is important to remember that a clear plurality of the public did not actually want parliament involved, likely stemming from a suspicion that MPs would stymie the decision. This is why Labour must use its power to amend to maximum effect, but ultimately remain aware of the thin ice we stand on when it comes to the final vote. And if we think we can defend against the caricature that will be foisted on us by explaining the procedural differences between readings, I ask you to think back to how that went down among our own members for the MPs and leadership candidates who abstained on the second reading of that fateful welfare bill, or to how John Kerry was flayed for “for it before I was against it” in the US. We should be prepared to argue for our vision of Brexit long-term (this will be a process that dominates politics for years, not one event), but there’s a reason May uses that “Brexit means Brexit” soundbite — Leavers and perhaps even some acceptant Remainers will want reassurance it is proceeding and are unlikely to look upon voting against as just a vote for a different kind of Brexit.
“An opposition should oppose”/“we won’t get credit if Brexit works and will share blame when it fails”
This did strike a chord with me. In terms of international magnitude, there are shades of the problem the US Democrats had after waving through Iraq in 2002, the other side of what happened to John Kerry.
But as much as none of us can foretell the future, I really struggle to believe Leave voters will turn against Brexit as a concept — they voted for it, and it carries a significance that a vote for one party or government may not. There’s polling evidence that some Leavers expected some kind of economic hit — I heard similar things anecdotally from some Leave voters I spoke to — and there’s no evidence yet of “Bregret”. And if/when things get worse, people will more likely blame something else for it not living up to expectation. It is then that I fear the right would try to scapegoat Brussels bureaucrats and immigrants, and that is precisely why Labour must stay strong and relevant, ready to fight relentlessly and innovatively to pin blame where it belongs on the Tory government and contrast it with what a ‘better Brexit’ Britain under Labour could still be. That could even include retaining the option of mooting re-joining the EEA/EFTA, Norway-style, at a later stage.
“This won’t win the Leavers, and could lose us the Remainers too”
Backing Article 50 will not win us back ex-Labour or swing voters who are pro-Leave — on Europe alone the differences between us and them are still significant, and Leave voters on average have objections to us on leadership, immigration, defence, welfare and economic management as well. However, while nowhere near sufficient, it is necessary to show we are listening and to not further wilfully alienate them.
As for our existing, predominantly Remainer base — yes, the Lib Dems are gunning for us. But this is another 2015 juncture — the election of Corbyn then was partly due to the people who made up our existing base (urban left-liberals who tend to be members) being more anxious about threats that felt closer to home (Green-considerers who saw Miliband Labour as too right-wing, which members felt themselves or found amplified in their communities and social media spaces) than the larger threat in the country (an outright majority of voters going Tory or UKIP). We’re seeing the same dynamic again here, with a party of instinctive Remainers risking being too paralysed by fear of the Lib Dem-flirters in our midst to confront the existential crisis of us haemorrhaging working-class Leavers. And moreover, Leavers tend to more be tribally cohesive than the 48% ever were — the 25% or so who now want a second referendum gives a measure of how many in Britain are actually impassioned pro-Europeans, and the 48% includes Northern Ireland and wealthy Lib/Con voters in places like Richmond and Witney who are forever beyond Labour’s reach.
There’s truth in worrying that in trying to strike out and be everything to everyone, we risk getting run down in the middle (again, the spectre of 2015). We need a compelling case for our vision of Brexit. And I agree that some Labour MPs in Remain seats have no choice but to rebel against the national party line. But in gambling terms, this is stick or twist — we won’t achieve anything by staying moored where we are either.
“We’re stuffed anyway — might as well be ourselves/go down swinging”
I’ve seen this floated a couple of times now (yet more 2015 flashbacks — some soft Corbyn voters rationalised something similar amid electoral gloom and an uninspiring candidate field). Its frank and it’s all too human, but then as now, it’s more than a bit self-justifying and fatalistic. Labour is worth fighting for — there’s no rule that says a broad-based centre-left party has to exist, and the country needs an alternative to the Tories. And sometimes uncomfortable least-of-bads are worth going to bat for, even when your heart may not be all in it — real lives can be saved or broken in the nuances and increments of politics, and as the country’s opposition party, Labour can’t duck the responsibility to grapple with that.
As Labour did the last time we were in the wilderness, we have to challenge ourselves and discern which things are red-line principles and which are groupthinks that can need a bit more introspection. There’s no point in us pathologically rolling over, but voters are the ultimate agents of politics and they’re not always obligated to come all the way to us either. “Authenticity” on this or anything else does little if it only speaks to ourselves, and not the real concerns or lived experiences of others who we claim to represent.
“Whipping the vote has only made us look more divided”
This concern makes a lot of sense — rebellions and shadow cabinet resignations aren’t a good look. But I agree with Corbyn on the whip because my preference here is still for us to at least try to make steps towards coherence and clear messaging. We will never get back into habit of reaching common positions on issues of national importance if we don’t attempt to.
Moreover, people see parties through a prism of leadership strength, as well as party unity. I don’t exactly hide my view of Corbyn, and while any Labour leader would struggle at this crossroad, he’s about the worst person you could design to see it through (weak generally, can look hypocritical whipping other MPs against their consciences, still radioactive with the type of voters who went Leave, and too mistrusted by fearful Remain hold-outs to serve as a ‘Nixon in China’ figure for them). But we are where we are, and I do like that for once, he’s trying to do the right, difficult and necessary thing. That’s something, so good on him.