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Labour Divided And At Risk Of Cynicism Over Article 50

27/01/2017 09:38 GMT | Updated 27/01/2017 09:38 GMT
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

One can try to put a brave face on it, but there is no denying that Labour is in disarray over Article 50, if not indeed over the entire Brexit process.

Corbyn appears to be dragging the Party inexorably towards an unholy role as midwife to a Tory Hard Brexit. When challenged, the explanation he gives for his position on Article 50 and Brexit appears to be based on two limbs of argument: (i) that Labour as a "national party" must be seen to "respect" the result of the EU referendum, and (ii) that the majority of constituencies with Labour MPs voted in favour of Leave, and that therefore the Party must be seen to be "representing the country as a whole" and cannot be seen to be "frustrating" the process of leaving.

Should Labour, in the final analysis, be seen to have in effect collaborated or at least stood by motionless as the Tories go hell for leather for a Hard Brexit, then its perceived waving through of Article 50 will be interpreted as a colossal act of cynicism, which many of the 48%, and indeed many loyal Labour voters, may not be able to forgive.

One element that appears to be simply ignored in the battle for Labour's Brexit soul is the fact that the Party currently has a very clear policy on Brexit, adopted unanimously at the Party Conference in September 2016, namely "Unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable, then the option of retaining EU membership should be retained. The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through Parliament and potentially through a general election or a referendum.".

The PLP has manifestly split into various factions over Brexit. There are the 'Remoaners' on one end of the spectrum, then the Open Britain crowd led by Chuka Umunna who want full access to the Single Market but possibly an end to freedom of movement, those who categorically say we have to end freedom of movement such as Stephen Kinnock, those who are in favour of full-blown freedom of movement such as Diane Abbott, those who appear fairly comfortable with the notion of leaving where I would place Corbyn and McDonnell, and finally the 'odd-balls' Gisela Stuart and Kate Hoey who campaigned on the Leave side. This smattering of Brexit factions within the PLP has led to a dissonance and polyphony of Labour voices in the media, in Parliament and in the wider national political discourse and has meant that the public are in general at a loss as to what Labour's position on Brexit actually is.

But more bizarre even than the wild Brexit factionalism within Labour is the split at the very top of the Parliamentary Labour Party. On the one hand, you have Sir Keir Starmer MP as Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, with his team of shadow ministers including the excellent Matthew Pennycock MP, and on the other you have Jeremy Corbyn and the Leader's Office where his communications director Seamus Milne appears to wield a disturbing amount of power. Starmer's team appear to be pulling in one direction, with a strategy of "holding the government to account", while Corbyn's office appear hopelessly conflicted on the existential issue of whether or not Brexit is a good or a bad thing.

Starmer's declared strategy, again based on the premise that the result must be respected, is to seek to amend the Article 50 Bill to build in protections. Labour's list of proposed amendments to the Article 50 Bill have been published, and whilst they read as a shopping list of various noble objectives, they will in no way in and of themselves serve to prevent a Hard Brexit. Indeed, where is the fight over membership of the Single Market (not on the list despite prior assurances)? The concern is that the cerebral Starmer will be out-manoeuvred by a Tory government that Labour cannot match in either cynicism or ruthlessness. It very much seems as though it is the Tories who are currently calling all the strategic shots (see for example the pyrrhic victory of the concession over a White Paper, to be pointlessly published after Article 50 has been triggered). By the same token, Corbyn's team appear to have no qualms about accepting May's approach wholesale, provided some concessions on workers' rights can be exacted, at some indeterminate moment.

The low-point, when it finally came, was of course Corbyn's insistence on a three-line whip for voting in favour of the Article 50 Bill, thereby in effect voting to trigger Article 50. Forcing Labour MPs to vote in favour of triggering Article 50 is so obviously in contravention of standing Labour Party policy it is beyond ludicrous. Those Labour MPs who have come out against this, such as Tulip Siddiq and Owen Smith, deserve high praise for their principled stance. Similarly, it is deeply disappointing to see so many Labour MPs, who notwithstanding their belief that leaving the European Union will be catastrophic for the UK's long-term economic prosperity and standing in the world, are prepared to vote to allow this happen to the country. It is harder to imagine a greater dereliction of duty on the part of our nation's democratic representatives.