THE BLOG

Brexit: Labour MPs Should Vote Their Consciences

31/01/2017 12:37 GMT | Updated 31/01/2017 12:37 GMT
Blend Images - Jeremy Woodhouse via Getty Images

This week's government Bill to authorise the Prime Minister to initiate Article 50 is sufficiently long to answer the judgement of the Supreme Court, last week, and sufficiently short to discourage wrecking amendments. Having said that, the time to debate the Bill is even shorter - at just five days for all the stages in the House of Commons. Brexit brevity is far from the soul of wit, as Parliament will this week show.

The real question is: what will the group of MPs who oppose Brexit do? There are not enough of them to vote the Bill down in the Commons, even if there was any real mood to defy the outcome last June's referendum.

According to Brexit Secretary, David Davis, it is doubtful that the Government will publish its White Paper before the Bill goes before the House. This means the scope for MPs to use something specific they disagree with in the White Paper as a fig leaf to cover voting against the referendum result is removed.

So, opposition to the Brexit Bill by MPs will take real courage. It will be tough enough for those MPs who have to take on the Government and large parts of the media. Tougher still for those MPs who also have to take on a majority of their own voters in constituencies which voted for Brexit.

The presence of long-standing Europhiles on the Tory benches, like Kenneth Clarke MP, suggested to many that the Conservatives would be having a challenging time in Parliament over Brexit but the real challenge looks to be in Labour; which had two thirds of its voters voting to Remain, many of its activists campaigning against Brexit and a majority of its MPs wishing to stay in the Single Market.

For Labour MPs, it looks as though they will also have to take on their own Leader who seems determined to have a three line whip in favour of the Brexit Bill. The irony will not be lost on many Labour MPs that Jeremy Corbyn, the serial rebel, wants to instruct his MPs to vote with the Conservative Party to support a Bill intending to action a position Labour opposed. Imagine what the hard left, who currently run Labour, would have said if Tony Blair had done that sort of thing?

For a few Labour MPs, in constituencies which voted to remain, there will be some pressure to defy the Labour whip and vote against the Brexit Bill. That will take courage. But the real challenge is for those Labour MPs whose constituencies voted to leave but who themselves believe, in their heart of hearts, that the current policy of leaving the European Union, the Single Market, even Euratom (the European Atomic Energy Community - which is actually legally distinct from the EU but is included in this Bill), is not in the real interests of the country or their constituencies. For these MPs there is a real dilemma: follow your constituents or follow your conscience?

The worst possible position - and it was repeated by numerous Labour spokespeople over the weekend - is to make it part of some sort of electoral calculation: as though, only by voting with the government - ignoring its own policies, its own MPs and most of its own supporters - can Labour escape the accusation that it is ignoring the majority.

Many on the Labour benches - some in the Shadow Cabinet - see this for what it is: at best, a denial of their previous public positions and at worst, a dereliction of duty. It is pusillanimity over principle.

Of course, the referendum result must be respected. That's why there is a Brexit Bill. But we live in a Parliamentary democracy. MPs are representatives not delegates. They are sent to Parliament to consider, debate and decide: not to follow orders. If you believe they've considered and decided wrongly then they can be voted out; that's why it is never a job for life. There are fixed term Parliaments so people can change their minds. The job of MPs, especially Labour MPs, following the referendum is, to make Brexit work for Britain - not to make it quick or convenient for Ministers.

If an MP really believes the decision to vote for the Brexit Bill could mean their constituents are poorer, or the country is weaker, is it really right to knowingly vote for it? After all, does anyone really think the majority voted to make Britain worse off?

And when pro-Brexiteers challenge these MPs to knuckle down and vote the way of the majority, does anyone really think that had the referendum gone the other way - which it most surely could have done with the right campaign - that Kate Hoey MP or Bill Cash MP would suddenly have become Europe's supporters or even remained silent on the issue?

At this stage no-one knows how this negotiation will go and what the outcome will be. We can only hope that Britain gets a good deal which makes the division and disruption worthwhile. For Labour to hitch itself too closely to the decision to leave - with all the economic uncertainty it threatens - looks like political stupidity at its worst. To force Labour MPs to vote for something they oppose, with no role in the negotiation and no notion of the outcome, as part of some cynical political calculation, seems to me more of a massive political miscalculation. Better to have been seen to abandon the whip that to be seen to abandon their principles.

One final thought: as the World's reaction to the recent awful executive orders from President Trump, on entry to the USA, becomes more vocal, isn't the defence from his supporters, that he can do what he promised because he won the election, only a more hard line version of the criticism of MPs who vote against the majority on Brexit?

Might - even the mightiness of the democratic majority - does not always mean right.