By supporting the Article 50 Bill, Labour moderates are making a historic mistake

Labour is sending the message that there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the government's plan


Labour’s official position is that it will support the Bill for triggering Article 50. This is despite the Government’s signalling it will pursue a ‘hard Brexit’, and its failure to provide any detailed assessment of all the economic and social impacts that could result from this.

This is not Corbyn’s diktat alone. Indeed, he could hardly have had the power to impose such a line on the Parliamentary Labour Party, given that his own euro-scepticism is at odds with so much of his core support — even the Canary has come out against him.  Crucially, it is down to the line taken by some — but not all — members of Progress and influential centrist MPs, not least Sir Keir Starmer and Dan Jarvis.

This is a historic error, and one that may just be the final nail in the Labour coffin.  More importantly, it is letting the country down, just when we need a concerted opposition to the divisive mendacity of nationalism, as never since the war.

The Progress case for supporting the Bill has some logic. It is summarised in a well-argued article by Conor Pope.  It goes like this: Labour should seek to represent all the people, those who voted Leave as well as Remain. Brexit is going to happen anyway, and if Labour wants to influence how it happens, it cannot simply oppose it.  

And — possibly the shrewdest argument — if it all goes terribly badly, then the voters will not thank a party of ‘I told you so’s: no one likes to blame themselves or be reminded they were gulled.  Oh, and there are a couple of by-elections coming up, in areas which heavily voted Leave.

One of the most worrying things about this argument is its stated fear that, if Labour were to vote against the government Bill, it would be perceived among Leave voters as simply a party for Remainers.  Now, Labour MPs are right to be concerned about this prospect; and the last thing anyone who cares about progressive politics would want is for Leave/Remain to become baked in as the perennial political divide in this country.

Not in this way, not at this time

But Labour could have said it wasn’t ignoring the outcome of the Referendum and still voted against triggering Article 50. Not in this way, it could have said, not at this time.  

Labour could have said it was voting against the Bill because Theresa May was talking about pulling out of the single market, which would put thousands of jobs at risk, and which Leave campaigners explicitly said was not on the table.  

Labour could have said it was voting against the Bill because the Government wanted to make us all take a leap into the dark, without a clue about what our options were or how much they would cost us.  Labour could have said it was voting against the Bill because Theresa May’s vision was not taking back control, it was running from the security of the EU to humiliating ourselves at the feet of Donald Trump.  

It could have said the Leave case was based on outright lies which have been exposed as such.  It could, if it had wanted to, gone further, and said that, once worked out, options on the terms of Brexit should be put to the people in a second referendum.

Labour could have said all this, but it chose not to because it was afraid that it would appear anti-Brexit.  And its calculation is that the number one priority for Labour is not to appear anti-Brexit.  But what this means is that Labour has accepted that the Government gets to define what Brexit is. Brexit means Brexit; and that’s whatever Theresa May says it is.  

The message Labour is sending out is not that there is something fundamentally wrong with the Government’s vision for Brexit. It is that some minor tweaking needs to be done.

Labour is committing to voting for the most radical legislation brought before Parliament in living memory, without even any White Paper or impact assessment, out of the fear that otherwise it will be tarnished as lacking in support for the Government.

It’s a bit of old-fashioned New Labour triangulation — yet again tactics, not strategy — when what we need is visionary, unequivocal moral leadership.

The motivation of Progress members is understandable.  What few understand about Progress is that its love for Blair has always been matched by its love for Labour.  It has always displayed an emotional veneration of Labour, its history and culture (though this has sometimes stood at a very odd tangent to the policies it has promoted in the present day).  

Since Corbyn became leader, it has been the main organisational bulwark against Momentum, encouraging moderates not to leave the party, and seeking to hold the party together so that it may form a government again at some point in the future.

This is again what it is trying to do now.  To hold the party together — the metropolitan middle class Remainers and the working class northern Leavers.  But, it has to be remembered, Labour’s leadership contest last summer was set off by Corbyn’s calling for an immediate triggering of Article 50.  

In merrily endorsing Corbyn’s imposition of a three-line whip in favour of triggering now, it looks like Progress has switched sides —  and thrown in its lot with the euro-sceptic, anti-liberal, anti-Britain hard left.  In doing so, its authority to organise opposition within the party to Corbyn has permanently collapsed.

Labour has been reeling from having a leader patently unequipped to lead the country, someone who alienates traditional working class Labour supporters and floating voters alike.  Now in trying to appeal to those voters, it — both Corbyn Labour and Progress Labour — is alienating liberal, middle class, centre-left supporters.  

It’s like using two different types of chemicals to be sure of eradicating any trace of support.  Moderates have no one left within the party to rally behind.  In trying to save the Labour Party, Progress may just have finally killed it off.

Worst of all, as the Trump-Bannon administration runs a ‘trial balloon for a coup’, and Theresa May turns Britain into an accessory by appeasement, what we need is a strong political coalition of voices in defence of civil liberties and the national interest.  Labour’s submission to the Government weakens this at a crucial time.

Richard Douglas is a PhD student in the Politics Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has written for a number of publications, including Renewal, Open Democracy, and Political Quarterly

See: Britain needs a Brexit money back guarantee, that’s why I’ve signed up to the Dublin Case

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8 Responses to “By supporting the Article 50 Bill, Labour moderates are making a historic mistake”

  1. David Lindsay

    If I were an MP, then I would vote to repeal the European Communities Act regardless of whether or not there had ever been a referendum, never mind the result of any such crude device. That would be my judgement, and the exercise of judgement is what MPs are for. Moreover, MPs are responsible for and to all of their constituents, and in no constituency did everyone, or even just everyone who voted, vote the same way. MPs who will vote against Article 50 are, in my view, mistaken. But they are perfectly within their rights. As is the Official Opposition, and it is correct, to impose a three-line whip. MPs are always free to break the whip. So long as they are prepared to take the consequences, as Jeremy Corbyn always was.

  2. Martyn Wood-Bevan

    If you are seriously doing a PhD then how can you possibly call Progress “moderates”? They are clearly neo-liberal right wingers, NOT “moderates” when they are compared to Corbyn who many intelligent commentators favourably compare to a mainstream Scandinavian Social Democrat.

  3. Mike Homfray

    Like it or not the referendum we agreed to opted for Leave. It was a blunt instrument with a binary question. So we have to trigger article 50. Not to do so simply doesn’t fulfil the outcome of the referendum

  4. Mike WALKER

    This article is naive and shows zero understanding of voters and how politics works.

    All parties agreed beforehand to accpt the results of the Referendum.The authour wishes to welsh on that.
    Hands Labour’s opponents a BIG stick: “Labour cnanot be trusted on the economy,NOW they cannot be trusted to keep their promises”.
    Most Northern Labour seats voted Leave. The Party kicks sand in their faces and says basically it will treat them with utter contempt,.

    How many seats will Labour lose in the North as a result?
    How many future Labour promises will be trusted?

    Labour has the reputation as the party of the Metropolitan elite sneering at the working classes. It’s true: see E Thornberry. Opposing Article 50 will confirm it.

    Kiss of death outside London.

    I note the author is a PhD working in a University in London. SO the classic member of a metropolitan elite: and just as out of touch with ordinary people – as this article shows.

  5. Mike Stallard

    Richard, have a cigar! You have got it totally right – and I am a Tory troll!
    “Labour could have said it was voting against the Bill because Theresa May was talking about pulling out of the single market, which would put thousands of jobs at risk, and which Leave campaigners explicitly said was not on the table.”
    If only this important message had got through. Here are some of the industries that could be ruined by Mrs May with accompanying article from my (and your) researcher, Dr Richard North.

    haulage industry …
    egg industry …
    customs service …
    commercial fishing …
    chemical industry …
    aviation …
    medicines …
    meat industry …… and now
    horseracing …

    These is only a fraction of the sectors that will be adversely affected by a “walk away” and for which specific deals will have to be negotiated. And, for some of these, I’ve only touched on the issues.

  6. Craig Mackay

    Undoubtedly the biggest mistake that Labour ever made was supporting the war in Iraq. That was done because we were misled by a dodgy dossier which turned out to be lies once the invasion started and the Middle East began to unravel. The Brexit vote was achieved using lies which unravelled almost as soon as the result was declared. For Labour to vote for Brexit in any way is to make an even bigger mistake that will affect the lives and prosperity of the great majority of people in the UK. It will be based on lies that we knew were lies before the vote and have been revealed as lies since.

    It is extraordinary that the most eloquent justification of voting against Brexit was made last night by a Tory, Ken Clarke. By contrast, the fantasy land of John Redwood preaching to the House was rather terrifying, reminiscent of those jolly gigs at Nuremberg nearly 80 years ago.

    Labour must not do this. Political expediency is one thing but going so completely against how Labour really feels and should be actively campaigning against is another major step in the decline of the Labour Party into a giggling irrelevant memory of what it once was.

  7. Ydoethur

    This article is wrong on two very important points:

    1) While it is true that Leave, notably Daniel Hannan, did claim we would stay in the single market, the government leaflet which was sent to every household and was widely reported in the media did make it clear this would be the result of a withdrawal from the EU. This is why I voted Remain, having been undecided at the start of the campaign. It is therefore not plausible to say people were unaware of this. They may not have believed it, but that is a different problem.

    2) It is utterly absurd to say we should have a second referendum on the terms of the deal. The EU will not renegotiate if it is rejected. They will simply kick us out without one. Article 50 is irrevocable and while negotiations are mandated, a particular outcome is not. Is the author really saying he thinks we should give the people the opportunity to vote on an imperfect but acceptable deal (which is the best we can hope for) in order to reject it and exit on WTO terms if they feel it goes too far? This despite saying he wants the referendum as a lock on leaving the single market? His logic is so muddled it is hard to tell, but it may simply be that he has not done proper research or simply not thought through the implications of his position.

    A word of friendly advice as someone with a PhD myself – if this is the level of analysis you put forward in your thesis, you will fail your viva. Be careful, for your own sake.

  8. Ydoethur

    Previous comment should say, ‘Hannah claimed we would not leave the single market’.

    Maybe I was harsh and the author just committed multiple typos!

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