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 QuarterlySign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.