After last week’s rebellion and with another one fomenting, the Labour leadership need to think seriously about opposing Article 50 unless meaningful amendments are accepted.
The case for stopping Brexit outright was always shaky — Leave won the EU referendum, public opinion does not appear to have changed and Labour seeks to represent the whole nation with MPs representing England, Scotland and Wales. However, it is becoming clearer by the day that the Conservatives have minimal interest in holding their leader to account during the exit process and are perfectly willing to sacrifice workers’ rights as part of their agenda.
Labour amendments to require the government to report to parliament on the negotiation process every two months and to insist the government consults the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish First Ministers were both rejected in parliament on Monday. At this point it appears increasingly likely that the Tories will seek to strike down any amendment to Article 50, including the key amendments on maintaining EU standards for workers’ rights, guaranteeing the status of EU nationals already in Britain and maintaining tariff-free access to the single market.
The architects of the Leave campaign, from UKIP to the right-wing of the Conservative Party were consistently clear that leaving the EU would not lead to a bonfire of workers’ rights, to tariffs with Europe or to the endangering of those EU migrants who were already here. Yet now the reality is that Britain is open to the worst case scenario over Brexit: the transformation of Britain into a Thatcherite fiefdom by the draconian right of the Conservative Party.
The majority of Labour MPs have already, quite rightly, voted for triggering Article 50 on the second reading, essentially agreeing to respect the referendum result even though most Labour MPs were on the losing side. If none of the important amendments - on EU nationals, single market access, workers’ rights, environmental protection - are accepted, Corbyn will need to seriously consider ordering Labour MPs to vote against Article 50 in order to delay the Brexit process. If that scenario comes to pass Labour ought to emphasise that this is no longer about Leave or Remain, it is about fighting xenophobia, fighting the Tories assault on workers and fighting to save jobs.
Labour should be fighting for this basic compromise, not because we want to have ‘half a Brexit’ or regain less sovereignty from Brussels but because we need to fight against the hard-right’s preferred outcome. This approach should not just appeal to those wedded to the European dream, to the Owen Smiths and so on, but also to those who backed Leave like Kelvin Hopkins and Gisela Stuart.
At this point, it only makes sense for Labour to pursue a constructive and amicable exit from the EU, with close relations to some of the EU’s institutions, high-standards on workers’ rights and membership of the customs union. Theresa May’s vision for Brexit could be utterly destructive and to failure to oppose her would be an abdication of responsibility.