Jeremy Corbyn has confirmed he will impose a three-line whip on Labour MPs to vote for the enactment of article 50. That would be disastrous both in the short term, as it will lead to resignations from the frontbench and, more important for the future credibility of the party. It will align Labour with a dangerous, Tory-driven hard Brexit which threatens to wreck the economy.
The court case decision to give parliament a say over the enactment of article 50 should be an opportunity for Labour to demonstrate a clear way forward. We should be saying that because Brexit is bad for Britain we will put whatever obstacles we can in its way. We may lose out in the short term, but we will win in the longer term.
Corbyn said that the will of the British people must be respected. However, this “will” was expressed by 52 per cent of the 72 per cent who voted seven months ago. Apart from the nonsense about £350m per week for the NHS, which probably most people were too sensible to believe, voters were told by many Brexit supporters that a vote for Out did not mean that Britain would leave the single market. Now it appears that it does.
This raises fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the referendum. In any case, as many constitutional experts have pointed out, the referendum was advisory, not mandatory. The idea that MPs have to slavishly follow the result of the referendum, whatever it entails, is a nonsense. Theresa May has virtually admitted that. Given a choice between controlling immigration or boosting the economy, she has plumped for the former. If that had been explained to people before the referendum, the result may well have been different. People do not generally vote to make themselves poorer.
Yet, Corbyn is now asking MPs to do precisely that, contradicting the manifesto on which they stood in 2015. It said: “The economic case for membership of the EU is overwhelming. Over three million of our jobs are linked to trade with the economic union, and almost half our trade and foreign investment comes from the EU”. So what are our MPs supposed to tell those people when they lose their jobs and come to their surgeries?
That is the key point. Corbyn’s policy is short-term pragmatism when what we need is long-term vision.
Brexit will go wrong and we need to show that we were on the side of the people who will suffer the economic consequences of that debacle. Remember, too, that we will not, of course, get any credit in the unlikely – I would say impossible – event that things go right with Brexit. We are the Opposition; we should oppose.
As Phil Kelly, a fellow Islington North Labour party member wrote in an open letter to Corbyn on Facebook today, “we don’t say ‘we accept the result’ of elections when we lose. We fight against harmful government policies even when these have been in other parties’ manifestos”.
Keir Starmer indicated at my Islington North general committee meeting last week that Labour’s support for the unachievable policy of “full access to the market, except for immigration” is because we need to listen to our supporters who voted Leave. There is a risk this is seen as cynical stance towards the electorate.
Corbyn cannot legitimately ask his MPs to support a motion that goes against their conscience given that 80 per cent supported Remain. After all, was it not his conscience that made Corbyn vote against the Labour whip 428 times before he became leader?
Christian Wolmar was the Labour candidate in last year’s Richmond Park by-election and is a member of Islington North CLP.