Rumours have been circulating in the media and elsewhere over the last few days that Labour is considering voting to support the Brexit deal that Boris Johnson may bring back. Such reports have been greeted with horror by many colleagues from across the party. The move would be a serious, historic and strategic mistake.
While much remains to be seen of what sort of deal the Prime Minister comes back with, we already know it is going to fall well short of the repeated promises he has made the British people. Giving our positive assent to this deal in parliament would mean endorsing a deal with the same gross deficiencies that Labour has spent the last three years criticising. It will not clear the six tests that Labour set, nor those of the TUC.
It is difficult to see what could have changed in the negotiations that would now make dropping these standards and conditions acceptable. To do so would support the accusation – so beloved of those on government benches and so damaging and wrong – that the last four years’ opposition was just parliamentary noise and political tactics.
It seems utterly bizarre for Labour to consider giving Johnson the triumph of a huge majority for his deal. It would mean an endorsement of his negotiating strategy, including his threat to break international law, and the award of totally unearned and unjustified credibility.
Most importantly, in the longer run, it would mean that Labour also ‘owns’ the deal and its damaging consequences on our communities, making it difficult to attack the government for its shortcomings, falsehoods and failures as they become clear. It seems extremely short-sighted to sign up to an agreement that we know will harm the British public just as that harm is about to be revealed in day-to-day life.
Finally, it would maximise divisions within the party and alienate a large number of members and supporters across the country, including in the ‘Red Wall’, but especially in the former red block of Scotland and seats we can gain in England and Wales.
There is, of course, the argument that if Labour votes against the deal and is joined by European Research Group ultra-Brexiteers, we might defeat it and cause a no-deal Brexit – the worst possible outcome for the country. But a no-deal Brexit is the consequence of the Conservatives’ failure to negotiate a deal. There is no actual requirement for a parliamentary vote to enact the deal. The risk of it failing to pass is low, anyway, as the SNP is likely to abstain, and any ERG revolt will be small. The vote is about who we are and what we stand for.
Although it is frustrating to be in this position, it is clear that abstention is the most honest and practical course of action, combined with a position statement setting out the party’s views, values and vision for the Britain’s place in the world to send a clear message to the country. Labour simply cannot positively endorse a Brexit that fails to provide the safeguards Johnson pledged and Labour demanded, and should not give its assent to meekly tagging along with an historic act of national self-harm.
Some fear that not supporting the deal would put the party in conflict with those in the electorate who voted to ‘get Brexit done’ in December. But those voters did not want a bad-deal Brexit, and they did not vote to lose their jobs or decimate local manufacturing. On the contrary, reassured by Johnson’s promise of an “oven-ready deal”, they voted in expectation of getting a quick, good and smooth deal that would bring jobs and prosperity to those communities that have felt left behind. But the government’s incompetence, fraudulence or malevolence has led to failure.
We have to be the party that has warned the people of the harm of this Tory deal, that has been clear about what should have been done better, and has refused to approve ‘Boris’s Brexit’ that will cause economic and social harm to the country. Our focus must be on building trust and support, in the difficult conditions that ‘Boris’s Brexit’ will now make worse. Honesty and consistency are fundamental to that – and abstention is the strong, honest stance when it is not possible to either support a damaging ‘yes’ or a potentially harmful ‘no’.