How Labour votes in the House of Commons on the post-Brexit trade deal matters. Not in terms of Brexit itself, which happened on January 31st, but in terms of whether we endorse the post-Brexit arrangements with the EU that have been negotiated by Boris Johnson and bear little relationship with what he previously promised.
If Labour votes for a Johnson deal…
1. It would mean endorsing a deal with the same characteristics (outside the customs union and much else) that we so strongly criticised for the last three years. We can’t suddenly say with any credibility that it’s ok after all. The argument that we have to vote for it to avoid a ‘no deal’ outcome doesn’t stand up: it will be carried in the House of Commons if we abstain (and almost certainly even if we vote against). This is simply about whether Labour endorses something it previously denounced. It would make our previous opposition to Theresa May’s and Boris Johnson’s deal look as though it was simply playing tactical games in the Commons.
2. It would give Johnson the triumph of a massive majority for his deal, seemingly endorsing his negotiating strategy – including his threat to break international law.
3. Most importantly, in the longer run, it would mean that we also “own” the deal and its numerous consequences, making it more difficult to criticise the government for its shortcomings. The next months and years are likely to see many negative consequences of the deal beginning to hit the public. We don’t want the words “you voted for it” being thrown back at us.
4. It would maximise divisions within the party and alienate a large number of party members and supporters. The pro-Brexit right-wingers (John Mann, Kate Hoey, Gisela Stuart, and so on) have left the scene. The activists who campaigned with Another Europe is Possible, the Labour Movement for Europe, Labour for a European Future, Love Socialism Hate Brexit and more are numerous, and many of them would see any endorsement of Johnson’s Brexit deal as a betrayal.
They would not be alone: many of those who supported the attempt to find a less damaging “jobs-first Brexit” would be seriously disappointed to see Labour backing Boris. Generally, the party is uncomfortable when we vote with the government, even in cases where that is necessary. Where it is not necessary, there would be serious disquiet.
5. It would put us on the wrong side of public opinion. Recent polls have shown a record majority saying Brexit itself was a mistake. Even more will be critical of Johnson’s incompetent deal. Those criticisms are likely to grow as the consequences bite. This is true across the country, even in the ‘Red Wall’, but perhaps especially so in Scotland where Labour risks being outflanked by the SNP.
Abstention is the least problematic course of action. It would avoid any risk of a no-deal outcome by allowing the deal to get through even if there is a big Tory ultra-Brexiteer rebellion, but without giving Johnson a triumphant majority. And without Labour being labelled as meekly tagging along, reversing what we believe in and endorsing a particularly bad Brexit.
Abstention here can be compared to what we did on the Covid lockdown measures: we didn’t want to reject them due to the consequences, but we did not want to endorse an inadequate package. It’s the position we should take again here.