Brexit: Labour’s Fading Red Lines

Labour is in a mess over Brexit and its strategy for the forthcoming parliamentary votes on triggering Article 50 is a shambles. It did not have to be this way, argues WILL BROWN.

Labour is in a terrible bind over Brexit. Whatever it does risks losing it votes and, potentially, seats. Some of its MPs’ constituencies are heavily pro-EU; others pro-Brexit, including Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland where by-elections are looming – a fact that is certainly sharpening the party’s dilemma.

Brexit door image

Yet, the leadership seems to have made a difficult situation worse and has ended up in a ludicrous position.

For a start, the attempt by Jeremy Corbyn to insist on a three-line whip for the vote on triggering Article 50 has very little chance of success. After all, the PLP’s leading rebel in past years has few sanctions to inflict on those who do not follow his line now he’s at the helm. It’s not as if Labour MPs are falling over themselves to be in his shadow cabinet team, nor competing for his grace and favour.

Why he didn’t allow a free vote, as he did over Trident renewal, is rather unclear. Deciding to wield the smack of firm leadership and then watching MPs defy him is the worst of all worlds.

Even more troubling is his commitment to vote for triggering Article 50 even if Labour’s various proposed amendments fail. If Labour is seeking to make support for Brexit conditional upon a series of very laudable demands – to maintain EU-level protection for the environment and workers’ rights, to ensure access to the single market and proper parliamentary scrutiny – then it has to be able to withdraw support when those commitments are not met. To be effective, ‘red lines’ have to count for something.

Labour could have made these conditions the centre of its strategy and then worked towards building cross-party support while threatening to vote against triggering Article 50 at this stage if they failed (which they probably, but not certainly, would). It could then revise its vote at some future stage if the government gave sufficient ground on its negotiating goals.

That would seem to be a principled stand – it doesn’t reject the referendum result outright but says the party will only accept Brexit on terms that mitigate some of its worst features. It would also make for much smarter parliamentary tactics that shift some of the pressure back on to the government benches.

Unfortunately, it seems the opportunity to do this has been passed and we face the unedifying prospect of Labour voting through the Brexit bill without substantially altering one jot of the terms on which it will take place. With Labour MPs voting every which way, the muddle over the party’s response to Brexit is set to go on.

See also: ‘Brexit: Do we Need a New Consensus?’ by Dave Berry.


  1. Jonathan Timbers
    7 February 2017

    The phrase from the frying pan into the fire springs to mind.

    There’s no intention to make employment protections stronger now we’ve left the EU. In fact, quite the opposite. As for immigration, that isn’t going to decrease. According to one former Tory minister, the government has already ‘suggested’ the construction industry maintain its access to Eastern European labour.

    They have been even more explicit apparently about seasonal agricultural workers.

    All we’ve done is reduce the rights of fellow workers from Eastern Europe. The problem isn’t the free movement of labour: it’s agency working and outsourcing; and more widely, the free movement of capital. That’s even freer now because of Brexit.

    And not all poor areas voted for Brexit: some of the poorest estates in the country in London voted to remain, as did many in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Aren’t they British enough to count in this debate?

  2. Ernie Jacques
    2 February 2017

    Will Brown is puzzled why Jeremy Corbyn did not allow a free vote on the Article 50 Bill in line with his position on Trident when Labour MPs, in an age of austerity, voted to support the spending of £200 billion on a weapon of mass destruction that can never be used.

    Really, might it not be something to do with a referendum where most people and huge numbers of working class voters, in traditional Labour heartlands, voted Leave? And that’s the point which Will Brown and many Labour MPs and members just don’t get insofar as Labour is in its “terrible bind over Brexit” not because of someone called Corbyn but because over 40 years and especially during the Blair, Brown and Milliband years the party lost its way by embracing globalisation, free markets, outsourcing and privatisation and trickle-down economics.

    For millions of working people, those who lost their jobs, were outsourced, suffered wage cuts, found themselves on precarious zero hours contracts or were forced onto bogus self-employed contracts aka Amazon delivery drivers et al, warehouse, care and retail workers, “Uncle Tom Cobleigh an’ All” the outcome has been, and is, calamitous, paid less than the minimum wage, with no holiday, sick, pension or proper employment rights. Many of today’s workers don’t get enough to pay NI and have no state pension rights. And while taking the trade union shilling Labour MPs disrespected those who tried to defend their jobs and conditions of employment by labeling them Luddites, yesterday’s men and inconsequential nobodies, unable to embrace modernism and understand that the world has changed.

    So, these traditional Labour voters got a good kicking and were left to rot on tens of thousands of sink estates across the UK while metropolitan Labour got on with the business of government, sucking it up to CEOs and the super-rich and any celebrity who would listen regardless of whether they paid taxes or salted their growing wealth in tax havens. Because the name of the game was proving Labour’s overarching business credentials and praising the benefits of light touch regulation. And when the financial services sector went belly-up those responsible– through Quantitative Easing – were rewarded handsomely for their greed and dishonesty while the poor and vulnerable suffered harsh punishment. Also, millions of unemployed and underemployed workers face routine discrimination by being excluded from the labour market as – aka Sports Direct – recruitment is outsourced to Poland and to numerous other eastern European countries.

    That then, William, is why Labour is in a bind insofar as it no longer represents the interests of traditional working class voters and those at the bottom of the labour market. Repeating the stale old mantra that EU membership and access to the single market is a guarantee of workers’ rights is not only political spin, its Orwellian double speak.

    To my mind, it’s a pity these Labour MPs voting against triggering Article 50, who are making so much noise to justify nullifying the referendum vote, don’t get as excited about the homeless, the hungry and the millions of working poor on zero hour contracts who struggle to make ends meet and pay their rents and energy bills, or get a little bit excited and noisy about the grotesque and growing practice, facilitated by Labour councils, of social cleansing.

    Labour MPs then should not ignore the will of the British people. Amend the Article 50 Bill if they want too, and can, but please don’t use Owellian double speak to re-run the referendum and remain in a European Union which is nothing more than an undemocratic plutocracy, with the C word at the heart of the Treaty of Rome and every treaty agreement since. In truth, it is an unreformable capitalist club.

  3. Harry Barnes
    1 February 2017

    Hi Will,

    Your final sentence seems to mean that if the Bill remains unamended in the areas you suggest when it reaches its third reading then Labour should vote against it. My position is that we should then still support it. Only if some anti-social rubbish is added at the committee stage of the Bill (which is unlikely) would I wish to see Labour oppose the third reading.

    The government should never have had to face a judicial decision before it placed a measure before Parliament in order to trigger article 50. It should have moved sooner in bringing a Bill forward. Now the matter has finally emerged with an intial two day debate, with the Speaker only accepting a wrecking amendment from Angus Robertson. The Speaker’s reasoning presumably is that as the Bill is likely to be carried, then the other amendments can be redrafted and re-submitted for the committee stage of the Bill. A stage that will go before the full House of Commons. The committee stage should, however, be much longer than has been provided for – otherwise some important amendments might never be reached.

    The government needs, however, to get on with the negotiations with the EU. As they are negotiations, they will need to be given plenty of wriggle room. For in negotations, you can be be offered (a) and (b) in parts, but only if you accept (c). Then if you spell out too much of your hand at the start of the negotiations, you might blow your chances of making progress in your own direction. By all means seek to influence how the government approaches the negotiations, but they must have room to strike a deal.

    If they come back with a load of rubbish, then we need to try and kick their proposals into touch and get them to go back to the negotiating table. But we might finially get to a take-it or leave position from the EU. Unless what is then offered is so bad that the nation is clearly up in arms about it (to the extent that it would then clearly prefer to remain in the EU); then we might then have no option but to accept what the referendum result had led us to.

    Negotiating some controls on immigration from EU nations (if these are not over the top) seems to me to be pragmatic given that it was a major reason for the Brexit vote, especially amongst many traditional Labour voters. An earlier article on this site by Dave Berry (who is active with Sheffield Momentum) seemed to me to press in this direction, from his close work with people with these concerns.

    But then we must also stress the other side of the coin, by pushing for decent quotas for refugees who come from the world’s trouble spots, a policy we should expect other nations (such as the USA) to adopt.

  4. Will
    31 January 2017

    Hi Harry

    Where we disagree I think is over what the point in the process which Labour tries to insist on its amendments. I am not arguing that Labour reject the referendum result. I am saying that Labour should say we will trigger Article 50 but only if certain commitments are made about the UK’s objectives in the negotiations and the process by which they will be conducted and parliament involved. I think this would have more purchase and be a clearer position to take now. You are arguing that it is during the negotiations and at the end point when the final deal is put to parliament that Labour tries to make its influence felt.

    I do agree that there are dangers in either path – I don’t think this is a simple decision. To try to insist on the series of amendments now may allow opponents to argue it amounts to rejecting the referendum result. I don’t think that is an accurate portrayal – you can argue for a delay to triggering Article 50 until your demands are met while accepting that it must be triggered at some point – but I do agree it is a risk that it would be portrayed in that way.

    However, to vote the bill through now without amendment also poses dangers. It may be presented as Labour supporting the government strategy as set out by May in her speech and in the white paper – a strategy Labour ought to be opposing. It may be harder to try to amend the government strategy once negotiations are underway. And it may be very difficult to reject the deal at the end point when it comes back to parliament. After all, that will be at the end of a very long and complex process and to try to insist the government goes back to the EU to unpick substantial parts of what has been agreed at the very point when member states will also be deciding whether to accept or reject the deal will be extremely tricky (it is for this reason that in the US system they sometimes use a ‘fast track’ process in which congress can only accept or reject a deal, not unpick bits of it).

    On balance, better I think to try to alter the objectives at the start. As MP Meg Hillier has said: ‘we cannot give the Government a blank cheque to negotiate on our behalf. For this reason I cannot support triggering article 50 without a clear set of assurances about what Brexit will mean for the UK.’

  5. Harry Barnes
    31 January 2017

    I opposed us having a referendum. Then when it was forced upon us, I supported us staying in the EU. But I also felt that Labour’s campaign for us staying in the EU was inept – although Corbyn did make one good speech which should have been built upon.

    But for years until then Jeremy actively believed that we should get out of the EU. His heart was never in the campaign for staying in. The position now is, therefore, rather in line with what he always wanted.

    But I feel that although I opposed the referendum taking place, thought it was pathetically run, and disagreed with its result, I nevertheless feel that we are obliged to accept withdrawal – and should not unduly drag it out.

    All the coming legislation does is set the wheels in motion for withdrawal. The terms on which we do this have still to be determined via negotiation. The government (and the EU) are in the driving seat on this. We can press for what we see as being the best deal from now onwards – including seeking amendments to the coming legislation. But if I was still an MP, I would follow the current three-line whip (although I would express my grumpy feelings). If a rubbish deal is later arrived at we should then fully oppose it, press for a return to the negotiations and push what we would like our case to be.

    Otherwise, where do we stand? If we act as if we seem to reject the referendum result from the start of the negotiations, we end up like the Scots Nats. They had a referendum on independence, lost it and then they keep looking for fresh referendums until they happen to get the result they want.

    If we refused to accept referendum or election results because the winning side talked crap, then we would no longer even have a low-level democratic process. I don’t think that we should attempt a parliamentary coup to declare the result of the referendum more or less invalid – even though it should never have taken place and was rubbish.

    In practical terms this is all that the Bill says:
    “(1) The Prime Minister may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.
    (2) This section has effect despite any provision made by or under the European Communities Act 1972 or any other enactment.”
    (It should, of course, say “will notify”, not “may” – we can’t ever theortically allow that Article 50(2) will not be triggered.)

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