On 5 November Jeremy Corbyn told the Sunday Mirror that Labour will vote in Parliament against triggering “Article 50” — the formal procedure for Britain quitting the EU — unless the Tory government agrees to Labour’s “Brexit bottom line”.
That, he said, is mainly continued UK membership of the “single market”, within which customs duties and checks are abolished and trade regulations are uniform.
Better if he had said that the bottom line is freedom of movement in Europe — the freedom of EU-origin workers in Britain to stay here securely, for their friends and compatriots to join them, and for British people to work, live, or study in other EU countries with almost citizens’ rights, including such entitlements as public health care.
Since all sides now more or less concede that Britain cannot stay in the “single market” without also continuing freedom of movement — presumably with European Economic Area membership, or a sort of EU semi-membership, like Norway — it comes to much the same thing.
Then Labour’s right-wing deputy leader Tom Watson intervened to say that Labour would push “single-market” amendments, but would vote for “Article 50” regardless. Corbyn seems to have deferred to Watson.
Corbyn’s initial stance was right, and Watson is wrong. When the judges ruled that Parliament must vote on “Article 50”, that was an assertion of democratic norms.
The Tory government, in its legal dispute with the judges, has taken its stance on “Royal Prerogative”, the most undemocratic feature of British politics, the residue from the old absolute monarchy, the supposed right of the government to bypass Parliament.
The referendum result of 23 June creates no compelling democratic mandate for the abolition of freedom of movement, or for that matter the removal of EU citizen rights from over 50 million people. Or to impose the re-entrenchment of partition in Ireland. Or trigger the erection of a further probable new border between England and Scotland.
Aside from the facts that 16 and 17 year olds were excluded; that EU citizens living here were also excluded (though they can vote in local authority elections); that the referendum was run on poor electoral registers; and that opinion polls now show a Remain majority, the referendum could create no mandate for any particular form of Brexit. The Brexit campaigners were definite only on promises which they would scrap on 24 June (£350 million more each week for the NHS) and vague on the hugely different post-Brexit models (Norway? Switzerland? Canada? Albania? Singapore?)
It is more democratic for Parliament to decide the terms of Brexit negotiations than for May’s Cabinet to do it behind closed doors.
May has given secret assurances to the Nissan bosses. Labour should demand she give public assurances to migrant workers, and to workers and students who may want to migrate.
Maybe the combined votes of Labour, Lib-Dems, SNP, and Europe-minded Tories will be able to win terms to “soften” Brexit. That will be good.
If May refuses to trigger “Article 50” on “softened” terms, insists on “hard” Brexit, and can’t get it, then that’s her problem, and Labour should not help her out of it. It will be good, not bad, if the government cannot pass “Article 50” through Parliament — that is, if Parliament, in one way or another, upholds the rights of migrant workers.
Jeremy Corbyn told the Sunday Mirror that he welcomed the prospect of May calling an early general election. Activists should prepare for that possibility.
Under the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, passed by the Cameron government, May can call an early election only by engineering two successive votes of no-confidence in her government — not a good ploy — or by getting a two-thirds majority for it in Parliament, that is, only by getting Labour to vote for it too.
In circumstances like the present, where the Labour right’s relentless sabotage has given the Tories a not-yet-diminishing average 11% lead in polls over the last three months, Labour has an interest in gaining time to sort out the saboteurs, and a right to do so.
We have no interest in helping May to get a mandate from a snap election which she’d be fairly sure to win (despite “Remain” now having a majority in opinion polls), and which she could then cite as a “mandate” for hard Brexit.
Labour should fight every inch of the way to minimise barriers and divisions which the Tories want to raise with Brexit.