Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to support the government on Article 50 is a colossal mistake [EDITORIAL]

Kerry-anne Mendoza

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will order his MPs to back the government when parliament votes on triggering Article 50, which begins the process of Britain leaving the EU. In doing so without firm guarantees against a hard Tory Brexit, Corbyn has made a colossal mistake. And it may well sink him.

A Tory Brexit

Voting to leave the EU is not inherently racist or foolish. Even those of us who would have chosen to remain in the EU cannot ignore its serious flaws. Particularly its anti-democratic tendencies. In recent years, the EU deposed the democratically elected leaders of Greece and Italy, and replaced them with pro-austerity technocrats. It is not ignorant or bigoted to question a continuing and deepening alliance to such a system.

However, the left-wing Brexit of greater democracy and protection from radical neoliberal austerity is never going to happen under this current government. The Brexit of Theresa May is about quite the opposite. The Prime Minister is more interested in dismantling hard-won rights. And cutting the taxes paid by wealthy individuals and corporations.

In order to protect Britain from the losses associated with leaving the single market, the May government has confirmed it would turn Britain into a tax haven – cutting corporation taxes radically to attract business. May is also committed to withdrawing Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights, and has steadfastly refused to guarantee working people’s rights after Brexit. The rights that ensure us all a minimum wage, maximum hours, and safe workplaces. The ones that all but ended sweatshop/workhouse conditions in the UK. Yet these rights may well end up on the chopping block as May courts corporations to stay in the country.

Dragged to democracy kicking and screaming

May wanted to do all of this without any annoying interventions from democracy. But the Supreme Court ruled against her, stating that parliament is sovereign on the matter. This means a debate and a vote must be held in order to trigger Article 50 and begin the two-year process of leaving the EU.

The Prime Minister’s response is a 130-word Brexit Bill that provoked a furious response from MPs across the House.

Labour Co-operative MP Chris Leslie stated:

The Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming by the courts to bring this Bill before Parliament and yet they still seem determined to gag parliamentarians as much as possible.

He continued:

This is the most significant law we’ve ever debated on our relationship with Europe and yet the Government will only give it an eighth of the time that was spent on the Maastricht Treaty.

And he was not alone. Labour MP Ben Bradshaw branded the bill as “contempt of Parliament”. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said:

This Bill is short and not sweet.  Given how long he’s been campaigning to leave the EU, it’s amazing this 133 word bill took David Davis such long time – that’s only 5 words a day since Brexit.

Article 50 is a losing game

The position of the Labour leader is unenviable. MPs within his party continually demand he adopt the anti-immigrant rhetoric that will tempt back voters that left for UKIP, while simultaneously revolting if he supports those same voters in their euroscepticism. However Corbyn responded to Theresa May’s Brexit Bill this week, Labour sharks would have decided it was a catastrophe.

But friend or foe, it’s hard to defend the course of action he has chosen.

Corbyn’s team argues that it’s acting to support the pro-Brexit democratic mandate expressed by the people of Britain, but that it stands opposed to a hard Tory Brexit.

Labour’s suggested amendments

Labour has tabled a series of amendments that it will seek to have included in the Brexit Bill that would:

  1. Ensure that the House of Commons has the first say on any proposed deal, and provides consent on any deal.
  2. Protect workers’ rights, securing full tariff and impediment-free access to the Single Market.
  3. Require the Secretary of State to report to the House at least every two months on the progress being made on negotiations throughout the Brexit process.
  4. Guarantee legal rights for EU nationals living in the UK.
  5. Require the government to consult regularly with the governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland throughout Brexit negotiations.
  6. Require the government to publish impact assessments conducted since the referendum of any new proposed trading relationship with the EU.
  7. Ensure the government must seek to retain all existing EU tax avoidance and evasion measures post-Brexit.

But the decision to force Labour MPs to back the government on the vote, before assurances have been made on those amendments, removes the bargaining power of Labour and the other opposition parties to get their amendments included in the bill. In essence, they are saying: ‘We demand you make these changes to your Brexit plans, but we’ll allow you to proceed unopposed whatever happens’.

Some argue that, as the government has a majority, it could pass the Bill anyway. So why oppose? Well, because we have a Prime Minister with no mandate and a pitched battle on this could trigger a general election that ousts her. Then, with an opposition government in power, there could be a far better Brexit, or no Brexit at all. Whereas last year’s referendum provided a mandate for Brexit, the general election could provide a mandate for the kind of Brexit Britain really wants.

Turning friends into enemies

It was possible to foresee how badly this decision would go down across the liberal and left-wing sections of the country. The Guardian claimed (falsely) that Corbyn had decided to do this prior to the decision actually being made. No doubt pro-EU elements of the party were providing Corbyn’s team with a glimpse at the future, should they make that decision.

The reaction was almost unanimously hostile. If the Labour front bench had been considering this move at the time, it might have been a good time to reconsider. But they didn’t.

Opposition to a Tory Brexit is shared by virtually the entire fleet of opposition parties – from the SNP to the Greens, and a majority of the Labour party. This decision has splintered chances of a progressive alliance. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are poised to hold a second independence referendum to keep Scotland in the EU. Meanwhile, the Greens and the Lib Dems are agitating against the decision vociferously. With this one decision, Corbyn has separated himself from all potential left-of-centre allies.

That might be survivable. But what he won’t survive is alienating the party membership who provided him with steadfast support until now.

From what we can see, support for Corbyn remains in place among his most ardent supporters. But there has been a notable silence or criticism from others. The mainstream media response has been (unsurprisingly) universally hostile, while many in the independent media have given tacit or qualified support. You can see these views at our friends Vox Political and Skwawkbox. As the picture develops, it will become clearer what harm or help the decision has done the Corbyn camp with their key support base.

Turning enemies into heroes

What we know now is that the decision has provided an opportunity for mutinous Labour MPs on the right of the party to mount a coup the public will likely support. The Labour front bench resignations have already begun, and two party whips (responsible for enforcing the vote mandate) have not only refused to whip MPs to vote for the bill, but will be voting against it themselves.

Game over?

Corbyn has chosen to back the government without guaranteeing that the most vulnerable people, and the most valued principles of our participation in the EU project will be protected post-Brexit. It is a decision that could sink his leadership of the party, and kill off any chance of a bona fide left-wing alternative among the national Westminster parties. This is a colossal mistake.

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Featured image via Rwendland/Wikimedia Creative Commons

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