Despite the fact that some Labour MPs plan to defy itby Tom Quinn / January 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
One of the great ironies of Brexit is that while the European question deeply divided the Conservatives for a generation, it is Labour that is now facing the toughest questions. This has been brought into sharp relief in recent days, particularly with the resignation of Labour MP Tulip Siddiq from the front-bench.
The UK’s vote to leave the EU has put Labour in a quandary. Most leading Labour figures campaigned for “Remain,” reflecting their support for integration in general and the EU’s social dimension in particular. Voting for the government’s bill to trigger Article 50, which will start the withdrawal process, will be a wrench. Yet there was a clear (if narrow) majority for leaving on a high turnout in last year’s referendum. If Labour were to position itself in opposition to majority opinion in the country, it could find itself under attack for ignoring the wishes of the people.
If Labour voters had been solidly for remaining in the EU, then the party’s predicament wouldn’t be so acute. However, 35 per cent ignored their party’s advice and voted “Leave.” Even worse, two-thirds of Labour-held parliamentary constituencies are estimated to have voted to “Leave.” The European issue has highlighted a fissure within Labour’s electoral coalition: many working-class voters in towns in the north and midlands, motivated by a desire to control immigration, voted to leave; but more middle-class Labour supporters and those from ethnic minorities, concentrated in metropolitan areas, especially London, were more likely to vote to “Remain.”
There has emerged recognition among most at the top of the party that it could not ignore the referendum. Labour’s support for invoking Article 50 had already become clear long before the government’s defeat in the Supreme Court last week. But that still leaves some Labour MPs facing a dilemma. Those representing “Remain” constituencies must consider whether voting for Article 50 will antagonise their supporters, perhaps precipitating electoral losses to the Liberal Democrats. Staunch Remainers representing “Leave” constituencies must also decide whether to defy their constituents (two—Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt—have avoided the dilemma by leaving parliament).
Not wanting to be seen to frustrate Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn will impose a three-line whip on his MPs to vote for triggering Article 50. Several representing (solidly “Remain”) London constituencies have already said they will ignore it and oppose the government. Siddiq, who represents the constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, may not be the only Labour MP to resign; a sizable rebellion looks likely.
Corbyn might have decided to allow his MPs a free vote on invoking Article 50. However, that would have advertised the fact that Labour had no collective position on the most important issue in British politics for a generation. Labour is already losing support from “Leave” voters: the latest YouGov poll shows that just 13 per cent of voters who backed “Leave” in 2016 now support Labour, less than half the proportion of Leavers supporting UKIP and a quarter of those supporting the Conservatives (Labour leads among Remainers but stands on only 36 per cent, with the Conservatives on 28 per cent and the Lib Dems on 20 per cent). Labour needs to win back “Leave” voters to retain marginal seats in the North and the Midlands.
Finally, if the government were defeated in parliament on triggering Article 50, there would surely be an early general election. With Labour currently trailing the Tories by 16 points, and with few signs of any “Bregrets” among Leave voters, a Conservative landslide would be the most likely outcome. In the circumstances, and despite the embarrassment of a parliamentary rebellion, Corbyn’s choice of a three-line whip to invoke Article 50 looks the least-worst option.