Jeremy Corbyn wants to impose a three-line whip on Labour MPs to compel them to vote in favour of triggering Article 50. I think this is wrong, for the following reasons.
1. Even if we grant that Brexit is the “will of the people”, it doesn’t follow that Brexit on the terms proposed by May is. Some voted leave in the hope of staying in the single market, others for a liberalish Brexit that wasn’t focused on migration controls. There’s a case for opposing triggering Article 50 until it’s clearer that we really want May’s hard Brexit.
2. May’s Brexit means harder times for workers, simply because leaving the single market would hurt the economy by more than any free trade deals with non-EU firms would benefit it. It would also be bad for both potential immigrants and those already here, to the extent that, ahem, nativists regard migration controls as a legitimation of their own prejudices. This would be especially the case if the Tories use Brexit to turn the UK into a low-tax, low-regulation economy in the hope of attracting global capital. Labour should oppose this path, and one way to do so is to do so from the off. Or at least, if there’s a path from May’s Brexit to a healthy socialist economy, Corbyn should tell us what it is.
3. Most Labour MPs voted remain, and nothing much that’s happened since June suggests they were wrong to do so. To support Article 50 now therefore means that, as Paul says, MPs “will be behaving like a delegate and not a representative.” If Burke was wrong to say that an MP owes us “not his industry only, but his judgment”, why was he?
4. Many Labour MPs not only oppose Brexit themselves but represent constituencies that voted remain. What sort of model of democracy is it that requires MPs to abandon both their own judgment and the will of their constituents? Are MPs to become just the slaves of national opinion polls?
5. I’m not sure that a three-line whip would be electorally successful. For one thing, the fact that some MPs would defy it will increase the perception that Corbyn is weak. For another, voters respect people who stand by their principles. And for a third, any leave supporters won over by Corbyn’s stance might be offset by remainers defecting to the Lib Dems or Greens. Yes, Tom Quinn is right to say that Labour needs to win leave voters in marginal seats in the North and the Midlands. But it can do so by arguing for policies that really would improve jobs and living standards.
Now, I accept that there’s no easy answer here. Labour does risk being divided between liberal metropolitans and older workers in poorer areas who (wrongly) see Brexit as a hope for meaningful change. Perhaps the best way of managing this potential split is to allow a MPs free vote whilst trying to unite them around economic policies that really would improve prospects for people in left-behind areas.
Tom Quinn says this would mean Labour having “no collective position on the most important issue in British politics for a generation”. But Brexit is an important issue largely because it represents a threat to workers. Labour should be trying to diminish its importance by asserting the priority of serious economic policies. I agree with Philip Collins that Labour’s best hope is to “change the subject as often as possible.”
Let’s remember that Brexit is the Tories’ mess. Labour should try to rise above it.