The duty of Her Majesty’s Opposition is to oppose is an ancient adage but one that seems to have fallen into disuse over the Brexit question. Almost half of those who voted in the Referendum did not back leaving Europe. Surely they have the right to be represented in the House of Commons, other than by 9 Liberal Democratic MPs and the Scottish separatist MPs who are as keen on breaking up the British union as UKIP is on breaking up the European Union?
But the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seems to have other ideas. This least macho or dictatorial of men has decided to start a fight with his own MPs rather than work out if leaving the Single Market and Customs Union is good for Britain. He wants them to support the government when it brings a bill to trigger Article 50 to Parliament after the Supreme Court hands down its decision, probably next week, on whether such a vote is required.
Typically, there is confusion about whether a three-line whip will be imposed on Labour MPs or they will just be “asked” to support the government. Either way, Corbyn’s intent is clear: Labour MPs are expected to support the Prime Minister, Theresa May, along with the solitary Ukip MP, the former Tory Douglas Carswell, who hailed Mrs May’s speech in Davos as being fully in line with Ukip thinking.
It is an odd decision personally as well as politically. Corbyn voted 428 times against the Labour government on whose manifestoes in 1997, 2001 and 2005 he was elected and re-elected. I remember seeing him going into the lobby against his party and government with that soft, wry smile of his and a shrug of his shoulders as if to say “I have to do it”.
But there is a mechanism devised precisely to allow MPs not to have to vote against conscience and constituency. It could apply to all Labour MPs who represent seats with a pro-EU majority and are aghast at the damage Mrs May’s ultra-hard Brexit line will do to the nation.
It is called a free vote and Corbyn would be advised to let his MPs have one.
The concept of one vote, one time, forever belongs to the Robert Mugabe playbook of democracy, not British traditions. We vote, elect a government, decide we don’t like what we previously decided and vote again. Edmund Burke, a Whig not a Conservative as Mrs May seemed to suggest in her Davos speech, said that MPs owed their constituents their judgment not their obedience.
Labour MPs who feel they have to throw away beliefs of a lifetime and start calling for Ukip-style immigration controls may think they are now in tune with voters who fell for the lies about £350 million a week coming to the NHS or 75 million Turks about to descend upon England.
That is their choice. But history shows that voters lose respect for MPs who tack and trim. There is no need for MPs representing pro-EU majorities to be asked to swallow their beliefs.
Labour has been in a permanent mess over Europe since Brexit. It has obsessed on immigration when it might be producing a Brexit audit in detail for every constituency on how loss of the Single Market, loss of workers in key sectors, loss of university grants, loss of retirement rights in Spain, loss of foreign investment will hit every worker in the wallet as well as reduce tax revenue for the social projects Labour supports.
Labour can say to Mrs May: “OK. You represent UKIP and Daily Mail-Telegraph Britain. We will stand for open economy and open society Britain”.
Instead Corbyn has made life as miserable as he possibly can for his MPs who now have to repudiate pro-European voters and majorities in their constituencies. Worse, he has deprived the 48% who did vote against isolation and UED (Unilateral Economic Disarmament) of a champion in the Commons. The nation needs an opposition. It is truly puzzling that Corbyn won’t lead one.
by Denis MacShane | 20.01.2017
Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe and a Labour MP for 18 years.
Edited by Michael Prest
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