Does Labour Vote For or Against the Brexit Deal?

If reports in the press are to be believed, we are approaching the endgame of Brexit. Well, maybe not the endgame, but the point when we are denied access to the EU’s single market, customs union, and other benefits of membership which expire after the transition period on the 1st January 2021. After a period of grace, we either have a post-Brexit deal with the EU, or the UK crashes out and has to fend for itself in a way that no advanced country has ever had to do before.

The political shenanigans that are grabbing the headlines, with the departure of Dominic Cummings, and the proposed reboot of Johnson’s incompetent premiership, are signs that we are reaching a dénouement in the story of Brexit. With Trump now side-lined, the Vote Leave cabal will find no comfort or welcoming seats around the table from soon to be President Biden. In fact the opposite seems likely.

The question that is now of upmost importance in my mind is how will Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour Party respond? How will the Labour Party be asked to vote when the agreement that Johnson has had forced upon him is brought back to parliament? Will there be equivocation, as often happened under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, or will there be decisive and principled opposition to something that many see as an act of self-harm and self-destruction.

Sometime in politics a principled decision is the right thing to do, even if it makes you temporarily unpopular. Sometimes going against the flow of popular opinion is necessary if one is to establish one’s credentials as someone who will not sell out for the same of a few temporary headlines. Sometimes, a hard-won reputation for pragmatism has to defer the immediate, and seek to change minds and comprehension about the longer-term impact of a change in policy.

The weight of evidence continues to suggest that Brexit will be disastrous for the UK economy, and that the process of ripping the UK out of it’s established relationship with the EU will tear the United Kingdom itself apart. The warning of John Major have not yet been heeded by his erstwhile colleagues, but he’s stuck to his principles and time and events will prove him to be correct to do so.

In 2013 the long-standing economics commentator for The Observer, William Keegan, made this criticism of Ed Balls, then the Shadow Chancellor:

“Labour, fearful of entering the next election campaign being pilloried as the spending party, gives the impression of being trapped in the headlights. And just for good measure, those highly respected independent thinktanks, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Institute for Government, have lamely accepted that it is going to be a case of “austerity, austerity, austerity” for the remainder of the decade.”

Ed Balls equivocation then meant that Labour fell into the trap of being defined by Cameron and Osbourne as weak on the need to cut the deficit through austerity cuts, which meant that any subsequent case for public investment gained little traction then or since.

It’s arguable that Ball’s preoccupation with learning to play the piano and running marathons, rather than building a social movement against austerity, is what allowed Corbyn and the minority wing of the Labour Party he represented, to take over the leadership of the party. Corbyn offered a clear anti-austerity message, and while I disagree with many things that Corbyn represented, particularly on Europe, I agreed with his and John McDonald’s wish, and the many members whose views they articulated, that ending austerity and to investing in public services should be the priority of any future Labour government.

But we are a long way from having a Labour government, and Johnson and the Conservative party have a bigger majority in the House of Commons than at any time since 1987. What a mess for progressives who want to chuck out austerity. You can’t make a difference if you don’t win an election, and Labour has lost four elections in a row.

This raises the question, then, of what Labour should do about the looming vote on the post-Brexit trade agreement. There are two options. First, vote with the government and hope to demonstrate to voters that Brexit is now completed, and that a line has been drawn under the issue. Alternatively, to vote against the government, and demonstrate to voters that there is a choice and an alternative when it comes to casting votes in the future.

The advantage of the first option is that it gets a difficult issue out of the way, and that Johnson cannot label Labour as ongoing remoaners.  The disadvantage, as happened with Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, is that Labour is saddled with the label of compromise and expediency. Where is the red line that Labour will defend at all costs? This isn’t going over old battles, or diminishing the views of those who voted for Brexit. It’s safeguarding our national interest against destabilising and destructive vandalism, something that President-Elect Biden has made clear.

There will be no magic deal with the USA if the United Kingdom has no meaningful economic relationship with the EU. That’s just reality kicking back in now that the fantasy bubble offered by Trump has been burst. The circle cannot be squared. The UK cannot leave the EU without breaking apart. Scottish independence is now within the grasp of a group that would normally be considered as ethnic-nationalists, seeking to preserve the purity of a mythical Scottish exceptionalism. Northern Ireland may reunify with the Republic of Ireland as an act of expediency forced onto the Unionists by geography.

Given the looming economic chaos and damage, I can’t imagine how Labour can vote for this act of national self-harm, both on the grounds of principle, and when taking into account the effects in practice. If the forecasts are correct, then the economic and reputational damage of Brexit is monumental. Labour point to the damage that is caused by Brexit from a position of clarity, distinction and unwavering patriotism, putting the interests of the whole United Kingdom first before the narrow tribe of Tory ideologues. Brexit should be owned lock, stock and barrel by the Conservatives and the press barons who have empowered them.

Anyway, Johnson has the majority to sweep the deal he does with the EU through the House of Commons. Labour should not try to impede this by putting procedural obstacles in Johnson’s way, but nor should the party vote for the deal, whatever form it takes. This is Johnson’s mess, and the Conservatives need to own the damage they are about to cause, and have already caused.

Post-Brexit Britain may get grim pretty fast, especially when people realise that having one’s cake and eating it is impossible. The Labour Party must be the voice of economic sanity and pragmatism, and to ensure that voice is credible there has to be an inner core of patriotic principles that put the interests of the British people first. Not just in theory, as comes out of the mouths of Brexit supporting Tory MPs, but in reality as faced by people who are going to find it almost impossible to recover from a pandemic in addition to the loss of trading caused by a reckless Brexit.

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