The vote for Brexit in last year’s referendum and the election of Trump are part of the same shift to the right in politics. The left was divided on how to vote in the referendum. Now the argument has resurfaced on how to vote on the Bill going through Parliament for triggering Article 50, passing authority from House of Commons to Prime Minister to start negotiations to leave the EU. The Bill un-amended gives a free hand to May for a “hard” Brexit without MPs having a vote on the final withdrawal agreement.
Socialist Resistance argued for a vote to Remain in the referendum, not because we supported the EU (it is a thoroughly neoliberal institution), but because we believed that a vote to Leave would open the road to nationalism and racism. This is indeed what has happened.
We cannot now argue for another referendum to overturn the outcome of the one held last year. This would be seen as an affront to the voters, however close the result was. This is how it was felt in Ireland in 2008, when the Lisbon Treaty was rejected by 53% in a referendum. The Irish government then held another referendum a year later, through which it managed to overturn the outcome of the previous one.
A vote in Parliament now against the Bill triggering Article 50 would also be seen as an attempt to frustrate the outcome of the referendum. That is why it is wrong to do that.
Jeremy Corbyn and many other MPs have put forward amendments that would protect in the negotiations workers and environmental rights, EU nationals in Britain, and ensure that a “meaningful vote” is taken by Parliament on the final deal. The dilemma that now faces Jeremy Corbyn is that he has announced that Labour MPs must vote for the Bill triggering Article 50, even if all these amendments are defeated. Passing the Bill un-amended would give a free hand to Theresa May, Boris Johnson and David Davis to pursue a “hard” Brexit. This would deepen and accelerate neoliberal attacks.
The tactic on voting on the Bill is now the subject of intense discussion on the left. Manuel Cortes, TSSA general secretary and a Corbyn supporter, argues in the the Guardian of the 7 February, that he “supported Labour’s vote in favour of article 50 last week, but the bill should not be allowed to pass un-amended,” and to defy the Labour whip if necessary.
Corbyn, as well as Labour, Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru MPs should not frustrate the outcome of the referendum, but they should also not give the Tories a free hand by voting for the Bill un-amended. Voting for would be seen as falling at the first hurdle of a two-year long process and failing to oppose May’s hard Brexit. That means that at the final reading, MPs should abstain on the Bill.
Abstention allows MPs to show that they neither endorse May’s hard Brexit, nor that they are frustrating the referendum. Abstention on May’s hard Brexit allows Corbyn to reach out to the new young movement, which has sprung up since Trump’s election and which understands that Brexit and Trump are part of the same process. Abstention would also allow Labour MPs that are Corbyn supporters in constituencies with a high “Remain” vote in the referendum not to go against their constituents, and to respect a whip.
Corbyn and McDonnell envisage a sort of parliamentary guerilla war against the Tories during the next two years. That has its merits as it can stimulate divisions amongst the Tories, and prepare for a closer working relationship with the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. This could be a step forward in preparing the way for a Corbyn-led anti-austerity government after the next general election.
Whatever voting tactic is eventually adopted by Corbyn on the Bill triggering Article 50, the key issue now is to mobilise to put pressure on MPs and government to ensure the content of the “withdrawal” agreement defends workers and environmental rights. The first milestone in the mobilisation is the demonstration on Saturday 4 March for the NHS. The NHS is the Tories weakest point, and the demonstration should be the biggest for years.
In preparation for the parliamentary guerrilla war and the mobilisations, Corbyn and McDonnell should develop some sort of “Charter of Citizens’ and Workers’ Rights” along with an “Economic and Social Plan for post-Brexit”. Obvious measures would include the end to austerity; the extension and investment in public services and industries; taxing wealth, high income and financial transactions; and the freedom of movement as currently exists. This could prepare the manifesto for the next general election which is likely to take place when the final “withdrawal” agreement is being reached. The campaign for the general election would then be framed as a rejection of the lies and xenophobia peddled for Brexit, against austerity and for the renewal of the welfare state and public services.