Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Calling it right

Labour would not ‘be on the right side of history’ if it voted against invoking article 50, argues Progress deputy editor Conor Pope

The job of opposition is not to oppose. To say so makes a good tweet, but poor politics. It is the job of opposition to hold to account, and get the best outcome for the country.

A good opposition should, of course, aim for government. A very good one should effectively be a government-in-waiting. It is their duty to act in opposition as they would in government. Such responsibilities do not fall on the Liberal Democrats.

Brexit will happen no matter what Labour does when the article 50 vote comes before parliament. The leadership has taken the right step in saying we will support it.

To oppose wholesale would, in effect, remove Labour from the process of holding the government to account. If all you want from Brexit is for it not to happen at all, then there is very little room for success. There are two ways for the opposition to go absent in this situation: back the government on every aspect, or blindly oppose it all.

Should we face years of calamity ahead, an anti-Brexit Labour party that has spent five years complaining about it will not be rewarded. There would be no prize for ‘being on the right side of history’. Voters will not come to the point of view that they were wrong, but that politicians let them down.They will see a party that has no vision for how to make the country more successful, and is only interested in saying ‘we told you so’. It is not an attractive look.

Think, too, how the Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central byelections would go if Labour was to vote against the triggering of article 50 next week. Certainly, I would not be looking forward to my door-knocking trip to both seats this weekend. That would be a position designed to lose votes; it would be a stance that actively encourages a crisis in the party by creating further risk in two seats we have held consecutively for 80 years each.

No policy, of course, should be formed based on the outcome of two byelections. But what happens there is not in isolation: they are representative of much wider problems Labour faces in communicating with – and listening to – voters in its traditional heartlands. To come out against the result of the referendum now would not be the historically correct position. It would be a message to a huge swathe of our voters: ‘We no longer care about your support.’

Some say that Labour members of parliament would not vote to bring back hanging even if a referendum showed that it was what the public wanted. But if you have no intention of honouring the outcome of a referendum, you should be honest about that. Labour did not do this in the run up to 23 June 2016. We campaigned for ‘Remain’ because we respected the legitimacy of the vote.

For Labour members of parliament representing Remain-majority constituencies, other factors have to be taken into consideration, even when the whip is applied. But their circumstances are a minority – most often the small number of seats where the Liberal Democrats remain a threat. They should not affect the party’s overall view.

It would be a dereliction of duty, for instance, to have a free vote on the issue. Part of being a would-be government – which, despite it all, is what we should strive to be – means taking positions on the biggest issues of the day. A government cannot be without a stance, and neither can a government-in-waiting. Having already had free votes on military action and Trident renewal, offering no agreed position on Brexit would not just be failing at opposition, it would be failing to be a political party.

In the upcoming issue of Progress magazine, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer says: ‘It will be wrong for the Labour party to rip up its history and tradition of representing a broad group of people, as a broad church, and have no greater ambition than to represent half the country.’ While the Canary may disagree, I am inclined to believe we have got this call right.


Conor Pope is deputy editor at Progress. He tweets at @conorpope



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Conor Pope

is deputy editor at Progress


  • As far as we know, A50 is irreversible. Which means that, once A50 is triggered, we’re bound into a one way process with only two possible outcomes – we support Theresa May’s deal, or we leave the EU on WTO terms.

    And given that almost any deal would be better than leaving on WTO terms, that means that once A50 is triggered, Labour is pretty much bound to support May’s deal.

    Therefore any leverage has to be exerted now. This is counter to how it normally works in Parliament, where you could provisionally support a piece of work but decide that the bill itself wasn’t fit for purpose. You hold the Government to account by saying you will defeat a bill if it doesn’t include some of your input. The absence of a meaningful vote at the end removes this ability.

    As a result, far from holding the Government to account, triggering A50, particularly without amendments, is standing back and letting May get on with it.

    What this article also seems to imply is that the choice is between A50 and a Tory version of Brexit. I don’t see why that should be the case.

    Its open to Labour to articulate a form of soft Brexit that includes ongoing membership of the single market. That fits all of Labour’s red lines and their position on freedom of movement, while still honouring the outcome of the referendum. They could then seek to block A50 on the grounds that its a vote for May’s version of Brexit, not for Brexit itself. If that leads to claims of “blocking democracy” then Labour can propose going to a General Election where they will campaign for this version of Brexit.

    In reality, A50 will be passed anyway, given the Tories majority. But taking the above action will at least make it clear that Labour aren’t giving May a blank cheque, that they do support Brexit, but in a way that will be far more acceptable to many Remainers.

  • Any MP who votes for Article50 knowingly that it will hurt his constituents jobs, shouldn’t be an MP. Doesn’t matter if constituency voted Leave or Remain, the MP should vote based on what’s best for his constituents. It’s time that Labour acts like opposition and provide voters with alternative to this catastrophic Tory government who just wants to use Brexit to hurt workers rights. If Labour is loyal to its principles as internationalist party, it has to vote AGAINST article 50. Labour should only vote for article 50 if there is a written guarantee from the government that it will keep Britain in the single market. If there isn’t such a guarantee than it’s our moral duty to vote against.

    The article 50 will be triggered regardless and then our job is to ensure there is a vote on the final deal. If deal is bad we have to reject it, and work on reversing article 50, as it would be better to remain EU member.

  • The problem with trying to be on the ‘right side of history’ is that history is not pre-determined. There is a case for being the party that argues for what is right for the country, and for the future prosperity and well-being of the people, even if it is not the most popular position at the moment.

  • If Brexit will happen no matter what Labour does when the article 50 vote comes before parliament the all the more reason that we should be on the right side of history in being true to party policy and the wishes of the overwhelming views of Labour voters in opposing this monumental economic and social folly. Of course we won’t, since Calamity Corbyn rarely finds an argument that he can’t manage to position us on the wrong side of.

  • Respecting a referendum result means respecting the REASONS for the result. It does not mean respecting those who found it expedient to hold a referendum.

    A key reason behind the “Leave” vote was immigration i.e. social dumping that is allowed /encouraged by certain EU Member States.

    A Labour government-in-waiting would, for starters, argue within the EU to end social dumping immediately.

    “End social dumping” is precisely what the European Parliament has told the Commission and the Council of Ministers. On 7 January it issued a Draft Report on social dumping in the European Union (2015/2255(INI)) prepared by its Committee on Employment and Social Affairs.

    This is an important first step to protect British people seeking work in wealthier EU states and people from new Member States seeking work in the UK. For example it calls for “wage floors” set at 60% of national average wages as a part of a “social convergence” package.

    This is the principled way. This is the right side of history.

    Amend the Art 50 Bill not just on process (as Corbyn wants) but on substance. … if the EU adopts anti-social dumping legislation it will withdraw its Art 50 application.

  • Its the job of Government to govern and the job of the opposition to propose and oppose. The discussion around A50 seems to put it in the same class as a general meeting where the majority is to leave and that is that. Well unfortunately its not the reality, having played the referendum game for the Tories we have returned to our representative democracy as defined by Buke. The Government has a majority and needs no help from Labour to enact A50. The role of the MP is to represent their constituency using their independent thought to do so. A50 is but a minor part of what is going to be a long process over many years or a very sudden shock in 2 years either way MPs must be representing the interests and aspirations of the constituencies and ensuring the aspirations and hopes of the ordinary working people are safe guarded. If they are clear on this they need not agonise over A50 its up to the Tories to get on with it and pass it. The great danger for Labour holding the Government’s hand in passing A50 as with the vote on the referendum bill when and if it inflicts damage on the economy Labour has no were to go but to be seen as part of those inflicting the pain not a defender of its voters.

  • I think Conor has got it broadly right, though his quick analysis of marginal Labour seats mentions the LibDems but not UKIP, who are clearly a danger in some marginals. I also like arguments based upon the broad flow of history (since I think that there is such a thing), though of course we might have different views on what that flow consists of currently (we don’t discuss this sufficiently). The bottom has fallen out of many traditional Social Democratic parties and we are having to navigate some choppy waters; but maintaining a united stance at this point in British history is important. The way we conduct ourselves after this vote is a much more difficult prospect, given the views being expressed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in particular.

  • No, that is very, very wrong. You argue that you are a government in waiting: then govern – don’t pander to mob populism. It is your job to decide what’s best for the country and its people, not ours.

  • The Labour Party will be held to account at the ballot box for taking a pro Brexit stance even though it was Jeremy Corbyn’s imposition of a three line whip that was required to force it to do so. He has to go down a one of the biggest hypocrites in the Labour Parties history.


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