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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