Labour should push for vote before Article 50 is triggered – and oppose a general election

Notes from the front of 24-10-16

Labour should push for vote before Article 50 is triggered – and oppose a general election

The most important issue in British politics is Brexit. Unless there is a major war with British involvement, then Brexit is also likely to be the most important issue for the foreseeable future. Everything else is subordinate to that.

Voices have been raised that parliament should vote on Brexit terms, with the Government apparently accepting a vote at the end of the process. At the same time, Westminster is rife with talk of an early general election, probably in May next year in part based on the Tories’ very strong opinion poll lead.

These issues are linked. The Tories have created a crisis through their policy of trying to manage their internal divisions rather than basing themselves on policies that benefit one or other of the major classes in society. Proceeding with no vote prior to Article 50 and an early general election would compound that approach. It would allow the enormous Tory divisions on Europe to be exposed only after what they calculate would be another election victory. It would than leave any battle over the terms of Brexit as purely within the government, that is a Tory dispute.

Labour should oppose all this. Instead it should call for a vote prior to Article 50 being invoked. That vote should be on the central aims of the Government in the Brexit negotiations. Labour should also oppose an early general election, precisely because it would serve to keep this decisive issue as a purely Tory internal conflict.

As Brexit is the most important issue, the vote on negotiating terms should take priority. It clearly will not be possible to influence the negotiations at the end of the process. Any vote at the end would be to accept or reject the deal on offer and such a vote in parliament, or a referendum, would be a take-it-or-leave it vote on the proposed exit terms.

Therefore Labour should press hard for a vote before Article 50 is triggered in May 2017. This should be a vote on the Government’s aims in the negotiations.

Labour should be clear on aims. It must do everything it can to ensure that Britain remains in the Single Market, as leaving it would be extremely negative for the economy. If the Treasury’s central forecast of a 7.5 per cent decline in GDP proves accurate, this will only be the average fall in living standards. Workers living standards would fall even further, as firms acted to protect profits by driving wages down even further. As the fall in living standards unfolds, this Government will only become more virulently racist and xenophobic. The distraction from the crisis will become even more shrill and extreme.

The Single Market also naturally includes freedom of movement for labour. The Labour party should fight for workers’ rights and what is best for the economy, which means being for freedom of movement. Retaining EU membership also confers the right to debate and vote on all further developments, and probably also avoids increased Budget payments to the EU. All the other protections from the EU, for workers, consumers, environmental protections and so on cannot be preserved under this Government outside the EU.

Pressing hard for a parliamentary vote on the Government’s aims in its negotiations with the EU before Article 50 is triggered is the only meaningful way to ‘hold the Government to account’ on any of these issues. If a parliamentary vote is confined to the end of the process, this Government will have a free hand to do whatever it likes on all of these issues.

The Tories have never represented the interests of the working class. But the hostility of the CBI, Institute of Directors, Chambers of Commerce and the British Bankers Association to the Tory ‘Hard Brexit’ shows that they are not currently representing the interests of the main sections of the ruling class either on this decisive question. They are in fact representing the interests of their main social base, the petit bourgeoisie, small business proprietors, landowners, high-paid professional layers and so on.

Similar to the Tories, Chuka Umuna and others on the Labour right wing prioritise ending free movement of people over remaining in the Single Market. Those advocating an early general election as a means to oust Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour leadership are taking the side of the Tories against Labour. The Labour right’s focus on reducing immigration and removing Corbyn strengthens the damaging prospect of a hard Brexit.

The Labour party should stand for the interests of the working class. Workers will bear the biggest economic burden of the Brexit crisis. As it happens, there is an overlap between worker’s interests and the interests of dominant sections of British capital. Neither of these two major classes has any interest in this politically-induced contraction of the British economy. They both benefit from the Single Market, including freedom of movement, even if some in the labour movement are in denial on this matter. If Labour fights for the Single Market and freedom of movement, it will not get any opposition from big business.

But the most important point is that that this corresponds to the interests of the overwhelming majority, workers and the poor. They will all be worse off if the Tories are allowed to pursue their internecine, reactionary agenda after winning another General Election. What is required is a demand that the Government desist from peddling reactionary fantasies and face up to political realities. That means a parliamentary vote before Article 50 is invoked, to clarify what is being sought in the negotiations with the EU.