New situation after court ruling on Article 50 vote in Parliament

Notes from the front of 7-11-16

New situation after court ruling on Article 50 vote in Parliament

The High Court ruling that there must be a parliamentary vote to trigger Article 50 is the first time that the real world has been allowed to intervene in the delusional Brexit process. So far the leaders of the Brexit process have appeared to assume that a referendum vote to leave the EU means they no longer have to take account of laws, different opinions on the type of Brexit, the impact of economics or the interests of other governments. This potentially begins to allow some democratic and political scrutiny of what the gung ho Brexiteers are trying to impose.

For one the courts have made an entirely correct ruling. The High Court hearing did not last long as the principle was upheld that an Act of Parliament can only be overturned by another Act of Parliament, and therefore a parliamentary vote is required before Article 50 is triggered. This is not just about Article 50 and the EU: if no parliamentary vote was needed then the Cabinet, or some sub-committee of it, could simply overturn any law without reference back to parliament.

Socialist Action is for Remain. The economic results of leaving the Single Market will inevitably lead to lower living standards. Restricting the freedom of movement will have the same effect, despite all the propaganda to the contrary. Therefore it is vital to argue that at the very least the negotiators must start with the goal of staying in the Single Market, as the alternative will be economically disastrous.

Of course, in Socialist Action’s view this precisely exposes why it is wrong to leave the EU in the current circumstances: it is ridiculous to leave the EU while remaining in the Single Market, as the UK would be subject to the Single Market without any say in its rules.

But there are those who accept leaving the EU, who believe this will not be as damaging as Remain supporters argue or believe that the outcome of the referendum must be stuck to at all costs even if it is damaging, and who therefore also agree there should be sufficient mechanisms to hold the government to account during the negotiations on a host of protections, workers’ rights, environmental protection, health and safety rules and consumer rights and so on. Therefore consistent Remainers and those genuinely concerned to uphold those protections can make common cause in supporting parliamentary scrutiny to hold May and co to account over Brexit terms.

It would be impossible to hold the government to account if there were only a vote at the end of the two-year negotiating process. This would be a midnight hour deal, which would be take-it-or-leave-it as the UK would be heading out of the EU anyway. Conversely, a parliamentary vote solely triggering Article 50 would allow this government, an enemy of all those protections, a free hand. Therefore both are needed, and possibly other votes in Parliament in-between as specific elements of a proposed deal become clear.

Of course, there will need to be genuine negotiations, and this may lead to genuine changes of position as the UK wish-list may not survive contact with EU negotiating red lines, but if Parliament sets the basic framework it will inhibit this government trying to renege on any commitments it has publicly made.

Therefore, the position to achieve actual government accountability has three prongs. The first is that there should be a parliamentary vote prior to triggering Article 50 and that vote should set out the government’s broad aims in negotiations, on the Single Market and its ‘Four Pillars’ on the free movement of goods, firms, capital and labour. It should also set out its position on the customs union, membership of the European Economic Area and other matters.

The second is that there should be regular report-backs to the parliamentary committees monitoring the Department for Brexit to ensure those aims are being pursued, or are modified only in light of objective circumstances, with votes in parliament where necessary.

Thirdly, there should be a vote on the final terms of any deal that is agreed. This must include the possibility that the terms are rejected otherwise it would be meaningless. If, as is likely, there would be a clamour that popular will was being overridden, parliament could then decide to hold a final referendum on the question, ‘Do you accept these terms to leave the EU?’ This would be much more democratic that the original vote, which was driven by lies about NHS funding, that there would be both fewer migrants and more immigration from the Commonwealth, that Brexit would raise living standards, and so on. This would be a vote on concrete proposals, not reactionary lies and fantasies.

Without full parliamentary accountability on the terms of Brexit, this government will pursue the most reactionary agenda it can achieve. It is in the interests of all those opposed to that agenda to unite in favour of the greatest possible checks over this government.

Labour needs to be prepared for a general election

Following the High Court ruling that triggering Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union requires a Parliamentary vote and is not a decision the government can just take alone, there is increased speculation that an early general election will be called, possibly as soon as February.

June’s EU referendum has created a deep crisis in British politics, and the Tory government, which only has a slim majority, has only started encountering the initial challenges it faces. Three Tory MPs have resigned their seats this past two months, the most recent, Stephen Phillips, standing down on 4 November citing the Prime Minister’s handling of Brexit. More upheaval is inevitable as the crisis proceeds.

This summer’s coup attempt within Labour and the vilification heaped on Corbyn by the right and sections of the media have for the present harmed Labour’s support. It lost its one percentage point lead over the Tories achieved at May’s local elections and is currently running more than 10 per cent behind in opinion polls. Senior Tories are urging Theresa May to take advantage of their poll lead before Labour has rebuilt its support. Similarly disloyal elements on Labour’s right want an early election as they hope a possible Labour defeat would provide another opportunity to try and remove Jeremy Corbyn.

Given these circumstances the government may decide it wants an early general election. Labour needs to be ready for that, in addition to preparing for May 2017’s local elections which are already scheduled.

The left needs to focus on rebuilding Labour’s support. Under Corbyn Labour has proved very effective at negative campaigning, forcing the government to reverse a number of policies including on tax credits and disability benefits. Having suffered a number of these Labour-inflicted defeats, the government is more cautious about which policies it now puts forward, particularly given the possibility of an early general election. At the same time, a number of right-wing Labour MPs will not vote to defeat the Tories if they think this will aid Corbyn, which in part explains why 100 Labour MPs ignored Labour’s three line whip on the motion calling for a UN led investigation into Saudi violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen.

It is an important rule of elections that the party which sets the agenda wins the election. The Tories want to set the agenda as stopping immigration, and that this is the principal issue that must guide Brexit negotiations. Theresa May has pushed immigration to the centre of the Tories’ campaigning agenda since becoming leader. If the Tories are allowed to make immigration and other scapegoating issues the main battleground of the next election, then the right will win. Labour has to refuse to bend to this agenda and instead insist the election is a fight about living standards; starting by stepping up its attacks on the government’s economic policy failures and set out its alternative clearly, including insisting that living standards must be a red line in progress towards Brexit with Parliament and the electorate allowed to vote on the Brexit terms.

To protect people’s living standards, at a minimum Britain needs to hold on to its current economic relations with the EU. Leaving the Single Market would have a very negative impact on the economy, therefore maintaining Single Market membership should be a cornerstone of Labour’s economic policy. It is also the main demand Labour should place as a pre-condition on the Brexit negotiations, with any Article 50 legislation bought before MPs appropriately amended if possible.

As has been set out previously Labour’s economic policy is key to its whole system of potential social alliances. The mass of the working class will accept opposition to imperialist war, opposition to racism and other progressive policies, if it believes Labour’s central economic pledge is to make the population better off. So raising living standards is what must tie together Labour’s overall strategy. This should be reflected in the central slogan Labour picks for its campaign and its key policies.

Some of the pledges set out in Corbyn’s recent leadership re-election campaign need to be significantly elaborated so voters can understand the ways in which they individually will benefit from having a Labour government. Policy announcements of specific pledges can change the political agenda.

Lessons can be learned from what Labour has got right in the past and what it has got wrong. Under Ed Miliband’s leadership the necessary attention was paid to one area of policy to protect living standards – a pledge was made to freeze energy prices in 2013. The Tories then positioned themselves as the defenders of the energy companies and Labour moved up several points in the opinion polls. Unfortunately after 2013 Labour shifted to the right, adopted the Tories’ overall spending plans and failed to develop the energy freeze pledge and to add other similar commitments.

Labour’s pledges for the possible elections require attention now. Alongside the slogans picked, these pledges will form the basis of the forthcoming campaign.

US division

That Donald Trump has the even the remotest possibility of winning the US Presidential race is a damning indictment of US society as a whole. He is a virulent and overt racist who has already declared war on black people, Latino communities and all Muslims. He has the worst personal approval rating of any candidate in history.

The difficulty is that his opponent has the second worst approval ratings in history. Hillary Clinton has a long track record of public office. Her views on the US’s economic failure, its wars and the large-scale incarceration of black people are unpopular with many voters. There is undoubtedly an element of sexism against Hillary. Trump has a 38-point lead among poorly educated white men. Almost any other Democrat candidate rather than Clinton would have had better odds on beating Trump and the race would not have ended as close as it is. Against Bernie Sanders polls suggest Trump’s vote would be reduced to the racist far right.

The deep political divisions in US society in part reflect the extraordinary decline in living standards of the population over a prolonged period. Despite nonsense about a ‘US boom,’ real median household incomes are lower now than they were 17 years ago. Clinton represents continuity when many voters want change. Trump’s ultra-right ‘tea party’ politics only offer a change to bigger ghettoes, more militarized police, human rights violations and overt racism.

It remains the most likely outcome that Hillary Clinton will beat him, despite the lack of enthusiasm for her more mainstream right-wing politics in the electorate. If she does, the US will have a conventional right-wing president who is particularly hawkish on international affairs. If Trump should win then a wave of reaction will sweep through the US, that will encourage the far right internationally.