Last week’s High Court ruling has given the Conservative Government a shock. But the decision to ensure there is a Parliamentary vote on Article 50 is even more worrying for the Labour Party.
The Party in Parliament has a small but influential group of Leave MPs. Amongst them is Gisela Stuart – the highly respected German-born Birmingham MP who chaired the official Vote Leave campaign and flew the Labour flag so well in the big television debates. Graham Stringer, a former Leader of Manchester Council, is another. He argued persuasively at universities up and down the country during the referendum for a Leave Vote. Kelvin Hopkins, MP for Luton North, is a passionate trade union supporter who worked closely with those Brexit-supporting Unions like ASLEF and the RMT.
I spent a lot of my time in the referendum campaign speaking at big rallies in the North and North East of England and listening to the vociferous voices of disillusioned ex-Labour supporters, as well as Labour supporters desperately seeking a reason for staying in the party.
Night after night they told me – some in tears – of how abandoned they felt by Labour, how disillusioned they were with Labour’s Europhile position on the EU.
It wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn they were angry about- most of them felt that he really wanted to vote Leave. They blamed the London-centred clique who they believed were completely out of touch with the rest of the country on immigration and patriotism.
The vote to Leave was a gigantic shock to the entire establishment – it just never thought it could happen which was why, of course, David Cameron allowed a referendum in the first place. A senior figure in the Foreign Office told me very recently that civil servants were only just coming to terms with the fact that the UK was really leaving. For years they had been immersed in the EU. Nothing else mattered. Now they were having to face up to the fact that the Commonwealth, which they had for so long downgraded, was going to be increasingly important.
It is a similar story with Labour. Since Neil Kinnock’s time as leader the Party mantra has been to be good Europeans. Indeed, I remember being told as much by Tony Blair when I first became a Home Office Minister under Jack Straw with responsibility for dealing with Justice and Home Affairs in the EU. We had a veto in those days, but even then the Foreign Office was always intervening to make us accept something we opposed in our area so that it could get a concession elsewhere.
The Labour Party became absolute supporters of anything the EU wanted. This appealed to a certain type of Labour Party member who saw the EU as the way of showing their progressiveness and their liberalism within the Labour Party.
But now the Labour Party is desperate to re-connect with its core voters. We can never win a General Election while our values as a Party are out of touch with that largely socially conservative Labour vote in our traditional heartlands. So unless we face reality on the Referendum we are doomed to lose many seats – in particular to UKIP if Paul Nuttall becomes its leader.
Labour needs to accept the referendum result, vote for Article 50, and argue for some red lines on matters like the protection of workers’ rights.
Theresa May should put forward a simple motion stating that “This House respects the will of the British public and so enacts Article 50.” This would then allow us to move on to the next part of the process and begin substantive negotiations, since these cannot start until Article 50 has been invoked.
The Labour leadership faces a choice. It can go along with those MPs in the House of Commons who just cannot accept the June 23 referendum result and will do anything to thwart it, or it can work to get the best deal possible within the framework of a vote to leave.
My view is clear: to do anything other than accept the will of the majority would be electoral suicide.
- Kate Hoey is MP for Vauxhall