David Martin MEP

Labour Member of the European Parliament and one of the six MEPs representing Scotland in Brussels and Strasbourg

Labour's foolish Article 50 decision has given Brexit idealogues a blank cheque

Herald AGENDA 15 May 2017

So after a heroic effort to introduce meaningful changes to the Article 50 bill by the Labour Lords, it has finally gone through parliament, unamended.

The real fight to amend the Article 50 bill starts now, as Jeremy Corbyn might say.
I don’t blame the Lords for not wanting to send the amendments back to the Commons again. The Labour leadership have made their position clear and parliamentary ping pong unfortunately won’t change that.

Labour’s initial three-line whip to vote for the paltry 137-word piece of legislation whether our amendments were accepted or not was poor tactically, but even worse when measured against our principles. By voting with the government on this bill, they have essentially given the Brexit ideologues a blank cheque, including the most disastrous of all options, leaving without a deal at all.

Most inexplicably, they seem to have swallowed the barmy Tory line that a referendum result that aimed to bring back sovereignty to the British parliament should, in effect, mean a huge transfer of political power from parliamentarians to the executive.

With 47 honourable exceptions, I believe Labour has made a serious error of judgement. Strategically, there appears to be a strong sentiment that the battle is lost and we need to move on in order to retain and regain trust in the party. The people voted one way, so we cannot be seen to be subverting their will, so the argument goes. History will judge us if we do.

I would say that this is a very short-term view of history. Yes, immediately after the vote there would be the predictable attacks from the usual suspects in the media, but given they mostly supported Brexit anyway, this is to be expected. Contrary to the balance in reporting on the EU evident in the UK media, the balance of opinion on the EU nationwide is on a knife-edge. I am not sure how much credence to give to the reports of post-referendum regret amongst leave voters, but I am convinced that once the reality starts to bite, then the majority public will swing back to a pro-EU position.

What the Leave campaign didn’t tell us is that a Brexit on Tory terms will lead to a dramatic restructuring of the British economy. Our European partners are clear, any deal must be worse than we have now, and increasingly it seems we are being prepared for the cliff edge and no deal at all. As businesses face barriers to our closest and largest market, they will inevitably cut back, risking jobs and livelihoods. In addition, there is no guarantee that replacement markets can and will be found elsewhere - just some bluster about Empire 2.0. Anyone who knows about trade will tell you: you can talk about the ‘Anglosphere’ as much as you want, but when it comes to exports and imports, geography still matters.
Beyond economics, when we warned about the potential for Brexit to break up the United Kingdom we were laughed at. It doesn’t seem so funny now, does it?

You may of course say that even with Labour voting against the unamended bill, it would have gone through anyway. That is probably true, but oppositions are there to oppose, and outside the Houses of Parliament, it would have sent a strong signal to those who are most immediately vulnerable - that Labour is a party that supports them.

Unfortunately, Keir Starmer’s admirable rhetoric on EU citizens before the vote had already been undermined by the party’s actions in the chamber. By voting to trigger Article 50 on Tory terms, we have sadly made their plight more difficult. As the broken manifesto promises in the budget serve to illustrate, this is a government you cannot trust on their word. So when Theresa May and other top Tories say they want to guarantee EU citizens’ rights post-Brexit, I prefer to judge them on their actions.

Actions like the recent Home Office changes (snuck through before Brexit) that now mean thousands of husbands, wives, brothers and sisters, and other people that call the UK home now face an anxious wait to see if their applications for residence will be accepted. Since June 23 last year, over a quarter of EU citizens applying have had their applications rejected, often because they hadn’t followed rules that they weren’t even told about.

I know that my Labour MP colleagues care just as much as I do about this issue, but you can imagine the effect that the Labour position has had on the morale of worried EU citizens and their families. 

More broadly, if protecting the rights of three million residents of this country was not enough to make a stand, then what is?

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