Jeremy Corbyn is instructing his party to vote with the government on triggering Article 50. Labour MPs are under a three-line whip to help Theresa May begin the Brexit process. A dozen or so are breaking rank – two of whom have resigned from the frontbench to rebel – and some are undecided, but most are on board.
This means that Labour is in the uncomfortable position of enabling Brexit: an outcome it campaigned against in the build-up to the referendum. A position that not only strays from its previous stance and supports a Tory government, but puts it at odds with the two-thirds of Labour voters who backed Remain and fellow left-of-centre opposition parties in the House of Commons: the SNP, Lib Dems, SDLP, and the Green MP Caroline Lucas.
It’s a perfectly reasonable stance for two reasons. First, because Labour MPs want to represent their constituents. This is to avoid losing their jobs, and because they see it as their duty to speak up for their voters in the Commons.
Most Labour seats are majority Brexit, even if more of the party’s voters backed Remain. In fact, seven in ten Labour-held constituencies voted Leave. It is all too easy for Labour to imagine a Scotland-style defeat in the Brexit “heartlands” if it is seen to oppose the referendum result. As my colleague Stephen revealed this week, polling presented to the party leadership earlier this week showed that two-thirds of voters prioritise their EU referendum stance above party loyalty.
The second reason is that it’s the democratic thing to do to “respect the will of the people”. To many, it doesn’t feel right to oppose a referendum result just because it wasn’t the result you wanted. Corbyn has the added advantage that he has long been sceptical about the EU – it’s easier for him to back Brexit in good conscience. Plus, Labour voted in favour of holding an EU referendum in the first place. It can’t even complain that it never wanted one.
I understand these arguments. I’ve done a lot of reporting in Brexit-leaning areas and interviewed MPs and other politicians who represent them. I see the dilemma. Your voters’ opinion differs from yours, your party’s reputation is damaged, the country sees you as out-of-touch, and your incompetent leader is compounding the problem.
But I can’t help thinking: if the Labour party is losing anyway, why not be on the right side of history?
Most Labour MPs know that leaving the single market is a terrible idea. Most Tory MPs know it, at that. Putting politics above economic rationality never ends well, and usually results in people being poorer, and politicians being blamed.
We already know that when the public feels worse off, it doesn’t necessarily vote Labour. Just look at the 2015 general election result after a recession and years of austerity. You can’t rely on the Tories’ mistake leading to Labour’s triumph in the long-term. When voters blame politicians for inflicting a stupid policy on the country, they won’t necessarily blame the “right” ones.
The right side of history will be to oppose Brexit. The side of openness, tolerance and progress. The side of avoiding financial instability, so that you can have some money to fund public services. The side Labour should be on, basically.
The wrong thing to do will be to nod through a bill that could result in Britain becoming poorer and more unequal – even a tax haven. This is the side of a shrinking state, massive deregulation and low tax. The side Labour definitely, definitely shouldn’t be on.
The Lib Dems know this, which is why they’ve positioned themselves as the anti-Brexit party – ready to vote down Article 50 unless voters are given a second referendum on the final exit deal. Deciding the “destination”, rather than just the “departure”, as they put it. And to pick up pro-EU votes in the process.
Most Labour MPs would argue that an anti-Brexit stance would make a Labour government less likely, and this would be bad for voters. And it’s true. It could batter Labour electorally to block Article 50. But they’re getting battered in the polls anyway. And polls tend to overestimate Labour support, as we saw so starkly in 2015. Plus, its seats are getting monstered in the boundary review. If the current outlook is anything to go by, it will be out of power for a very long time, whether it opposes Brexit or not. At least being on the right side of history now would appeal to voters when history comes to judge the Brexiteers.