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30 December 2020

Labour’s support of the Brexit deal is the right call for the party – but a blow to Remainers

The Labour leadership has opted to prioritise gaining votes over winning arguments.

By Stephen Bush

To no-one’s particular surprise, the United Kingdom’s free trade agreement with the EU has been emphatically ratified by the House of Commons (by 521 to 73 votes). There was a small Labour rebellion with a similar composition to the rebellion against Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to whip his party in favour of voting for Article 50 in March 2017. There is a core of committed pro-Europeans across the party, ranging from Ben Bradshaw through to Helen Hayes all the way to Clive Lewis, who voted against the whip on both occasions. A handful of MPs previously bound by frontbench loyalty, such as Diane Abbott, felt free to vote with their principles on this occasion, while others who rebelled in March 2017, such as David Lammy, and Anneliese Dodds, who was not yet elected then but surely would have voted against triggering, have opted to stay in the tent rather than cause trouble for their project.

And then there are a handful of rebels who have no history of pro-European commitment, who are surely motivated by an animus towards Keir Starmer rather than any great principle, just as there were some Corbynsceptics in March 2017 for whom the most important part of the sentence “Jeremy Corbyn whips Labour MPs to vote for Article 50” was “Jeremy Corbyn”.

Of course, Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in favour of Article 50 was validated in June 2017, when Labour was able not only to gain large numbers of Remain voters but to retain most of its Leave supporters and even attract some new ones. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but anyone suggesting that Starmer has made the wrong call tactically needs a persuasive argument as to why not only the polls showing large numbers saying that MPs should vote for the deal are wrong, but why Starmer’s Brexit vote today will play out differently to Corbyn’s vote for Article 50, David Cameron’s support for light-touch regulation of the City of London, and Labour’s support for the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Historically, opposition parties have been able to back such measures and still benefit from their subsequent unpopularity. I am yet to see a plausible case as to why this time will be different.

However, Starmer’s decision is a blow to British pro-European hopes. The important comparison point may well be to William Hague’s doomed “Save the Pound” general election campaign in 2001. The reality is that Hague’s campaign did nothing to “save” the pound or prevent the UK joining the euro: that was all the work of Gordon Brown and his most important aide, Ed Balls, whose internal opposition to joining the single currency was the biggest factor in the UK never seriously attempting to join the Euro.

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Hague’s 2001 election campaign was a core vote strategy that, unsurprisingly, saw the Tory party tread water in 2001 and suffer a second successive landslide defeat. But it did help to advance Eurosceptic ideas and values and, in at least a small way, helped contribute to the 2016 Leave vote. Given that the margin was so small in 2016, everything helped.

Whether Starmer’s decision ends in success or not, he has opted to prioritise winning seats for Labour over advancing pro-European aims: he has decided his aim is to avoid a 2001-style second successive landslide defeat rather than to advance a wider political argument. Is that the right call? It depends on which of Tony Blair or William Hague you think was ultimately the more successful politician.