The tensions are stark.
Jeremy Corbyn has previously argued forcefully in favour of the Party’s policy positions being set by members:
It’s about being open to the people we seek to represent; giving them a voice through our organisation and policy-making, and drawing members into political action.
Why not give members the chance to take part in indicative online ballots on policy in between annual conferences – and give our grassroots members and supporters a real say?
And we know that 87% of Labour’s membership wants the UK to remain in the single market and over 78% want a vote on the final deal (link).
But Jeremy Corbyn’s voting record on the EU before he became leader and his actions since becoming leader have led to a sense amongst many that Brexit will be an exception to his vision of direct democracy.
And this poses a major political headache for Labour.
Labour outperformed expectations in the 2017 General Election. But data from the British Election Study shows that Brexit was the defining issue of the General Election and that Labour’s relative – after all, it received 55 seats fewer than the Conservatives – success was attributable to it gathering votes from those who perceived it as the party of Soft, or No, Brexit.
If that perception is disappointed then, all other things being equal, Labour will suffer badly at the next general election: those voters will have no or a diminished reason to vote Labour. It may be worse: some or many may feel a vigorous antipathy towards a Party that betrayed what they believed they were promised.
How, then, should the leadership reconcile its pro-Brexit leanings with its desire to retain those votes? The obvious candidate strategy is to signal soft Brexit positions but fail to take Parliamentary action to deliver them – and then seek to blame the Government.
And this has been the Party’s strategy to date.
The best evidence of this can be seen from the events of the Queen’s Speech. Labour’s Manifesto promised:
And a number of shadow ministers supported an amendment that respected that promise:
Whilst the official one did not:
Nevertheless, those voting in Parliament to deliver Labour’s Manifesto pledge were sacked.
So what are we to make of Sir Keir Starmer’s promise that Labour will back single market and customs union membership, albeit only during a transitional period? Is Labour listening to its members – is it fighting in a politically astute way for what they want? – or is it cynically trying to retain Remain votes at the same time as indulging the pro-Brexit inclination of the Party’s leadership?
We will soon find out.
The most obvious way for Parliament to control the type of transitional agreement the country has is for it to retain power to extend the period of operation of the European Communities Act 1972. That is the Act which means we are part of the European Union and which could provide for us to be governed by a transitional agreement.
In September, Parliament will be invited to agree to a repeal of that Act. The very first clause of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – the so-called Repeal Bill – says:
The European Communities Act 1972 is repealed on exit day.
But the “exit day” is defined as “such day as a Minister of the Crown may by regulations appoint.”
Now. When important stuff gets done by regulations the government usually recognises that parliament should have control over those regulations. And, sometimes, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill does. For example, if, in planning our departure from the EU we forget about some dusty bit of legislation that once made reference to an EU institution, and a Minister of the Crown wanted to put that right with a regulation, she would have to put a copy of her regulation before both Houses of Parliament and both Houses would have to approve it.
But not all the time. Because, when it comes to determining the date of our departure from the EU, the government proposes that there be no parliamentary control at all. And if Labour agrees to this clause it will be handing over to a Minister control over the date and form of our departure from the EU. Sir Keir’s promise will be revealed to be no more than empty virtue signalling to its Remain support.
Moreover, if that wasn’t clear enough, Labour will also, by agreeing to that clause, be ignoring that same Manifesto pledge:
If control over the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 is given over to a Government Minister, and with no Parliamentary supervision, Labour’s promise will be emptied of all content.
Crunch time for Labour is near. Are its promises this morning and in its Manifesto cynical virtue signalling? Or are they a genuine attempt to deliver what the Party’s membership – and many of its voters – want?
Is Labour’s promise real? Or is it yet more cake and eat it?
It is worth noting that what the Government proposes in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill also breaks a promise given by the Prime Minister in her Lancaster House speech:
I can confirm today that the government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force.
And by her Minister of State, David Jones:
we intend that the vote will cover… the withdrawal arrangements.
And if Conservative MPs want to guarantee that this promise to parliament and the electorate is honoured, they too should vote to amend clause 1 of the Bill.