The argument that Labour is in an awkward position because the referendum gave a small minority for Brexit is facile. Socialists do not put a primitivist, and abstract support for bourgeois democracy above their responsibility to fight for workers' interests. But, more than that, what is being asked is not even consistent with bourgeois democracy; it is instead fundamental to all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, i.e. that minorities cease fighting for their interests, and acquiesce in the rule of the majority.
The Tory MP, Ken Clarke, is quite right when he says that he has supported membership of the Common Market, and EU for fifty years, and that it would be ludicrous to suggest that just because of the referendum vote, he now had to act as though he was an opponent of it. He is also quite correct in saying that no such attitude is taken with any other bourgeois democratic election. On the day after a landslide Labour victory, such as that of 1945, or 1997, no one suggested that Tories like Clarke had to acquiesce in the rule of the subsequent Labour government. On the contrary, on the day after the election, not did Tories continue to be Tories, but it was their right and their duty, as Tories to fight tooth and claw to oppose the Labour government, to frustrate its policies and actions, and to try to overturn it, and turn it out of office at every opportunity.
In terms of principle, and in terms even of bourgeois-democracy, the idea that Labour has to roll over, and not only accept, but to adhere itself to the Brexit vote is ridiculous. Its like saying that if there was a referendum, as might have occurred in Nazi Germany, over sending Jews to the gas chamber, Labour, having lost the vote, would say, “Oh well, the people have spoken, and all we can do is to put down amendments, to call for them to be transported to their death in lorries, rather than cattle trucks”! Or, if Trump were currently, to hold a referendum, in the US, to garner support for his ban on Muslims entering the country, Labour would say, “Oh well, we lost that vote, so we will have to tag along behind Trump's racist and reactionary policies.”
The UKIP Leader, Paul Nuttall, has expressed support for the idea of a referendum to bring back the death penalty. If opinion polls are to be believed, such a referendum would probably go Nuttall's way. What then would Labour believe that it had to “respect” that vote, limiting itself only to trying to have “humane” executions, like it calls for “humane” immigration controls, rather than continuing to maintain a principled opposition to the policy itself, whatever “the people” had decided?
Labour can and should, obviously put down amendments to the Tories Brexit Bill, but they should do so on the basis of a continued, principled opposition to Brexit itself. Jeremy Corbyn was right back in June to say that the Tories should have come to Parliament to trigger Article 50. He was right, because it, was clear that back in June, the Tories had no plan to be able to do so, and calling on them to act, would have exposed the lunacy of the position Cameron and Johnson had created. Had the Tories been pressed to bring their proposal for triggering Article 50 to Parliament in June last year, we would already have had 7 months of debate, exposing the lack of a plan by the Tories, exposing all of the negative consequences that Brexit will have, and already bringing about all of those negative effects on the economy, that currently the Tories claim were forecast, but never happened.
The fundamental principle that Labour should uphold is that of the right of free movement of workers. But, it is also central to the interests of workers that they operate within the same regulatory frameworks of rights to pay, conditions, and benefits. The political reality is that those rights can only be guaranteed on the basis of continued membership of the EU. Whatever, amendments Labour may put down to the Tory Brexit Bill, the reality is, as EU negotiators have said, there is no choice between a hard Brexit and soft Brexit, only between a hard Brexit and no Brexit. Given that a hard Brexit is against workers' interests, the starting point for labour should then be to oppose Brexit itself.
But, what then about the other aspect that might the vote over Article 50 difficult for Labour? That is the fact, that although 65% of Labour voters voted for remain, 65% of Labour held constituencies voted to Leave. For socialists, it should always be adhering to your principles that outweighs opportunistic, short-term, electoral considerations. But, even in terms of those electoral considerations, there is no real basis for failing to oppose Brexit.
According to a recent survey presented on Newsnight, more than half of Labour seats that voted for Leave, have a Labour majority of more than 10,000. In other words, if Labour sticks by its principles and opposes Brexit, the chances of losing these seats as a result, particularly given that experience shows that leaving the EU, is only a minor concern for Labour voters compared to the issues of jobs, the NHS, housing etc., is remote.
But, even where Labour does not have such a large majority, the chance of losing the seat as a result of Labour now opposing Brexit, is also remote. Take a seat with 100,000 voters, where Labour obtains 55,000 votes as against 45,000 Tory votes. Nationally, 65% of Tory voters voted Leave, as opposed to only 35% of Labour voters. We might expect that in a seat voting Leave, both these percentages would be higher. Suppose, then that 80% of Tory voters voted leave in this constituency – that is 44,000 votes. A 65% vote for Leave in the constituency then equates to 65,000 votes. To make up the difference then requires 21,000 Labour voters to vote Leave. That would mean 38% of Labour voters, voting Leave in this seat. That would be higher than the national average for Labour voters, but is still way below 50%.
In other words, even in such seats, its likely that only a minority of Labour voters would be supporters of Leave. Even from a strategic or tactical political consideration, therefore, it would not seem to make sense for Labour to abandon a principled position of opposing Brexit, simply for short term electoral advantage.
Labour should oppose Brexit. Even if labour were to succeed in making amendments to the Tory Brexit Bill, as soon as the process is underway, Labour's hands may be tied. Labour is proposing an amendment to require that after any negotiations on the terms of Britain's exit, Parliament would be able to vote and thereby reject any deal that May negotiates. But, May has made it clear that the alternative in any such vote would simply be to accept the deal she negotiates or to leave without any deal, and thereby to fall back on WTO rules.
Labour is trying to get a commitment that instead, if any deal is not acceptable to Parliament, Article 50 could be revoked. However, it is not clear that this is possible. It will only be possible to challenge the meaning of Article 50, at the point that such revocation was requested. Workers cannot put their futures in such jeopardy, and uncertainty. Labour should come out clearly, now. Vote down the Tory Brexit Bill.