On Tuesday, as expected, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court’s November ruling on the triggering of Article 50 – confirming that only Parliament, not Ministers using the Royal Prerogative, can initiate the start of the UK’s exit from the EU.
The Government had no other option than to comply with the ruling. On Thursday, it duly published the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, the passage of which will give the Prime Minister discretion to send the Article 50 notification.
Before specific amendments to the Bill can be debated and voted upon during the Bill’s Committee Stage, MPs face a vote on Wednesday on the principle of the Bill, namely whether Parliament gives its consent for the Government to start the formal EU exit process.
For MPs like me, who campaigned hard for a ‘Remain’ vote last year, who still believe that continued membership of the EU would be in Britain’s national interest, and who are frustrated and saddened by the outcome of the referendum, the vote on Wednesday presents an agonising choice.
Since late June last year, I’ve been receiving a steady stream of emails from constituents about the triggering of Article 50. The majority have been from remain voters, but a significant minority have been from those who voted leave. Leave voters urge me to respect the overall referendum result and to commit to vote for Article 50 unconditionally; remain voters to treat the overall referendum result as a glorified national opinion poll, but to treat the local breakdown of that result as an instruction that must be followed.
In an age of online democracy, a growing number of constituents expect their views not only to be respected and listened to but also acted upon. I acknowledge that. And yet, as unfashionable as it may be, MPs are still representatives, not delegates. It is our duty to exercise our judgement on behalf of our constituents and, on that basis, to vote for what we believe to be the right decision in any given situation – even when that decision risks condemnation or being at odds with significant numbers of those we represent.
We are also accountable and must be prepared to set out the reasoning behind any decision we take. As a Labour MP representing a constituency that voted two-to-one to remain, I feel a particular responsibility to set out in detail why I think voting to block the triggering of Article 50 is mistaken, and why I therefore do not intend to vote against the principle of the Bill on Wednesday.
As I have made clear repeatedly and consistently since 23 June last year – before I agreed to become a Shadow Brexit Minister and long before the Labour whip on Wednesday’s vote had been decided – I accept the referendum result and believe that it created a democratic imperative for the UK to leave the EU.
Parliament passed The European Union Referendum Act by a staggering 544-53 votes. The referendum authorised by that vote was the largest exercise of direct democracy in our country’s history. More than 33 million votes were cast. It was a lengthy, wide-ranging campaign that culminated in high public turnout and a close but clear outcome.
Many have argued that the referendum was not legally binding. That may well be the case, but the arguments are not just legal – they are deeply political, and the notion that the referendum was merely a consultation carried out to inform Parliament sadly holds no water.
Voters were told that the result would be honoured and the vast majority expect it to be so. As an activist, I campaigned tirelessly for a ‘remain’ vote in my constituency, not because I was seeking advice from my electorate as to whether it was a good idea for the UK to remain in the EU or not, but because I knew full well that the result, whichever way it went, would be implemented.
I did not want the UK to leave the EU and I still lament the outcome of the referendum. But as a democrat, I cannot see how I can reconcile my belief that the result must be accepted, with a vote against the Bill on Wednesday that would seek to frustrate the process of putting it into effect. The Supreme Court was right to make clear that Parliament should exert democratic control over the Brexit process, but it would be a mistake to view their ruling as an opportunity for 650 men and women to re-run the referendum.
In any case, parliamentary arithmetic means that the Bill will pass its Second Reading by a large majority. That would be the case even if every MP were mandated to vote as their constituencies did in the referendum.
But even if the parliamentary arithmetic was such that defeating the Bill was a realistic possibility, I am not convinced it would be the right course of action. To seek to nullify the referendum result by parliamentary means risks, in my view, creating further social division, fuelling the rise of the far-right, adding to the alienation already felt by a significant section of the electorate and perhaps even sparking civil unrest in some parts of the country. As such, I respectfully disagree with those who maintain that, whatever the potential negative social and political implications, MPs should seek to overturn the result.
It is also worth considering what would happen if the Bill were voted down on Wednesday. Far from securing our place in the EU or chastening the hardline Brexiteers, it would almost certainly trigger a snap general election fought solely on the issue of Brexit that in all likelihood would return a Conservative Government with an increased majority to enact any form of departure they wish – an outcome I think the present Commons makeup gives us a reasonable chance of avoiding.
Determining not to vote against the triggering of Article 50 out of hand does not mean I am reconciled to giving the Government a blank cheque. My immediate focus as a member of the Shadow Brexit team is on amending the Bill in order to significantly increase Parliament’s grip on the Brexit process.
The series of amendments to the Bill that we have tabled seek to ensure that:
1. There is a meaningful vote in Parliament on the final exit settlement – to be held before the Government refers the deal to the European Council and Parliament.
2. A number of key principles are established that the Government must seek to negotiate during the process, including securing barrier-free access to the single market and protecting workers’ rights.
3. The legal status of EU citizens in the UK is resolved before negotiations begin.
4. There is robust and regular Parliamentary scrutiny throughout the Brexit negotiations by requiring the Secretary of State to report to Parliament at least every two months on the progress being made in negotiations.
5. That the Government be required to consult regularly with the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland throughout Brexit negotiations.
6. That the Government be required to publish impact assessments conducted since the referendum with regard to any new proposed trading relationship with the EU.
I know that a significant number of constituents, while supporting efforts to amend the Bill, nevertheless believe I should vote against the principle of it on Wednesday in order to register a symbolic objection to the very fact that Brexit is happening. While I understand the strength of feeling that underpins such calls, it is my firm belief that it would ultimately undermine efforts to secure those amendments and I therefore fail to see how it would ultimately benefit my constituents.
The real battle we now face is over the form that Brexit will take and against a vision of a post-Brexit Britain devised by the hard right of the Tory party. That is where the focus and energy of internationalists and pro-Europeans must now be.
The referendum result created a democratic imperative for the UK to leave the EU but it signified no mandate for the terms upon which we exit. Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech was written up as a clarion call for the hardest of EU departures, and I share the concerns of colleagues that there are fundamental flaws, inconsistencies and gaps in the approach that the Government have set out to date. But the eventual deal will not be decided unilaterally by the Prime Minister on the basis of her 12 objectives. May’s approach will be tempered by the reality of the lengthy and difficult negotiations to come and there will inevitably be compromises along the way. Of course Parliament must have the opportunity to shape the final deal, but the argument that the referendum result should be ignored because an acceptable outcome cannot be guaranteed is an argument for having voted against The European Union Referendum Act, not for ignoring the result of a democratic exercise that Parliament sanctioned by an overwhelming majority.
Rather than seeking to obstruct the EU exit process in its entirety, it is the job of the Opposition to robustly scrutinise and challenge the Government throughout the negotiation process. That means fighting for the maintenance of barrier-free access to the single market, for all the rights – workers, environmental and human – we currently enjoy, for a close and collaborative relationship with our European partners, and against the misguided prospect of turning Britain into a deregulated offshore tax haven. That is what I’ll be fighting for over the coming weeks and months. Throughout, the interests of the 32,806 who voted remain in Greenwich and Woolwich as well as the 15,809 who voted leave will be in the forefront of my mind.