Thursday 2 February 2017

Brexitwatch: how Labour justifies its support of Article 50 and my response

My MP happens to be Sir Keir Starmer, Labour's spokesperson on Brexit. I have written to him twice recently (see my posts of Jan 23 and Jan 27).
Below you will find his response of Jan 31 and my reply to it.
Dear Sir Keir,
I wrote to you and emailed you, so should I take your response below as a reply to both my letter and my email?
I find a number of fallacies in your argument.
1. You concede that the referendum was not legally binding, but you say it is still binding. This is to undermine Parliament and deny the rule of law. If Parliament had wanted the referendum to be binding, it would have made it binding. It did not. The law is what the law says, not what some section of the country wishes it had said.
I suspect what you mean is that Labour have decided it would be politically inconvenient to refuse to trigger Article 50 because there are a couple of awkward by-elections coming up.
2. However, even if you decide that you must be bound by the result of a non-binding referendum, you should not have been supporting the triggering of A50 until you had examined the government's promised White Paper to ensure that the Prime Minister has a credible plan for life outside the EU.
Labour made quite a song and dance about getting this White Paper, and yet you joined the Tories and UKIP in supporting the A50 trigger without even seeing it!
3. According to your arguments, and those I have had the misfortune to hear from some of your Labour colleagues, you are bound to support the 'will of the people' however much damage it is going to cause. It is the duty of an MP to act in the interests of the country and his/her constituents, so I am afraid I regard this argument as simply mad.
4. The Brexit that was promised by the Leave Campaign - ending Free Movement while keeping full membership of the Single Market, new riches for the NHS etc - cannot be delivered.
Sooner of later those who voted Leave will have to be told this. Whenever that happens, it will cause a terrible row. So better to do it now before millions of Labour voters have been impoverished, and thousands have lost their jobs or their businesses, the UK has broken up etc.
Sir Keir, you may be prepared to change your principles, but I am not going to change mine. As I have told you before, I will not vote in any election for any party or politician that facilitates our removal from the EU. Indeed, I will do everything I can to ensure their defeat.
There seems a dangerous illusion abroad in the Labour Party that this is all going to blow over. That the Remainers will eventually reconcile themselves to being dragged out of the EU. I believe this is wrong because every day people will be reminded of the rights they have had stolen.
 Labour's behaviour over the last couple of days has been a bitter disappointment. I urge you to get off the present disastrous track while there is still a Labour Party worth saving.
Yours in continuing sorrow and anger,
John Withington
On 31 January 2017 at 17:11 STARMER, Keir wrote:

Thank you for emailing me about the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill now before the House of Commons.

Please forgive the generic reply, but I have had many similar emails. Please also forgive the lengthy email – but none of this is straightforward!

Having campaigned across the country – with many members from Holborn & St Pancras CLP - for a ‘Remain’ vote, I was saddened and frustrated by the outcome of the referendum. For me and for many Labour MPs the Article 50 vote now presents an agonising choice and I have thought long and hard about the right course of action.

Although I am fiercely pro-EU, I am also a democrat. The Labour Party voted in favour of the Referendum Act, which paved the way for the referendum, and everyone who campaigned knew the outcome would be decisive. Some have argued that the referendum was merely advisory. Legally that is true, but the arguments are not just legal – they are deeply political and, politically, the notion that the referendum was merely a consultation exercise to inform Parliament holds no water. Equally the argument the leave vote was only 37% of those eligible to vote loses its strength against the argument that less than 37% voted to remain. Neither side can claim that those who did not vote would have vote either to leave or to remain. We simply do not know.
There is a wider point. Since I was appointed to my current role, I have travelled all over the UK – including to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. I have met groups and individuals, held public events, talked to businesses large and small and discussed Brexit with different political parties and leaders.

From this, the evidence is clear: as a society we are more divided now than at any time in my life. The divide is deep and, in some instances, it is bitter. Labour must play its part in healing that divide: it cannot do so if it refuses to accept the outcome of the referendum.

That is why I have repeatedly said that although I wish the outcome of the referendum had been different, I accept and respect the result.

It follows that it would be wrong simply to frustrate the process and to block the Prime Minister from starting the Article 50 negotiations. I will not therefore be voting against the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill this week.

The ballot paper on 23 June last year did not, however, give the Prime Minister power to act as she sees fit or to change our domestic laws or policy. That is why I have tabled a number of Labour amendments that would significantly improve the Bill and ensure Parliament can hold the Prime Minister to account throughout negotiations. I will be taking these amendments through for Labour in the House of Commons next week.

First, these amendments would ensure MPs have a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal – that means the House of Commons has the first say on any proposed deal before it is considered by the European Council and Parliament. This would strengthen the House of Commons’ ability to influence the negotiating process and mean that MPs could send the Government back to the negotiating table if they are unhappy with the proposed final deal.

Second, the Government should report back to Parliament regularly during the negotiations so that progress can be known and checked. Labour has also tabled amendments that establish a number of broad principles the Government must seek to negotiate, including protecting workers’ rights and securing full tariff and impediment free access to the Single Market. We will also try to ensure that the legal status of EU citizens already living in the UK is guaranteed before negotiations begin – a point that is long overdue.
It is also important to recognise that the triggering of Article 50 is merely the start of theprocess for leaving the EU, it is not the end.

Any changes the Prime Minister seeks to make to domestic law would need separate legislation to be passed through Parliament, whether through the Great Repeal Bill or more widely. Labour will argue throughout for a Brexit deal that puts jobs and the economy first and protects vital workers’ rights and environmental protections. We also totally reject the Prime Minister’s threat to rip up the economic and social fabric of the country and turn Britain into a tax haven economy if she fails in her negotiations.
As Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU I have been very clear that Labour will hold the Government to account every step of the way.

I know that many people have urged me to reflect the 75% Remain vote in Holborn and St Pancras by voting against Article 50 and resigning my post in the Shadow Cabinet.

I see the argument, but that would prevent me pressing Labour’s amendments, it would prevent me questioning the Government relentlessly from the front bench over the coming years and it would prevent me fighting as hard as I can for a Brexit on the right terms.

It would be to walk off the pitch just when we need effective challenge to government. I believe that would be the wrong thing to do.

I know that not everyone will agree with my approach, but I hope that my explanation helps.
All best,

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