By Martin Thomas
Where did Jeremy Corbyn’s decision (26 January 2017) to impose a three-line whip on Labour MPs to vote for Theresa May’s Brexit Article 50 bill come from? The first pressure that way came from Tom Watson.
May has made it clear that the Tories will put limiting freedom of movement for workers first; will quit the single market; and also will largely quit the EU customs union (broader than the single market: it also includes Turkey, for example). Giving May the go-ahead is helping the Tories to pursue that agenda.
Until recently Corbyn has been courageous in standing up for freedom of movement. On 5 November Corbyn told the Sunday Mirror that Labour would vote in Parliament against triggering “Article 50” unless the Tory government agreed to Labour’s “Brexit bottom line”.
Corbyn stated the “bottom line” as continued UK membership of the “single market”, within which customs duties and checks are abolished and trade regulations are uniform, but it was clear that also implied continued freedom of movement.
Then Labour’s right-wing deputy leader Tom Watson intervened to say that Labour would put “single-market” amendments, but would vote for “Article 50” regardless.
Corbyn went quiet and evidently deferred to Watson and to the bulk of the Labour right. They argue that Labour must placate anti-immigrant sentiment by backing May on Article 50. They are ready to support May whatever version of Brexit she pushes.
Some on the left have argued in favour of Labour backing Article 50. Owen Jones wrote in the Guardian (19 January): “Jeremy Corbyn has no choice but to back article 50”. Paul Mason tweeted (also 19 January) that Labour should back Article 50: “Corbyn here is ahead of many metropolitan liberals/ left still in denial and hoping Brexit will not happen. Hard place to be but right”. But the initiative was taken by the Labour right. And appropriately. The decision suits their politics.
It is a reasonable suspicion that backroom people such as Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray who (like Tom Watson) have a Stalinist background will have pushed in the same direction. That tells us, not that Tom Watson is really left-wing, but that Stalinism is not and never was really left-wing.
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