This week the European Union Withdrawal Bill amendments from the House of Lords returned to the House of Commons for voting. There are good reasons to reform the House of Lords but it has a useful function in going through Bills and proposing improvements. So it would make good sense for the House of Commons to pay serious attention to the amendments which the Lords had proposed. Unfortunately, good sense doesn’t usually decide how the House of Commons will proceed, so despite Labour wanting more time to consider the amendments properly, the government rushed all the amendments through in two days.
There has been some misunderstanding about these votes. Firstly, they were not about whether we are going to leave the EU. Labour respect the referendum result. But we also recognise the damage that leaving the EU is likely to do to jobs and the economy. We are determined to fight for the best possible Brexit deal that protects jobs, the economy, citizens’ rights and the environment. We don’t think it is unreasonable to demand that the government should achieve the benefits that they told us we could have. When people voted to leave the EU they voted for free trade, more money to spend on the NHS, greater democratic control in the Westminster Parliament rather than in Brussels, and a fairer but stricter control on immigration from the rest of Europe. If the Conservative Government fail to achieve those things, then it will be them who are letting the British people down and failing to accord with the result of the referendum.
Secondly, there were very many amendments. We voted on the Customs Union, the Single Market, protection of the Environment, empowering British Courts, giving Parliament rather than ministers control over the way European laws were taken into British law, rights at work, preventing a hard border in Ireland, and giving Parliament a meaningful vote so that if the Government fails to get a good enough deal we can actually vote it down. On every single one of those, virtually all Labour members voted alongside Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru and Scottish Nationalists and the Green MP for the sensible Lords amendments which would have protected jobs and helped us continue to trade with the rest of Europe.
Only on the vote over whether to join the European Economic Area (EEA) were Labour MPs significantly split. Some Labour MPs felt that, even though the EEA had been designed for Norway, and only covered them and Switzerland, Leichtenstein and Iceland, and doesn’t fit well with a Customs Union, they needed to vote for it because people would interpret abstention as being anti-European. A small number of Labour MPs felt that, because being a member of the EEA would mean that the UK could still not control the migration of people from other European countries, they needed to vote against it.
I can only make a difference as part of a team which is united. People vote for me because I am part of the Labour team. That doesn’t mean I can’t have views of my own, but once the arguments have all been heard, the team must decide what it will do. I could see the sense in Labour MPs abstaining when some wanted to vote Yes and some wanted to vote No. But we didn’t just abstain – we put forward a change to the Lords amendment which would have secured the main benefits without joining an inappropriate EEA group – only after that was defeated did we abstain on the EEA amendment.
It was the Conservatives who had no unified view. Government ministers made lame promises about protecting jobs and the economy, but all through the debates hard-line Tory MPs like Jacob Rees-Mogg continued to claim that Britain would benefit from simply walking away from negotiations, from the rules that keep us all safe at work and protect the environment, and from the trade deals that our industries need – including services such as insurance.
The arithmetic is that – on almost every vote – the government wins. So all the Lords amendments were lost, all the protections which Labour and the other opposition parties argued for were ditched; and it looks increasingly likely that the government – which still has no withdrawal plan – is leading this country into a hard Brexit which destroys jobs and undermines our economy. If that happens, and if the consequences are as bad as I think they will be, there is only one party which is to blame.