There’s no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn has faced a backlash from supporters for instructing his parliamentary party to vote for Article 50, although it may not be the catastrophic split in the movement that commentators have delighted in talking up. Having spoken to a fair few Labour members and supporters in real life over the last week—from a Momentum meeting, to a local party branch, to the infamous doorstep—my sense is that while there are a range of strong views on Article 50, most people recognise that Corbyn was in a tricky position.
Online it feels different, with passionate declarations that Corbyn has “[put the] baby in [the]lion’s mouth”. Most of those expressing outrage think Labour should have voted against Article 50. This is where political reality should come crashing in, because that was impossible. Instead of a rebellion of 52 MPs (mostly in Remain seats), having a three-line whip against Article 50 would have seen a rebellion of more like 152, since two-thirds of Labour MPs represent Leave areas. The shadow cabinet would have fallen apart and Labour would have disintegrated as a parliamentary unit.
And it would have made no difference to the result—Article 50 would still have passed with a similar majority. In fact, even if by some miracle all Labour MPs had done as Corbyn told them in this scenario and voted against Article 50, it still wouldn’t have changed the result. Nearly all Labour MPs did vote for the amendment saying EU citizens should have the right to stay in the UK, and they still lost by a mile (because Tories like Anna Soubry, who has somehow become a hero for Remainers, weren’t willing to stick their necks out even for something as uncontroversial and decent as that). So there was no possibility of Labour voting against Article 50, and there was no chance of Labour defeating it even if they did.
But there’s a minority of the people annoyed with Corbyn who have a stronger argument. They know that voting against Article 50 wasn’t possible but think Labour should have made it a free vote or abstained. This is a minority view but it rides the wave of the wider group who wanted Labour to vote against, giving the impression that they are gradations of the same sentiment. But they’re not compatible. For a lot of those who wanted Labour to vote against, anything other than full-blown defiance was unacceptable. The argument goes that their anger could have been assuaged by Labour having no position on Article 50, keeping the movement together. But people who passionately believe Brexit can be reversed right now are not going to rally to a party that abstains.
The big advantage of the free vote/abstain position is that no one on the Labour frontbench would have had to resign. That doesn’t mean, though, that all the bad press would have been avoided. The media would still have had a field day, saying ‘Labour can’t make up its mind on the most important issue of the day,’ ‘Labour is terminally divided,’ or ‘Corbyn is so weak he can’t even tell his MPs which way to vote’.
Given that Article 50 couldn’t be defeated, all that Labour was doing with its votes was signalling. It had two options: to signal that it accepted the result of the referendum, or to signal that it was neither here nor there on the issue. It didn’t have the option to signal that it was against it. I’m not convinced that signalling it was neither here nor there would have been a better option. If Brexit turns into a disaster down the line, I doubt Labour would get much credit for saying “and that’s why we abstained.”
On the other hand, the position Labour took in voting for Article 50 does have its advantages. Aside from the polling and electoral calculations, it is actually a principled position. The democratic argument is strong. Article 50 was parliament ratifying a decision that it asked the public to make. Labour can say it upholds democracy, that it’s not going to patronise people by overruling them. Since all we’re talking about is sending a signal, that’s not a trivial one to send.
Alex Nunns is the author of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power (get 20% off with the discount code ‘Jez We Can’).