By demanding that MPs vote for Article 50, the Labour party leadership has taken another step towards supporting the government to take us out of the EU in wholly unfavourable circumstances. After supporting Remain with little energy, our leadership has chosen to try to save the seats of Labour MPs in Leave-majority constituencies for a future election. But Labour Remainers are paying for this unnecessary lurch towards Brexit. The grievances of Leaver constituencies could have been taken on board from last June, designing remedies at the local level and demanding them at the national. We need to support our MPs in Leaver constituencies to make a stronger case for Remain, especially since the risks of Brexit are ballooning.
The leadership has moved towards the Leave camp even as the government is floundering about, finding nothing but closed doors at EU level against its high-handed demands. As to Article 50, the judges conveniently spent considerable time debating who has the initiative to trigger it, which allowed evidence to emerge about the multiple costs to Britain of the Brexiters’ obsession with destroying its place in Europe. Still the Labour leadership proposed no national alternative, insisting the 17m leavers must be given their way, come what may, while 19m Remainers and EU nationals – callously excluded from the franchise – seem to count for nothing. When the judges administered a defeat on the Prime Minister, Labour offered its de facto unconditional support over Article 50 up front, apparently throwing away a strong card. Finally, when the government produced no plan but only a speech and a minimal few lines of a Bill, the leadership gave Labour MPs a 3-line whip to vote for Brexit. Regrettably, this looks more like the behaviour of a junior partner in a Conservative-Labour coalition. A lurch away from its pro-EU sister parties all over Europe, away from a long tradition of internationalism and its principled commitment to improve the lives of precisely the people who benefit from EU membership.
Of course the Labour leadership has said it won’t accept anything that harms “worker’s rights”, a repeat formula that fails to notice how women, young and older people, LGBT, ethnic, religious, and traveller minorities, people with disabilities, consumers, holiday-makers, and the whole of the higher education and scientific community have also benefited. Surely the Prime Minister remains unruffled since Britain’s destiny is now to undercut all supposed allies. Social and human rights are not even part of the negotiations as the Conservatives will reject oversight by their bogyman the European Court of Justice. Instead, rights are to be challenged during the so-called Great Repeal Bill. May and Davis have given ominous reassurances about how they will keep all the EU-initiated and UK-adopted rights, while simultaneously scrutinising them line by line to see what is still needed and what does “no longer fit”. Surely the leadership should be adept at thwarting this process in order to gain some national credibility.
It is key we understand the looming danger. We are about to be divested if not of entire rights, then certainly of their permanence and solidity. For 45 years in the EU, we have been living under a set of rights that are secure, not to say bullet-proof, for they cannot be changed except to a higher standard of protection – and only by agreement of all. That goes for rights in the form of Directives – hundreds of them. Many are directly protected in Treaty articles, the ultimate layer of protection. Nowhere and never before have the people of Europe lived in such a secure protective legal environment.
Now all UK residents are at risk of having such rights downgraded to ordinary Acts abolishable by a simple majority in Parliament (actually a plurality as abstentions are discounted from the count). As the UK has no written Constitution and does not declare itself to be a ‘social state of law’ as do some socially advanced democracies, our social rights are not strong. Nor do we benefit from having a widespread system of higher-order laws protected by two-thirds or ‘supermajorities’ as in the US (‘fundamental’, ‘organic’, or ‘basic’ in European democracies). So our social and wider human rights after the so-called repatriation would be more vulnerable to amendment or abolition than they have been for 45 years.
As to a solution to this problem, Labour and other Remainers MPs could campaign to get our rights protected to ensure they remain as solid as in previous decades. Consider that for 45 years, no British government has tried to change any EU-initiated and UK-agreed rights precisely because we are in the EU. Before anyone cries ‘sovereignty’, rights such as the Health and Safety at Work and Race Discrimination Acts were first passed by our Houses of Parliament, and were later adopted at EU level and spread to all other member states. Yes, the UK has contributed to strengthening the EU’s protective umbrella, and made British Acts stronger and more durable than they were in the UK alone. Thereby many lives have been saved, as accidents at work have steadily declined all over the EU. Similarly, British race anti-discrimination legislation by outlawing racism has provided the basis for improved community relations in diverse societies. With this proven track record, Labour should demand all such effective legislation should be reinforced in Acts of Parliament protected by a two-thirds majority.
In this way we could protect our rights from being downgraded. Two-thirds majorities are not unknown in British law: to bring forward an election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011, a two-thirds majority is required. The Prime Minister could thereby show that she is sincere about her promise not to drop any EU-initiated rights. If she refuses, we will be alerted to the fact that the Conservatives are preparing an opportunistic attack.
A plea to the Labour leadership to get tough and be determined: membership of the EU is key to our country’s success, domestically as a generous democracy rather than a mean one, and internationally as a member of the world’s most successful alliance to prevent war and spread progress.
Dr Monica Threlfall was a Reader in European Politics at London Metropolitan University before joining the Global Policy institute in London this year. Monica regularly writes on such subjects as the European Union’s social dimension, employment policies and European law amongst others, aside from her academic interest in the social movements of Spain and Chile.