On Tuesday and Wednesday this week we are voting on the amendments to the Great Withdrawal Bill. Fifteen amendments returned to us from the Lords, and then further amendments were made by colleagues in the Commons. There has quite rightly been a huge amount of interest in my voting intentions and I am sorry that I have not been able to make them public as my time has been taken up listening to the arguments as well as preparing for my Adjournment Debate on Long Term Support for the Victims of Sexual Exploitation.
Some of the social media comments have suggested it is a choice between country and party. I am a Labour Party MP and the vast majority of those who voted for me did so because I represent the Labour Party. I joined the Labour Party at the age of 16 because I support and hope to embody its enduring values of equality, solidarity and fairness. I believe a Labour Government is in the interest of the vast majority of my constituents. And I believe that is why they voted for me. That said, I also believe my primary duty is to my constituents and my conscience. There may be, and often are, difficult decisions where constituents themselves are divided or when it is a choice between competing bad options– but I am clear where my duty lies.
That is why I have always supported Labour’s position of a ‘jobs first’ Brexit – jobs are clearly in the interests of my constituency and as an exporting region, the European Market is of huge importance. I have been pleased to be a part of the way in which the Labour Party – under Keir Starmer’s reasoned and reasonable, pragmatic and inclusive approach – has led the debate from a jobs first Brexit to a transitional agreement to a Customs Union and now to continued access to a new Single Market – all whilst keeping the vast majority of Labour MPs united.
And that is important. Labour’s great strength on Brexit is that we represent the full diversity of Britain’s Brexit vote. There are many Labour MPs whose constituencies voted overwhelmingly to leave, many whose constituencies voted overwhelmingly to remain, and many, like myself, whose constituencies were divided right down the line. We need to move forward as a party because that is to bring the country together, difficult as that may sound.
There are two existential threats to our country which I believe are more profound even than Brexit. The first is to our existence as a democratic country whose Government is legitimate in the eyes of its citizens. The second is to our existence as a nation with a commonly held sense of purpose. Decades of Thatcherite division and neo-liberal indifference to inequality, followed by extreme-right austerity has divided our country. Brexit was both a symptom of that and a cause of deepening division. The country needs to come together around a Brexit which enables as far as possible the prosperity we so need everyone to benefit from.
The amendments which our Labour team negotiated in the Lords help to do that: such as on the environment, on a meaningful vote, and on working rights.
The amendment requiring membership of the European Economic Area does not. For the following reasons:
It is the Norway model and we are not Norway, we have ten-times more people, and an economy approximately seven times larger in which agriculture does not play as significant a part. Norway are not in the Customs Union. We do not want to be rule takers but active participants in a Single Market that reflects both the value of immigration and the ways in which freedom of movement is current exploited by the unscrupulous, as I set out in my 2016 article and which my colleague Alison McGovern described today.
For these reasons I will not be supporting Amendment 51. And there is one other reason. It has no chance of being agreed. As we saw yesterday, Tory rebels are much fewer in the lobbies then they are on the front pages. I am all for symbolic gestures where they make a real difference to the lives of my constituents. This is a symbolic gesture which by dividing the party and the country pushes the possibility of a long term constructive, unifying relationship with the EU further away.
Since the referendum, the Conservative Party have done everything possible to further divide the nation. They have acted as if the 48% who voted to remain should have no voice, and the 52% who voted to leave voted en block for a hard Brexit. I have watched with dismay the increasing division in the Brexit debate, the uncontained venom apparent on both sides. Those who call all Brexiteers racist, ‘Gammon’ isolationists and those who treat all Remainers as at traitors to the Union Jack would be well served to join me on Newcastle’s doorsteps this weekend. As we voted 50.7% to 49.3% to remain an hours door-knocking would provide a range of views and even the most rabid ideologue would learn that reasonableness, national interest, kindness or logic are not the preserve of any one ‘side’.
These last few days have demonstrated that there is a limit to our ability to manage Brexit in the national interest so long as we have a government that literally doesn’t know what it’s doing. We to move to a close relationship with the European Union but we need to do so through thoughtful negotiations. The paralysis and division of the Tories means the only option is to attempt to manage the process by Prime Ministerial edict–and there are limits to that approach.
We need a government that is unified around doing the right thing for Britain–not one that is fundamentally divided and unable to engage in productive dialogue with the EU about our mutual interests.