Jeremy Corbyn should be whipping MPs to support EEA amendment

If Corbyn’s Labour is serious about governing, the very fact that the Leader of the Opposition has decided he does not want his party to support a popular, cross-party amendment on the EU Withdrawal Ball is curious.

This shows either ignorance, incompetence or suggests that Corbyn isn’t as desperate as he makes out to lead a Labour Party in government.  Given Corbyn’s stellar performance in last year’s General Election, and his staying power in the midst of the nastiest smear campaign from a Parliamentary Labour Party against its leader ever seen in British politics, it’s unlikely to be the latter.

This is why Corbyn’s decision to instruct MPs to abstain on the EU Withdrawal Bill amendment, which has a realistic chance of defeating the government and severely undermining confidence in the EEA, is so curious – it appears to expose him as ignorant, incompetent and spineless – when in so many other policy areas, his commitment, vision and strategy cannot be faulted.

Ignorant

Political voices on the right displaying an iota of intelligence realise that membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), the Norway Model, does not mean the UK has to continue allowing uncontrolled immigration from EU countries. It is actually a very attractive option which probably reflects the mood of the public.

Peter Hitchens, longtime opponent of the UK’s EU membership, urged MPs in his Mail on Sunday column to: “Go for the Norway option. Leave the EU, get back a large measure of migration control (yes, you can, in the EEA), get rid of 75 per cent of its interference in our lives, but take no economic risk”.

I couldn’t put it better myself. Labour MP Stephen Kinnock has an excellent piece in The Guardian which carefully and succinctly describes the merits of the EEA and the Lords amendment and intelligently makes the case that all Labour MPs should back it.

Incompetent

Labour has tabled its own amendment which also calls for “full access” to the Single Market, the vague language used in the 2017 manifesto. Labour’s Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has said Labour MPs are divided on membership of the Single Market. But why hasn’t he made the specific case to MPs about the merits of staying in the EEA?

This is a Backbencher’s Parliament, not just due to a Minority Government, but a lack of unity from the PLP. No Tory MP, except perhaps Tory Rebel-in-Chief Anna Soubry, is going to vote for an amendment drafted by the Labour frontbench, especially when that Labour frontbench is led by a man whose policies so strongly oppose Tory free-market ideology. No Tory MP would like to be remembered in the history books as having directly paved the way to a Corbyn government which they believe would be catastrophic for Britain.

A shrewder Opposition would have spotted this amendment as a key opportunity to severely weaken Theresa May’s premiership and split the Tories even further.

Spineless

Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, has argued that the Parliamentary Labour Party is split on the single market and this is why it could not back the EEA amendment.

But a Labour leader with some spine would have been working with his frontbench team to unite the PLP around backing the EEA amendment – single market membership is supported by the vast majority of Labour members and voters. I believe had Labour’s frontbench team lobbied the few Labour MPs who don’t feel they can vote for the EEA about the importance of backing the Amendment using the power of rational argument, Labour could be on the brink of forcing the government into a huge crisis.

Part of Labour’s rationale is wanting to do as much as possible to replace Tories in government and to send in competent negotiators to get a deal which limits the economic risks and bring back sovereignty to British people. As things stand, Theresa May is leading Britain towards a tumultuous Brexit which leaves Britain in a perilous position.

For Labour’s leader not be prepared to make this case to the likes of Caroline Flint, Dennis Skinner and Frank Field – who all for different reasons are desperate for a Labour government – shows a lack of forethought.

Some important final words…

Brexit aside, Jeremy Corbyn is the most visionary leader Labour has had since Clement Attlee. While on Brexit his qualities are lacking, his commitment to and leadership on important issues which Labour’s centrist MPs like Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie would ignore – like welfare reform, public ownership, housing and scrapping tuition fees, is to be admired. It is true that, if Umunna or Leslie were in charge, they would be steering the Parliamentary Labour Party in a much more fruitful direction and be leading Labour towards defeating the government’s bad Brexit plan in the national interest. The problem comes when, once Labour were in government, like when Blair was Prime Minister, an Umunna or Leslie would be reluctant to embark on a bold, reformist agenda to lower inequality and redistribute wealth from the richest to the poorest, and reluctant, too, to invest in the public ownership of key utilities, or spending money on an ambitious housing programme.

Despite the understandable frustration many will have over Corbyn’s handling of Labour’s Brexit strategy, he should be fully supported – he is the best we have, and he’s a brilliant campaigner. In this hysterical climate where Brexit leads every news item, we forget about the dreadful inequalities which preceded the Brexit vote where it’s become clear that only a 69-year-old socialist from Islington shows true conviction and a burning desire to solve.

On Brexit, Labour ought to be focusing its energy on 1) giving Brexit a chance, 2) stopping a bad Brexit, and 3) paving the way for a better Brexit, a People’s Brexit. Only then if it is obvious that any Brexit will = Armageddon, the question should go back to the people.

Both morally, and electorally, giving a sensible Brexit a chance is the right way forward.