Adam O’Sullivan

Naked Politics Blogger 

After a short period of calm, divisions are appearing once again in Labour’s parliamentary party. Chuka Umunna’s Queen’s Speech amendment backed remaining in both the Single Market and the Customs Union. Both of which are high on the soft-Brexit shopping list, but both are seen as hot-button issues by Brexiteers who insist that the referendum result will not be fulfilled unless the UK’s relationship with the EU fundamentally changes. Labour MP’s were ordered to abstain from the vote, with 49 breaking the whip, resulting in four front-benchers losing their jobs. Catherine West, Andy Slaughter and Ruth Cadbury were sacked by Corbyn on Thursday whilst Daniel Zeichner resigned ahead of the vote.

The dispute was one of wording rather than substance and is seen by many within the Labour movement as an unnecessary distraction during a tough time for Theresa May. Whilst Labour had not committed to a full membership of these two in its manifesto, it had rather suggested that an aim to “retain the benefits” would be a priority of a Labour-led Brexit negotiation. It is indeed very difficult to have such a strong policy position based so fundamentally on hypotheticals rather than facts.

The amendment and its consequent division have slightly ruptured Labour’s momentum at a time when they are being considered as a serious alternative government. Umunna’s timing is poor and it has put a number of Labour MP’s under unnecessary pressure. Labour’s Deputy leader Tom Watson argued that it “forced people to take a position… earlier than we needed to”, and the sackings have undoubtedly diverted attention from the Tories unpopular coupling with the DUP whilst Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry accused Umunna of “virtue signalling”.

Umunna, as well as many of those who backed the amendment was elected by his constituency on a pro-European platform in a pro-remain constituency. Yet, with no hope of the amendment passing, it has merely acted to purge Labour’s frontbench of avowed pro-Europeans who had little choice but to back it. Umunna’s amendment may not only be damaging to Labour’s steady rise in the polls but also to the negotiations themselves as we see a Labour not only divided within its own ranks, but also on the wrong side of an issue that will be crucial were Labour to need allies to form a government in the near future.

The Labour leadership’s order to abstain, rather than oppose was seen as appropriately lenient to justify the sackings, and with Corbyn in the strongest position of his leadership so far, he was emboldened enough to assert his authority. Further, with no real consensus in favour of single-market membership amongst Labour MP’s until it can be established what effect membership will have on freedom of movement, Corbyn was less-forgiving than he had been when 52 Labour MPs defied the whip and voted against triggering Article 50 in February.

What is clear is that Umunna’s amendment was far too soon to be effective. Attempting to revise the wording of Labour’s manifesto made it impossible for the party to back at such an early point in the Brexit process. Andy Slaughter’s Hammersmith constituency voted 70% in favour of remaining in the European Union, whilst Catherine West’s Hornsey and Wood Green constituency had the highest remain vote in the country at 82%. Both have strong reputations as hard-working constituency MP’s and their sacking is a loss to Labour’s European conversation.

The tabling of an amendment that would never pass seems like just the sort of protest-first approach that Labour centrists including Umunna have accused Jeremy Corbyn of throughout his time as leader. In the short-term Umunna will be seen to have made good on his election vow to fight for the best possible Brexit. In the long-term it is more likely that the defeat will be used as fuel for a hard-brexit Eurosceptic EU bonfire.

It’s a crucial time for the direction of the EU negotiations, with a weakened Conservative government making a hard-brexit less likely, the vacuum must be a filled by a coherent and unified Labour Party in order to deliver a deal more reflective of the referendum result. Umunna’s intervention will undoubtedly cause a headache for the leader’s office but it seems likely that the shaky May government will continue to dominate headlines and that Labour’s post-election honeymoon will continue for the time being.

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Last Update: April 24, 2018