By MARCUS STEAD
WAS LABOUR ever really the party of ordinary working people? I am not sure. But if those days ever existed at all, future historians will pinpoint the absolute latest date at which they ended as 5 September 2017.
For that was the date when the Labour leadership announced that it will order all its MPs to vote against the European Union Withdrawal Bill when it comes before the House of Commons next Monday (11 September 2017).
The bill will repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, which took the United Kingdom into the EEC (the precursor to the European Union), and meant that European law took precedence over laws passed in the UK Parliament. It will also end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Crucially, all existing EU legislation will be copied across into domestic UK law to ensure a smooth transition on the day after Brexit. This matters because there are believed to be 12,000 EU regulations in force, while Parliament has passed 7,900 statutory instruments implementing EU legislation and 186 acts which incorporate a degree of EU influence.
The total body of European law, dating back to 1958, is known as the Acquis Communautaire. It binds all member states and in 2010 was estimated to consist of about 80,000 items, covering everything from workers’ rights to environment and trade. As well as regulations, this includes EU treaties, directions and European Court of Justice rulings.
The EU creates new diktats all the time, and the UK will continue to abide by them until it formally leaves.
So what’s the problem? On the surface, it appears that the Labour Party dislikes what are colloquially known as ‘Henry VIII’ powers, after the Statute of Proclamations in 1539. What this means in the current context is that Ministers will be able to make changes to the statute book without going through the usual Parliamentary scrutiny process.
This sounds very nasty and undemocratic, but these powers are an absolute necessity and are nothing to be concerned about, provided they are limited and defined. For example, in many instances, there will be the need to amend a bill to take out a reference to an EU body serving as a regulator and replace it with a reference to a UK regulator. It would be a hideous waste of Parliamentary time to have to put each and every reference before the House, and would clog up Parliamentary business completely, something Labour knows full well.
Ministers have already taken steps to reassure critics that such measures will be time limited and will not be used to make policy changes. The government estimates that between 800 and 1,000 measures known as ‘statutory instruments’ will be required to make sure the process functions properly.
What does Labour dislike about this? To quote the statement released on Tuesday: “Labour fully respects the democratic decision to leave the European Union, voted to trigger Article 50 and backs a jobs-first Brexit with full tariff-free access to the European single market.
“But as democrats we cannot vote for a bill that unamended would let government ministers grab powers from Parliament to slash people’s rights at work and reduce protection for consumers and the environment.”
“Parliament has already voted to leave the European Union. But the Government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill would allow Conservative ministers to set vital terms on a whim, including of Britain’s exit payment, without democratic scrutiny.
“Nobody voted in last year’s referendum to give this Conservative Government sweeping powers to change laws by the back door. The slogan of the Leave campaign was about people taking back control and restoring powers to Parliament.
“This power-grab bill would do the opposite. It would allow the Government to seize control from the Parliament that the British people have just elected.”
It’s hard to take a statement seriously that includes meaningless jargon like ‘jobs-first Brexit’ in its opening sentence. The second sentence fares little better. Labour knows full well that the government would be committing political suicide if it dared to ‘slash’ people’s rights at work without going through the normal Parliamentary process. Labour also knows that the main purpose of the Henry VIII powers is to replace references to EU bodies in legislation with UK ones.
What is astonishing is that the Labour Party, and indeed pro-EU Conservative MPs like Kenneth Clarke and Anna Soubry had very little to say when governments implemented thousands of EU directives without Parliamentary scrutiny. The timing of their sudden conversion to absolute belief in Parliamentary democracy is convenient to say the very least. It’s also worth remembering that the Shadow Brexit Secretary, ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer was quite keen on extra-parliamentary law-making when he was Director of Public Prosecutions.
Sir Keir has already said that ‘no deal’ is the worst possible deal. That means we can reach one of two conclusions about him:
Either he is too stupid to understand that his comments incentivise the EU to offer the UK a very bad deal on the grounds that the UK is desperate to accept any deal. As an experienced barrister and a former Director of Public Prosecutions, we can probably rule that out.
The alternative conclusion is that Sir Keir is on the side of the EU bullies of Barnier, Juncker and Verhofstadt, and that real agenda is to frustrate and water down Brexit to the greatest extent possible, with a view to keeping the UK in the EU in all but name, with a view to re-joining on the pretext of a future economic downturn.
Labour’s stance proves once and for all, beyond doubt, that it does not truly respect the expressed wishes of the electorate. 161 of the 262 Labour MPs currently in Parliament represent constituencies that voted Leave at last year’s referendum. The referendum was not advisory, as some of the more slippery Remain supporters claim. It was an instruction. Every household in the country was sent a booklet prior to the referendum that included the statement, “This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.”
I have no idea what more evidence voters in the Labour heartlands need that the people they routinely elect treat them with utter contempt. Jeremy Corbyn looks and behaves like an ageing, slightly eccentric university professor, and that is now the class of person the Labour Party represents – the university lecturers, middle class idealistic students and the Islington dinner party circuit. It does not listen to, or address the concerns of, the working class communities in the grimmer parts of the country, and has not been a ‘grass roots’ workers movement for a very long time indeed.
For example, Owen Smith’s constituency of Pontypridd backed Leave 53.7% in the referendum, yet Smith had the nerve to vote against the triggering of Article 50 in February. In the general election four months later, Smith was returned to Parliament with 55.4% of the vote, and an increased majority of 6,549.
The people of Pontypridd often have an attitude of, “I’m Labour, always have been, always will be, and my father before me.” A dangerous local groupthink sets in. They do not stop and think about what the Labour Party has actually done to deserve their unquestioning loyalty. In this instance, they had two good reasons not to vote for Smith: Firstly, he made a careerist attempt to replace Corbyn as Labour leader in the autumn of 2016 and sought to take the party in a Blairite direction. Secondly, he disobeyed the instruction his constituents gave him when he voted against the triggering of Article 50 in February 2017.
What more proof do the people of Pontypridd need that their MP, and their party, treats them and their concerns with utter contempt? Pontypridd is a powerful example because of the brazen nature of Smith’s antipathy, but a similar pattern emerges across the Labour heartlands in the South Wales Valleys and Northern England.
The European Union Withdrawal Bill will, in all likelihood, get through Parliament with the help of the Democratic Unionist Party, and Labour’s comments will amount to nothing more than hot air. There will, of course, be some decent Labour MPs, such as the excellent Kate Hoey, who will defy the whip and vote with the government. They deserve our admiration and respect for putting their constituents before their party.
Surely the time has now come for voters in Labour heartlands to finally acknowledge their loyalty towards the party is not reciprocated, and that they have been taken for granted once too often.