The Gryphon asks: Umunna’s Brexit amendment – the right decision?

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Yes – Samuel Robinson

As the painful Brexit saga rumbles on, we have our latest morsel of tragi-comic entertainment: Chuka Umunna’s motion to amend the Queen’s Speech to guarantee membership of the single market and customs union after exit from the EU. It wasn’t long before Umunna was being shot down by the leadership for exposing Labour divisions at a time when they should be in the ascendancy, particularly from Emily Thornberry, who accused him of “virtue-signalling”.

But if we’re going to talk about “virtue-signalling”, what of the Labour leadership’s current position? It essentially boils down to pretending to champion a distinct alternative to Tory Brexit, yet also leaving the single market and the customs union to control free movement, which are the mainstay pillars of the Tory brand of Brexit. Labour are, as it is, veering with the Tories towards a hard Brexit, only using nicer language whilst doing so. Virtue-signalling indeed.

That this position has been challenged is a good thing. Labour needs to stop obfuscating – by saying we’ll leave the single market but somehow get all the benefits – and come clean on their Brexit position. In a recent YouGov poll, Labour voters would choose free trade over immigration controls by a margin of 64% to 19%. In other words: Labour voters decisively want a soft Brexit. So if Labour really want to be the champion of soft, trade-focused Brexit – which is what Labour voters, particularly young voters who were the engine of Corbyn’s campaign, overwhelmingly prefer – then they need to openly push for single market membership.

Indeed, it should be obvious that if you want to “put jobs and the economy first” as stated in the manifesto, staying in the single market is the best, or rather least damaging, road to take. If you’re concerned about bolstering domestic demand and upholding living standards for the ordinary citizen, choosing to leave the single market is rather like shooting yourself in the foot.

This is why, regardless of the amateur timing of the motion, it is a necessary contribution to the debate. Firstly, by forcing him to openly clamp down on a pro-single market position it has helped to expose Corbyn’s stance, which I’m quite sure many students will find disappointing; Corbyn is not the promoter of soft Brexit that he presents himself as. Rather, he seems at odds with his own voters.

But on a broader level, MPs who perceive that not only crashing out of the EU but also the single market is a ludicrous act of self-sabotage have a duty to raise awareness of this and fight to change the course of Brexit. For is it not their job to vote in accordance with what they think is in the national interest? MPs who think a hard Brexit is the wrong course for Britain should say so as loud as they can; at least then they’re being honest.

As for the cries of “factionalism!” all I have to say is this: Brexit, as the defining national issue of our time, should and does transcend party politics. Frankly, getting the right version of Brexit surpasses any sensibilities about party unity or political point scoring. I for one find it disappointing that Thornberry considers it more important to criticise the Tories than to engage with diverging views on Brexit and advance the discussion. And why should Corbyn – who, incidentally, defied political whips hundreds of times – be so outraged when someone decides to vote on principle for such a crucial, all-pervasive question? Party manoeuvring should not be allowed to get in the way of MPs voting for the kind of Brexit they think best for the country. There should be far more cooperation than there is at present between MPs of different factions, colours and Brexit persuasions.

Even I acknowledge that Umunna was clumsy in the way he presented the motion; now was not the best time if a victory over the government was the aim. Nevertheless I commend him for raising resistance to the hard Brexit that the Tories are driving through and Labour seem to be merely sugar-coating. If it shifts the debate and provides a rallying point for MPs in favour of a soft Brexit – of which we all know there are many – I say, good.

No – Ella Gilani

Not long after Theresa May’s announcement that there would be a general election this year, I met up with a friend in the pub. The atmosphere was decidedly gloomy. “I genuinely can see Britain becoming a one party state,” he told me. “It’s scary.”

At the time, this was far from a fringe opinion. Yet now it seems melodramatic to the extreme. After a campaign that saw the party spread a message of hope across the country, here we are: a Labour Party that could quite feasibly be a “government in waiting.” Corbyn has received a standing ovation upon his return to parliament, his critics have apologised and Labour are 6 points ahead in the polls. Unity at last, and what a difference it has made.

It is this that makes the timing of Chuka Umunna’s Queen’s Speech amendment frankly so baffling. Why, at a time when the Conservatives are so clearly crumbling, move an amendment that has no chance of succeeding? Why move an amendment calling to remain in the single market and customs union, when the party’s leadership moved an amendment to retain their exact benefits, in line with Labour’s manifesto position? Why, indeed, do anything to jeopardise the public perception of Labour’s fragile unity? Because this, of course, has been exactly the result.

Yes, Brexit is a contentious issue, and yes, there is a strong case for remaining in the single market. I have no wish to attack the amendment itself. And as a committed Labour Party member, I see no benefit in attacking either Umunna or the 49 Labour MPs who voted in favour of it. In fact, my own MP, Wes Streeting, a dedicated and principled MP for whom I have nothing but respect, did so. But the reality is that in politics, timing is crucial, and it’s hard to imagine a worse time to risk Labour’s position as not only a viable opposition, but the government that Britain needs.

As Streeting has written in the Independent, Labour is overwhelmingly united when it comes to Brexit – far more so than the Conservative Party. But when a completely unnecessary and public fiasco like this occurs, what are the public supposed to believe? Very few people are well versed in the ins and outs of parliamentary process, and I’d wager even fewer are particularly interested in finding out about it. Any lengthy explanations on the differences between “amendment ‘g” (Umunna’s amendment) and “amendment ‘l’” (the leadership’s amendment) will always seem dry compared to a nice juicy headline declaring that Labour is once again falling to bits.

During the General Election, the dire state that the UK is in came horribly into focus. We have nurses using food banks. We have children unable to focus on their lessons because they haven’t got enough to eat. We have less police officers on the street at a time when we need them most. With the Conservative Party divided, key Tory majorities slashed and the political debate at last wrenched back from the Thatcherite agenda that has ravaged so many communities, Labour is on a permanent election footing. We are ready to win. Focus and party unity has rarely been more important.

If Umunna acted on principle, his principle came at a price. To gain a Labour government, Britain needs a united opposition. To gamble that for an amendment with no chance of passing seems at best foolish, and at worst unjustifiable.

(Image courtesy of HuffPost UK)