EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill – How I intend to vote and why

This week and next week the House of Commons will be debating and voting on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill following last year’s referendum on our EU membership.  

Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union of the EU dictates that if a member state chooses to withdraw from the EU, they are required to formally notify the EU Council – this triggers a two year period for negotiation of the terms of withdrawal, at the end of which the member state concerned ceases to be a member.

How did we get here?

Last year the Conservative government held a referendum which took place on 23 June.  I passionately believed that our community and our country is better off, safer and stronger in the world with the UK as a member of the EU.  Above all, globalisation - the amalgamation of international economies, the flow of people, capital, information, and services across borders, and new technologies - has brought wealth to many but it has also brought instability and extremes of inequality too.  The best way we can help shape these global forces and build a fairer, more equal society is by working with other countries who share our values.  The EU member states are our nearest neighbours and are the obvious partners in this endeavour.

So I took a leading role both in the Labour IN For Britain campaign – which I was appointed to lead in Greater London – and in the cross-party Britain Stronger in Europe campaign. I campaigned across Lambeth and throughout London, and I made the case for Remain in six other UK cities.  I represented Remain in 11 major debates, visited universities and businesses speaking to hundreds of students and employees. 

I’m immensely proud that Lambeth scored the highest Remain vote in the country and that London voted overwhelmingly that way too.  But, much to our deep dismay and disappointment, and on a high national turnout (72.2% compared to 66.4% at the 2015 General Election), whilst 48.1% of our fellow citizens who voted cast their ballot to Remain, 51.9% voted to Leave.  I personally was deeply saddened by all of this.

Following the referendum result, David Cameron resigned and was succeeded by the Prime Minister Theresa May.  At the Tory party conference in October she announced she would – using Royal Prerogative powers – trigger Article 50 to begin the process of our withdrawal from the EU without a vote in Parliament.  When it became clear she was intent on doing so without parliamentary approval, Gina Miller – a private citizen – brought a case in the High Court against the Government to force them to do so before triggering Article 50.  The Supreme Court last week declared that the PM could not unilaterally trigger Article 50, but would first need consent through an Act of Parliament.  So this Bill has been introduced to give the Prime Minister the power to trigger Article 50.

Those who campaigned for us to leave the EU purported to do so, in part, to uphold parliamentary sovereignty.  It was therefore grossly hypocritical for them to support the PM triggering Article 50 without parliamentary approval.  Worse still, they lambasted Gina for daring to bring the case to uphold parliamentary sovereignty.  Gina has consequently been subject to death threats, and threats of sexual and physical violence simply for exercising her rights as a citizen in this way.  She is a brave and courageous person to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude.  The judges who handed down the rulings in her case – in the High Court and Supreme Court – were also subject to the most appalling abuse and accused of being “enemies of the people” by the tabloid media.  I roundly condemned the vitriol they have all received in the House of Commons last year: https://twitter.com/ChukaUmunna/status/796763109935284224

What is the process and the Labour leadership’s whipping arrangements on the Bill?

The Bill was introduced into the House of Commons last Thursday (its “First Reading”).  It is a short Bill and simply says:

Power to notify withdrawal from the EU

(1)The Prime Minister may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European 
Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.

(2)This section has effect despite any provision made by or under the European 
Communities Act 1972 or any other enactment.

We have been be debating the principles behind the Bill (its “Second Reading”) since Tuesday, with that stage of the debate finishing today with a vote on the Second Reading this evening.  The primary principle behind the Bill is that the PM should notify the EU that the UK wishes to withdraw, given the referendum result.  Labour MPs are being three line whipped to vote in favour of the Second Reading.

Before we debate the Committee stage of the Bill, there is a vote today on what is called the “Programme motion” after the Second Reading – this determines the time allocated for the House of Commons to consider the Bill.  Five days have been allocated in total for the debate of this Bill.  That compares to the Commons spending over 25 days debating the EU’s Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and over 10 days on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty in 2006.  Labour MPs are being three line whipped by the party leadership to abstain on this vote (Note. If a vote is subject to a “three line whip”, we are obliged to attend and vote as directed by the leadership).

The Committee stage of the Bill - when the House considers the details (ie. the small print) of the Bill - takes place from Monday to the Wednesday next week with votes throughout those days on any amendments MPs table.  The Deputy Speaker selects which amendments get debated.  The whipping arrangements for different amendments will be determined once we know which are chosen for debate.

The final stage of the Bill (the “Third Reading” of the Bill) will take place at towards the end of next Wednesday’s business.  Jeremy Corbyn has again indicated that Labour MPs will be three line whipped to vote in favour of the Third Reading regardless of which amendments are rejected or accepted. 

Once the Bill passes its Third Reading the Bill will go to the House of Lords for consideration.  The Lords is prevented from tampering with the principles of the Bill but can suggest changes to the detail of how those principles are implemented – any amendments to the detail they recommend will be sent back to the Commons for consideration and, if necessary, votes.

How I will be voting

I am a socialist – a democratic socialist – and our party has been the principal vehicle for social democracy in this country since we were founded 117 years ago.

I accepted the terms of the legislation that laid down the rules under which the EU referendum was fought.  I did not oppose that legislation principally because I felt the 2015 General Election had settled the issue as to whether we have a referendum.  I did not receive any correspondence from constituents urging me to vote against that legislation when it passed through Parliament paving the way for the ballot to take place.

The principle way of avoiding our withdrawal from the EU – Brexit – was by running the most effective campaign to win that referendum, which is why I put my heart and soul into that campaign.  Labour nationally, in particular, failed to clearly convey whether we wanted to Remain or Leave and we failed ultimately to persuade enough of our voters to support Remain.  Had we been more successful, it may have been enough to make the difference given the close margin of the result.  David Cameron also, of course, bares huge responsibility for what happened. 

In the end we lost.  As a democrat, having accepted the terms under which the referendum was fought - however much I disagree with and am disappointed by the result - I do not think it would be right to now stand in the way of the national result of the referendum by voting against the Second Reading of this Bill.  I realise some will disagree with me profoundly on this but our democratic values go to the core of what we are about.

Some extrapolate from the turnout that a majority of electors did not vote for us to withdraw from the EU.  But the majority of those who did bother, on a very high turnout, did vote for us to leave.  In the same way, that we accept the result of General Elections, notwithstanding the turnout, I think - as democrats - we should accept the result in this national ballot. For what it’s worth, polling tends to indicate that just over half of those who voted Remain believe we should accept the result and seek the best deal possible – on that basis, taken together with those who voted Leave, you could argue a clear majority locally would support triggering Article 50.

Some, quite reasonably, argue that Lambeth scored an 80% vote to Remain, and therefore its three MPs are obliged to vote against triggering Article 50.  I do not share this analysis.  In the referendum, voters were asked to express a view on whether the UK should remain in or leave the European Union – no more, no less.  Voters were not asked how the UK should leave the EU, whether it should be a so called “Hard” or “Soft” Brexit, nor were they asked how they wanted their MP to vote in the House of Commons on legislation implementing a national referendum result, be it a majority Leave or Remain vote.  So the only mandate that can be derived from the result is for the Government to withdraw the UK from the EU. 

I’m proud to represent the community I grew up in. I always have, and will continue to listen to the opinions and views of constituents on all issues. Part of my role as a Members of Parliament is to use my judgement when voting in the House of Commons, and to do so in the best interests of both my constituents and the whole country, taking into account the argument and opinions of all sides of the debate. That is what I am doing here. 

But what about all the myths and lies peddled by the Leave campaign during the referendum campaign?  Does this not call into question the legitimacy of the result?  It is true that a lot of overblown claims, misleading promises and the rest were parroted by the Leave campaign and it is important leading Leave campaigners in government are now held to account for what follows.  That is why I founded the organisation Vote Leave Watch (www.voteleavewatch.org.uk), to scrutinise what comes out of the deal and to seek to ensure Leave campaigners in Government are held to account.  However, were all Leave voters simply brainwashed by all those misleading claims and myths?  Are we really saying Leave voters were incapable of taking a step back, taking a view on all the different facts that were presented by either side and making their own objective judgment?  I just do not accept this to be the case, not least having spent time in areas that voted Leave - they are no more naive, bigoted people than Remain voters are some wealthy metropolitan elite.

Above all, one of the reasons I campaigned so strongly for Remain was because I hated the division being peddled by far too many of the leading voices campaigning for Leave.  We know that the referendum exposed deep divisions between towns and cities, the old and the young, and more.  I fear that seeking to thwart the will of the majority who voted will simply exacerbate those divisions not heal them - this is bad for our community and our country.  It is striking how many people who voted one way know so few people who voted the other way, and how our social media feeds are dominated by those who voted the way we did.  This I think serves as a wake up call – we need to work out how we rebuild a consensus in our country.  So for all these reasons I will be voting for the Second Reading of the Bill.

Amendments to secure the best deal for Britain

Whilst I will not vote against triggering Article 50 at Second Reading, I will use every tool at my disposal to ensure that the Government is obliged to secure a deal for our exit which retains as many of the economic benefits of EU membership as possible, which does not lead to Britain being turned into some giant tax haven for the super-rich and multinationals, which does not result in us becoming Europe’s sweatshop and which guarantees the rights of EU citizens already here to stay. That is why I’ve added my name and will be voting for amendments aiming to do all those things.

The one pledge made by the Leave campaign which those who voted Remain and Leave will want to see delivered was their pledge to spend £350 million extra per week on the NHS once the UK has left.  I have tabled an amendment to the Bill requiring the government to set out how they will do this. Over 40 MPs have already added their names to my amendment including MPs from other parties.

Because these amendments should be given sufficient time for consideration and given the enormity of these issues, I will be voting against the Programme Motion - five days is totally insufficient to consider such important issues.

I realise some will disagree with my position but I do believe it to be the right decision and am grateful to you for taking the time to read my reasons.