Brendan O’Neill

In praise of Labour’s Brexit rebels

In praise of Labour's Brexit rebels
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So this is what a principled politician looks like. They can be hard to spot these days, but last night, in parliament, we saw four of them in action. Kate Hoey, Frank Field, John Mann and Graham Stringer. Four Labour MPs who, despite knowing they would get flak from both Corbynistas and centrists, despite knowing the Stalinist sections of left-wing Twitter would shriek for their deselection, despite knowing they would be paraded online as ‘Tory stooges’ whom all good Labourites have a duty to despise, nonetheless voted with their consciences and rejected an amendment to Theresa May’s trade bill that could have kept Brexit Britain entangled in a customs union with the EU

They are being credited with saving May’s bacon. After all, if May had lost to the rebel Remainers who pushed the amendment, it’s likely the government would have unravelled. Brexiteer Tories were whispering about ‘no confidence’ if May had failed to see off this amendment that would have forced Britain to sign up to a customs union if we still haven’t reached an agreement on frictionless trade by 21 January 2019. In the event, May won against the rebels, just, by 307 to 301 votes. And these four Labour MPs, alongside Kelvin Hopkins, currently an independent MP while the Labour whip is withdrawn from him, played a key role in that.

Inevitably, they stand accused in the kangaroo court of Corbynista Twitter of ‘propping up’ a Tory government. Of refusing to help topple the Tories and bring about first a leadership contest and then a General Election. But this is bunkum. These Labour MPs didn’t vote for the Tories; they voted for democracy. They voted to preserve the largest democratic demand in British history: that we should ‘take back control’ from Brussels, including control over trade, which a customs union would make impossible. They voted according to their own Eurosceptic beliefs and the beliefs of 17.4m people who think Britain should enjoy sovereignty over its own political, economic and territorial affairs. They aren’t stooges or closest Tories or May apologists — they are politicians of conviction who do what they think is right and who want to honour the public’s polite, democratic request that we leave the EU.

And for that they’re being harried and denounced? What a terrible state of affairs when politicians can be ruthlessly hounded simply for standing by their beliefs and by democracy. And it really has been ruthless, the attack on the Labour four. There are demands for their mandatory deselection. Corbyn should prevent them from becoming Labour MPs ever again, people insist. ‘They should all be kicked out of the Labour Party’, says Owen Jones. ‘Debar them from future selections’, says Paul Mason. Yes, purge the dissenters. Cleanse the party of Euroscepticism. This is madness. Or at least grievous political intolerance.

And it is notable that Hoey gets the most flak. Left-leaning Remainers and Corbyn supporters really despise her. Hoeyphobia is widespread in these intolerant circles. She is frequently written off as a mouthpiece for Ukip. She is a ‘misfit’ of parliament and should be packed off to the hard right, says one Guardian columnist. Why does Hoey get so much of the hate, more than Field, Mann or Stringer? It sometimes feels a little sexist: how dare this woman so brazenly defy chattering-class orthodoxy. Also, middle-class Londoners can’t believe that the MP for Vauxhall, where 78 per cent of residents went for Remain, could be so pro-Leave. They forget — or don’t care? — that Hoey has many working-class constituents who like her a great deal, and also that 1.5m Londoners voted Leave, which is more than the number that voted for Sadiq Khan to be mayor.

The perverse thing about the unforgiving, factional assaults on these four upstanding left-wing Eurosceptics is that these four are actually being true to the older, working-class, pro-democratic spirit of Labour. All the so-called Labour radicals howling for the punishment of these four critics of Brussels forget that one of their heroes, Tony Benn, was one of Britain’s greatest and most articulate Eurosceptics. As was much of Labour back in the day. Indeed, Labour is the only mainstream party, prior to Brexit anyway, that said in an actual manifesto that Britain should leave the ECC, as it was then, in 1983.

That radical tradition of valuing ordinary Britons’ views over the counsel of faraway technocrats is now utterly overlooked by the Corbynistas railing against Hoey and Co. The EU is ‘building an empire and they want us to be a part of that empire, and I don’t want that’, said Tony Benn. ‘I am in favour of democracy’, he said. As are Hoey, Field, Mann and Stringer. They should be cheered, not insulted. They are far more in touch with the views of ordinary people than the Corbynistas calling for their heads are.