When Theresa May became Prime Minister after the referendum she made it clear that she would not give “a running commentary” on Brexit. The Labour Party demanded parliamentary scrutiny, a white paper, a vote to trigger article 50 and a parliamentary vote on the final deal after it is negotiated. The new Prime Minister refused them all.
The Labour Party in the House of Commons, and the Judiciary through the courts have now secured all these vital elements of democratic accountability.
The Supreme Court made it clear that the referendum vote determined that the UK would leave the European Union; but that it was for Parliament to determine how it should leave. I agree with the Supreme Court ruling. Although I voted and campaigned to remain, I am first and foremost a democrat. That means that I acknowledge that I lost the referendum vote. That means that I abide by its result even though I disagree with it. But I also agree with the Supreme Court that I must now as a Member of Parliament try to shape how we leave the EU in the best interests of the British people. That is why Labour has tabled a number of key amendments to the Bill.
64% of Labour voters across the country voted to Remain. But the majority of Labour MPs serve constituencies that voted by a majority to leave. The Labour Party is therefore presented both with a conflict of interests and a conflict of principles like no other party. In many ways we are much more representative of the divisions in the country over Brexit than any other political party. My view is that we must resolve the conflicts of principle and leave the conflicts of electoral interest to resolve themselves.
It is a uniquely valuable principle of our democracy that MPs have a special duty of care towards their constituents. We hold surgeries to deal with their individual problems and we represent them to various bodies and authorities to demand their rights. But our duty to represent our constituents does not in my view allow us to undermine the principle of democracy as a whole. I have enormous sympathy with all those of my colleagues who have wrestled with their conscience between the principle of democracy and the principle of representing their constituents but I am clear that I will respect the referendum result however much I disagree with it; and then I will try to mitigate its effects to secure the red lines that I and all my colleagues believe are so important.
Only by voting at 2nd Reading to trigger Article 50 do we move to the position where we can amend the bill and hold the Government to account to ensure: Tariff-free access to the Single Market to protect jobs and our economy, the protection of social and environmental rights, security for EU citizens currently living in the UK and a meaningful vote at a stage of the negotiations where it is still possible to change the outcome. Triggering Article 50 is only the beginning of a long process. We must and will hold the government to account every step of the way and secure an outcome that may not entirely satisfy either the 48% or the 52% but that is acceptable to the 100%. That is how democracy functions.
Finally I would ask everyone to reflect on how they would have felt if their side had won the referendum, but parliament had set aside the result and done the opposite. The anger that would be generated if politicians ignored the outcome would be immense and justified. I believe that leaving the EU will make us poorer. But undermining our own democracy would make us much poorer still.