Friday, 3 March 2017

A message to Labour MPs: find your backbones

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So we've come to this. The only people with the courage to stand up to the Brexiteer ultras are the unelected, unaccountable, undemocratic House of Lords.

Labour MPs should be hanging their heads in shame. Jeremy Corbyn should be looking in a mirror and recoiling in horror at his reflection.

Where is the opposition to Mrs May's cowardly rush to Brexit chaos? Where is the push-back? Are John Major and Tony Blair -- not exactly the country's most popular former prime ministers -- really the only senior politicians prepared to point out what a disastrous course this government is embarked on?

Who speaks for the 48 per cent? For the millions of Labour supporters who voted Remain last year and who now have been left leaderless? How many times do Labour MPs have to be reminded that two-thirds of their supporters want the UK to remain in the EU?

In the face of what they wrongly think is a rush to UKIP by their traditional supporters in their northern heartlands, Labour MPs have become paralysed into irrelevance. The humiliating Copeland by-election defeat last week was not a result of a UKIP surge (in fact, the party slumped from 15.5% of the vote in the 2015 general election to 6.5% in the by-election) but mainly because former UKIP voters switched to the Tories.

For Labour to claim that it lost in Copeland because voters felt 'disenfranchised from politics ... left behind by politicians' is utterly bonkers -- since when did voters feeling disenfranchised decide to vote for the party that has been in office for the past seven years?

No wonder that, according to The Times, nearly 26,000 Labour members have left the party since last summer, in despair, I imagine, at its utter inability to influence the most important political debate in decades.

A government needs an opposition. The country needs an opposition. Ministers need to be challenged, their assumptions need to be tested. The Lib Dems do what little they can, but with a grand total of nine MPs, they can't do much. (In Copeland, by the way, their vote share was up 4% compared to 2015.)

In The Guardian, Martin Kettle wrote that Labour leaders now appear willing to envisage what he called a 'hard, anti-immigrant Brexit', and he added: 'There is nothing socialist about this, nothing social democratic, nothing liberal, nothing progressive, nothing moral...'

Politics is always about making choices in response to conflicting pressures. But the only pressure on Mrs May and her colleagues at the moment comes from her own party's ultras: go faster, they cry, go further, go harder. And every time someone dares to suggest that there might be another way, they respond: 'What about the will of the people? You must obey the will of the people.'

So let us nail the lie once again. Brexit is not the 'will of the people'. Just over one-third (34.73%) of the electorate voted in favour of the UK leaving the EU last June. That is not 'the people' -- it is one-third of the people. (Turn-out on referendum day was 72% of registered voters, of whom 52% voted Leave.)

And where, in the light of those figures, are Labour MPs? Nowhere. Philip Stephens put it well in the Financial Times: 'Britain is about to leave the EU — the most important, and dangerous, decision it has taken since 1945. The government seems set on the hardest of hard Brexits. Why? Because Labour’s absence has turned politics into a conversation between Conservatives — a conversation in which English nationalists have the loudest voice.'

No one voted for the UK to leave the single market or the customs union, because no one was asked the question. Nor did anyone vote in favour of leaving millions of EU citizens resident in the UK -- many of them married to UK citizens and with children who are also UK citizens -- in an agonising limbo, not knowing whether they will be allowed to remain here once we have left the EU.

Mrs May regards them as gambling chips, to be held in reserve until she finally sits down to play Brexit poker. But they are not gambling chips, they are people who make a huge contribution to the NHS, the financial services industry, and the arts. I dare not imagine what would happen to our crumbling social care system, for example, if the EU citizens who currently look after some of the UK's most vulnerable people decided that they were no longer prepared to wait for Mrs May to make her opening move.

I do not believe that the referendum result should be overturned. A majority of the voters who expressed a preference last June chose to vote Leave. That is a fact, and I accept it as such. But they did not express a preference -- because they were not asked -- about what kind of post-Brexit relationship with the EU they favoured.

So why aren't Labour MPs saying any of this? Why aren't they voting against the government at every opportunity, tabling amendments, trying to attract support from pro-EU Tories, arguing for a better way forward? Why is it only unelected peers who understand what is at stake?

It is not too late. Labour MPs still have time to rediscover their backbones and to do what most Labour voters want them to do. Ignore Jeremy Corbyn -- after all, he ignored successive party leaders for more than thirty years, so he can hardly complain -- and do what opposition MPs are paid to do.

Represent the people who voted for you. Oppose the government. And do everything you can to save the country from a train-crash Brexit that risks doing immeasurable harm to the country's future.


Erik Kowal said...

Back in June 2014, George Monbiot wrote an article that is very pertinent to your topic of today, i.e. political spinelessness:

Anonymous said...

Interesting letter as always. You mention the LibDems as providing some opposition, but not the SNP...curious as to why you don't mention them...?

Robin Lustig said...

Anonymous makes a fair point. But the SNP's contribution to the Brexit debate tends to be couched -- for obvious reasons -- in terms of what's best for Scotland, and therefore has only limited relevance in the broader UK debate. But I probably should have mentioned them, even so ...

Bazza said...

As usual, a very interesting and thoughtful piece. That is why I bought your book - and thank you for signing it. But I can’t agree with your statement that no-one voted to leave the customs union or the single market. Such departures were to my mind always inevitable consequences of leaving the EU: even if we could remain legally it was always practically certain that the other EU members would kick us out or make our life a misery. And as for the EU citizens resident in the UK, a major plank in the Leave campaign was to stop immigration and to remove foreigners living here. As disastrous and immoral as the situation might be, I strongly believe that most of the Leavers want to see the back of all non-British residents.

Unknown said...

I agree with everything you have said on this tragic state of affairs. I feel ashamed to be English. I hope you will encourage your many readers to come along to the pro-Europe march due to take place on Saturday 25 March in central London. This is one of the few things that, if well attended, may remind Mrs May that 48% of electors voted to Remain, and that our opinions should not be totally ignored.