So a little while back I blogged about the ways in which I think Brexit represents a real challenge to the Labour Party in the coming Parliament. And I’d intended a quick follow up on why it was even more tricky for the Tories… but y’know…. Life happened.
Anyhow as time has passed my thoughts on the matter have crystallised a bit so here we go….
The thing for us Remainers is it was pretty clear and specific what we were voting for. The EU, warts and all, was a known quantity. Whilst people voted remain with wildly varying degrees of enthusiasm; it was very clear what we were voting for.
Leave however was necessarily ill defined. We firstly literally didn’t know what type of deal we would get whatever people “projected”. And “projected” is the operative word because the leave vote was a coalition of lots of different ideas and motivations some of them very different.
Obviously for many in the country Leave was principally about immigration. But that wasn’t the only thing. Some were voting against London. Some wanted to give the “establishment” a bloody nose and didn’t really care about Brexit.
The thing that most Vexed the Tory right though was the Sovereignty argument. That due to our membership of the EU laws were made that the UK had to follow even if Parliament disagreed. And that there was an enforcement mechanism, the European Court of Justice, that could override British Courts and British Parliament in the areas of law and competence covered by the EU and related treaties.
It has been this element that has caused the Tory Party convulsions for the last three decades, it is for this reason that we had the referendum in the first place, and it is on this topic that there is a massive threat for the Tory Party over Brexit.
In the Parliamentary Tory party there are big divisions over Brexit; for some on the “Hard Right”, the ideological Brexiteers, there is literally no price not worth paying to win this argument over Sovereignty. It doesn’t matter if it means we can’t treat cancer patients, it doesn’t matter if we put the Northern Ireland peace process at risk. It doesn’t matter if we trash the economy in the short and medium term. Whatever the costs and consequences leaving any kind of jurisdiction and oversight from the EU or EU institutions is an end in itself and there is no price worth not paying.
There are by all accounts around 70 or so Tory MPs who think this was and will vote accordingly. Meaning for the Conservative Government who now have to get their preferred version of Brexit, have an inbuilt group of this many Tory MPs likely to rebel against any deal that has compromises with the EU over sovereignty.
The mainstream of the Tory party broadly agree with this viewpoint but are not fundamentalists about it. They’d rather have as little oversight from Supranational bodies connected to the EU as possible, but they realise and accept that there are some necessary compromises needed to be made, at least in transition, to ensure that the economy generally, but the City of London specifically are protected.
Then you have a smaller group of Tory MPs implacably opposed to leaving the Singly Market period (though mostly ambivalent about the political institutions of the EU) who believe that we should remain in the Single Market and Customs Union even if that means accepting free movement of people and jurisdiction of the ECJ. These MPs number about 30 I understand (and that number would be likely to increase if it becomes clear that a Brexit deal was going to materially harm the financial interests of the City).
What this practically means is that getting whatever Brexit is agreed through the Commons means a bill that both Ken Clarke AND John Redwood will support. No such bill is possible. And even with the DUP it will require just 7 Tory MPs to rebel in the commons to scupper a Government vote. Furthermore it is abundantly clear that because there is no Commons majority for the Tories that they cannot rely on the Salisbury convention in the Lords meaning any Brexit bill will have all sorts of problems getting through the upper house.
Of course it was precisely this problem that May had hoped to solve with her election. The gamble was that a thumping big majority would allow her to make some Brexit compromises because she could afford a large rebellion; because a new intake of MPs would be grateful to her winning the landslide and loyal, because she could probably make the opposition vote with her against backbench rebels because the alternative was a disorderly Brexit.
But that ship has sailed and the Parliamentary arithmetic means it is virtually impossible for her to get a Brexit bill through now unless the Labour party back it. This would be politically difficult for her, and there seems little advantage to Labour to bail her out in this way given the state of politics.
So I think the Tories are now faced with about 4 very difficult, politically unpalatable choices. To me it seems their options are:-
a) Accept that they just can’t get any deal and hope they can win a vote on “No Deal” through Parliament and then crash out of the EU on a disorderly basis on WTO terms.
This means they will have to own the short and possible medium/long term economic consequences, I say this is likely to be electorally Toxic for the Brand for a very long period of time (just when Labour seem to be moving forward). There is every chance that this option could put the Tories out of power for a generation.
b) Effectively form a “Grand Coalition” with Labour on Brexit, allow Labour to jointly own the compromise (and consequences) so the bill get’s passed even if there is a substantial rebellion from Tory backbenchers,
This could have a potential upside of exposing Labour divisions on Brexit, and at the same time look like the Tories were putting “Country before Party”.
But would almost certainly provoke a disastrous Tory civil war over Europe again. And furthermore would probably create a huge “Brexit Betrayal” backlash from the right wing press and probably create the conditions for a UKIP revival.
c) Decide that Brexit isn’t possible to deliver and revoke Article 50 in the National Interest.
C’mon this ain’t gonna happen in a Trillion years; but in a sane world the Tories would have to at least consider it given the other options. They won’t though.
d) Recognise that the conditions do not exist to deliver Brexit with the Parliamentary arithmetic as it is so either have a ‘74 style second referendum on the terms (and I’ve argued since before last June’s vote that this is the only real sensible course of action) so that the divisions in Parliament evaporate in the face of the “Will of the People”. Or hold another “Back me of Sack me” snap general election on the terms of the Brexit deal.
For the Tories this is again going to be hugely difficult. They really won’t want to hold another General Election because they really fear that it will result in Corbyn in number 10. But at the same time the Tory right are terrified of giving the country a say on the terms of Brexit because they fear (rightly in my opinion) that if people see what the actuality of Brexit looks like they will decide to stick where they are and kill of the 40 year dream of the Brexiteers.
I’m sure there are some variations on some of these themes; but I don’t see anything to major that differentiates from any of these. It represents an almighty pickle for the Tories and one it is hard to see them extricating themselves from smelling of roses.
Hey maybe I’m wrong and the swivel eyed loons in the the fundamentalist Brexiteer camp will be fooled by David Davies new “I can’t believe it’s not the ECJ™” supranational court and they will get an EEA-lite through the Tory right that allows them to deliver Brexit without dousing the UK economy in petrol and then setting it alight by firing both barrels of a shotgun at our feet.
But that requires that the EU27 are willing and able to bend over backwards to accommodate the UK Government in pulling a three card trick on the Tory right and the UK media. There has been nothing, nothing that suggests that to me. The UK is in a weak position in the Brexit negotiations and the likelihood that we can both get a deal that suits our economy AND appease the fantasies of the Mail and Rees-Mogg is vanishingly small to the extent that let us be honest it doesn’t exist.
So whatever the Government is saying about the pact with the DUP being for 5 years I cannot see how they can possibly square the Brexit circle and survive.
If the consequences weren’t so serious it would be utter hilarity. Alas this farce is likely to have devastating consequences for generations of ordinary people in the UK.
One of the things that seems to happen, like clockwork, whenever a tragic event occurs, and people start talking about the causes is for others to say that it is either “Too Soon”. Or, also often “You shouldn’t politicise this” or some variation on that theme.
There are obviously various competing factors here. A desire to be respectful to those who have been affected by the event, their grieving families. But at the same time a desire to know why it happened. A desire to ensure it doesn’t happen again. A desire that if people have been guilty of wrongdoing that they are held to account, and punished.
In truth none of these are illegitimate. And in many ways they are not mutually exclusive. And where people are expressing sensitivity to the victims, particularly if they are directly connected to the victims this should be listened to.
All too often those claims are really about shutting off debate, about fearing to talk about the politics behind things because you are worried that the inevitable conclusion will challenge your political convictions, or political affiliations you hold.
When people in these circumstances say “You shouldn’t politicise this” or words to that effect, then I believe that is deeply insidious in a Liberal and Democratic society. It seems to hinge on the idea that tragic events are somehow “Ordained by a higher power” and nothing we could have done would of made a difference.
But I’m afraid that is palpable nonsense. Many tragedies are the direct result of either decisions by officials or organisations, or even of public policy. Or maybe they are the result of someone deliberately choosing to ignore the rules. Or maybe they are caused by incompetence. Or maybe they are caused by criminality in the pursuit of personal gain.
If there is even a suggestion that such a tragic event had any connection to any of those things, in any way, then it is political. Almost everything we do on a population level is political.
People often say that you “Can’t put a price on human life”. The overwhelming majority would agree with that statement without caveats. But the awful truth is in almost every sphere of public life people do put a price on human life. And when it is investigated that is often set at a level that people might find insultingly low.
In the Grenfell fire it seems that price might have been £2 per square metre for fireproof cladding. Now that decision was political. It might even have been criminal. And in light of so many people losing their lives; and so many more losing their homes it is entirely legitimate to ask these political questions.
But here is the other thing most of us would probably find examples where actually we’d consider the price too high too.
I mean say let’s look at traffic deaths. Last year (2016) in the UK around 1800 people lost their lives on the road, and a further 25000 were seriously injured. Another 150,000 odd received minor injuries.
Now if we say introduced a blanket 20mph speed limit in populated areas and vigorously enforced it say with very liberal (some would say illiberal) use of average speed cameras, or maybe mandatory GPS devices that constantly reported speed and automatically reported speeding drivers. That would almost certainly drastically reduce the numbers of deaths and injuries on our roads.
But that policy would never come to pass. There would be arguments against the cost of installing the speed cameras and limits. There would be arguments based on the effect on the economy of everyone having to drive so much more slowly. There would be arguments about civil liberties of the GPS devices. But most of all the underlying truth would be people would be against it because of the inconvenience to them personally of having to drive slowly and take longer to get to places.
That, is both putting a price on human life, and it is inherently political. Because it is the weighing up of costs and benefits against the risks and consequences and deciding what to do. And when it comes to it, getting to Sainsburys more quickly means we’ll as a society tolerate 1800 deaths and 25,000 serious injuries a year on the road.
Like I said political.
And this sort of stuff applies to everything, particularly tragedies, and particularly preventable ones.
So Hillsborough was political. The floods in 2012 were political. The BSE crisis was political. The Thalidomide crisis was political. The current A&E crisis is political.
Any anyone who ever tells you these things are not political are hiding in fear from what looking into the politics of those things would say. If Grenfell was preventable, if the fire was predictable, if lessons can be learned to stop this happening again. Then we have to have asked those questions.
Understand that officialdom will always try to obstruct the process of getting those answers. Look how long the families of the Hillsborough 96 had to wait to get proper answers, and proper justice. In the child abuse scandal the New Zealand judge Dame lowell Goddard wasn’t able to do the enquiry because the Home Office would not allow her to be independent and pick her staff insisting that they had to chose the people looking into their own department. Asbestos victims had to go through decades of legal challenges to get compensated; often posthumously.
So yes, now is absolutely the time to ask the political questions, and make the political points. Whilst the eyes of the world, and the country are on Grenfell. Where officialdom cannot weasel out of their responsibilities because people won’t tolerate it. If we don’t demand answers and actions now we could be consigning the victims to a Hillsborough like wait.
And I’ll finish by saying that know this; when someone tells you you shouldn’t make “political points” when something like this has happened. That you shouldn’t consider why, how and who? That we should just be sad but accept it as “One of those things”. Then they are being political in doing this.
So I had an interesting discussion with some good comrades on the old Facebook about Brexit and what it means for the Labour party; and some interesting arguments were put my way and got me thinking about the issue. And so I decided seeing as I have my blogging muse in operation at the moment I’d jot something down.
I’d long thought that Europe was one of those issues that mattered loads to very political people, particularly Tories, but was of much less importance day to day to ordinary voters. The referendum last year rather shook my confidence in this.
However I think one of the striking things in this election is how little it seemed to actually be about Brexit. The Tories clearly wanted this to be the “Brexit” election. And, after the chance (or so they thought) to bury Labour; dealing with Brexit was the principal reason for the election. But as it happens to large parts of the electorate, and particularly for the Labour vote it really wasn’t the most important issue.
M’learned colleague Rob pointed me in the direction of Lord Ashcroft’s big detailed post election poll about voting reasons. Apparently Brexit was only the most important issue for 8% of Labour voters.
So I think it is fair to say a couple of things. Europe/Brexit isn’t as important to Labour voters as it is to some activists (like yours truly), and also that Labour’s policy on the issue had been very effective at closing off the issue, at this election at least.
It was a very clever, and skillfully done tactic to be honest. We adopted the Boris doctrine. Have your cake and eat it. And given the Tories were also lying through their teeth to the electorate about what is possible they weren’t really in a position to flush this out.
So our position was that we have ruled out no deal, promised to avoid a Tory “Hard Brexit”, maintain Tariff Free access to the Single Market, and end the free movement of people. And committed to respecting the result and the UK leaving the EU. It was a deliberate fudge that allowed us to look in multiple directions at once. People were able to read really what they wanted to read in that.
And it worked, a potential very difficult square for us to circle, getting a policy that won’t alienate the majority of Labour Voters and Activists who backed remain, particularly in cities, and at the same time isn’t harming us in the North and Midlands in places that voted leave.
Trouble is, it probably isn’t actually deliverable. The EU27 have made it crystal clear, time after time, that the only way to have tariff free access to the single market is to accept the four freedoms. And there seems no indication whatsoever that they are likely move on this. And the current omnishambles that is the state of the UK Government means we are really not well placed to be getting massive concessions out of the EU27.
Now my comrades with whom I was debating are adamant that this is not likely to be a big issue; that Brexit is causing the Tories problems and that we shouldn’t interrupt the enemy when they are making a mistake. That domestic issues are much more important to our new electorate.
All of which are fine positions; but personally I don’t buy it. I think that our position on Brexit is fine as a short term tactic, particularly with us not in Government and at the time of writing the manifesto unlikely to be so. But in the medium term it can and will cause us real problems.
For all that we should be delighted at the result last week let’s not forget that whilst we had a really good night we didn’t actually win the election. The Tories still got the most votes, and the most seats. And they are still the Government.
We need to build on our coalition from last Thursday and things that threaten that will threaten our chances of Seeing Corbyn walk into Number 10 as the new PM next time out.
So I don’t buy that it isn’t important because it has the potential to crack our coalition.
If the Labour Party is faced with a position where the Tories put “No Deal” to the commons as the only option where do we go? How do we please the Labour voters who are remainers and those who want to leave the EU?.
More likely though is what do we do if May is putting a really bad deal to us that does get rid of free movement but doesn’t achieve any of our aims (A Bankers Brexit say?)
Or what happens if we are given two options join the EEA and accept free movement or crash out on WTO terms?
In any of those scenarios the Labour party is going to significantly piss off a big part of it’s support base on an issue that might not be number 1 to many but is very important to some. Even if only 8% consider Brexit to be the main issue that is still 8% that we can’t really afford to lose if we want to form the next Government. And there are no doubt other consider this an important issue if not a key one.
According to the same survey Rob pointed me at 43% of Labour voters would still like to stop Brexit if possible. That certainly chimes with my anecdotal evidence, and I’d bet that figure is actually higher amongst activists and party members.
Another thing that has been rammed home to me in glorious technicolour is how out of sync I am with what “young people” think. My delusions that I am “Down with the kids” have been totally shattered by the creeping realisation that I am actually now pretty much just a middle aged Granddad. Having said that though everything I have seen about the referendum last year, and anecdotally in this election, suggests to me that for our younger activists fighting Brexit is a more important issue than it is for the wider Labour electorate. I’d love to see some proper research into what this looks like.
Now I’m very passionate on this issue, and I therefore am quite probably giving this far more weight than others do. You know since I was old enough to vote I have put my cross by the Labour candidate every single time I had the opportunity. Even during times (like after Iraq) where it was very, very difficult for me to do so. If Labour’s policy was, when push came to shove, to go for a Hard Brexit in order to stop free movement. If that is actually the official policy of the Labour front bench and what they planned to do in office then that streak would be broken. I doubt I’d vote for someone else but there is no way I could vote for a party in favour of a hard Brexit. I’m almost certainly a minority in this; but I don’t think I’m in a tiny minority.
So because our official policy is probably not on the menu, then at some point we are going to need to grapple with what we chose to do when we have to jump, and which portion of our base/support to we want to annoy and alienate.
For what it is worth my 2 cents are that when push comes to shove the Labour Party will end up prioritising the single market and as soft a Brexit as possible over ending free movement; though given my recent record of predictions not sure why anyone would ever listen to me on this sort of thing ever again!
Now we have just seen an election in which the electorate have shown that Brexit wasn’t as important an election issue as many expected it to be. And I totally acknowledge that.
However voters having different priorities in deciding how to vote doesn’t make any difference to how significant a thing the actuality of Brexit really happening will make to public policy. Let’s be clear Brexit, whatever form it takes, will be the biggest and most comprehensive change to our legal, economic and political systems since the second world war. It is hugely complex and will affect pretty much everything in British public life.
If Brexit is botched, and causing significant adverse consequences for the economy and public finances (and even its most delusional dewey eyed advocates acknowledge that is likely in the short term), even if Labour manager to get through that process without any mud sticking to us, then that is still a problem for any incoming Labour Government.
If the economy has taken a massive hit, if tax revenues are down, if we are suffering a larger than expected balance of payments, if unemployment is higher due to Brexit job losses. Then all of that makes it so much more difficult for Labour in office to make lasting changes to our society and makes the job of government so much more difficult for us.
Brexit might not have been the biggest issue for electors, but only a fool wouldn’t see that it’s consequences will be the biggest issue of public policy for the next 10 years or so.
So I think our tactics on Brexit in the short term has been right. But for the party we need a strategy for how we continue to square the circle when we can’t fudge it any more. And more than that we need to know what we are actually going to do when the party has to make a big choice about it’s role in whatever kind of Brexit happens.
And it is clear that isn’t settled at the top of the party. Two of Corbyn’s “Big Beasts” in John McDonnell and Barry Gardiner have struck quite different lines on this since the election. That needs to be bottomed out soon. Facing both ways can work for a bit but sooner or later you get found out, because the choices served up won’t allow us to satisfy our manifesto promises.
Brexit has the ability to break the Conservative party. But I believe we have to recognise that it is comparably risky and toxic for us too.