By Laurie South, Vice Chair of Membership
Brexit has been in the news for so long that many people are bored out of their cotton socks by it, but it has, nevertheless, created seismic splits in society that appear almost reminiscent of the religious fighting between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries . But, however the news and developments on Brexit are received now, it will have major effects on economic, social, cultural and political life for generations to come.
The Labour Party has, since the results of the referendum, tried to steer a compromise path, acknowledging the democratic results of the referendum but trying to find a new relationship with the EU that retained as many of the economic benefits of a continued close alignment with our biggest trading partner as possible in the developing global re-configurations. It even entered cross-party talks with the May government, albeit only when the May government belatedly found realised what difficulties it was in with its extreme right-wing, despite the fact that it had, apparently, eschewed any kind of customs union or single market solution.
The Labour Party’s attempts to find a compromise were thwarted by the inconclusive make-up of Parliament at the 2017 general election. The rather puerile labelling of the very reasonable Labour proposals as muddled and unclear at every opportunity hardly made a compromise easier and exacerbated the divisions in the country. However, finding a Parliamentary majority for any position, apart from “no no-deal”, seemed impossible.
Now, under the Johnson administration, we appear to be galloping recklessly towards a “no-deal”. To stop this leap over the cliff, the Labour Party leader, who is the official Leader of the Opposition since the Labour Party holds more seats than all the other non-government parties put together, proposed a vote of no confidence in the government.
Prior to the Fixed Term Parliament Act (an artefact contrived by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats as a way of protecting their coalition government) a vote of no confidence would have resulted in a general election. Now there are 14 days in which political parties must show they can form a government. To ensure that the UK does not slide into a “no-deal Brexit” during an election period or a period of political instability, the Leader of the Opposition proposed that other parties, along with Conservative dissenters from a “no-deal Brexit”, should support him in forming a caretaker government with the express purpose of:
- negotiating with the EU a postponement of the 31st October leaving date:
- calling a general election because in the present impasse, no Party can pass policy through Parliament: and
- starting to organise a second referendum including remain as one of the options.
Sadly, the only Parliamentary Party leader outside the government to immediately denigrate and refuse to countenance such a proposal was Jo Swinson on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. It has been the Liberal Democrats who have been strong advocates of a second referendum but when a mechanism that has a chance of initiating a second referendum has been proposed, the Liberal Democrat leader says she is going to take her bat and ball home and scupper the opportunity.
The Liberal Democrat leader naively denounced the proposal in such excoriating terms that she finds it difficult to reverse out of a hole of her own making. Liberal Democrat MPs on the social media were noticeably silent.
At a meeting of all the non-government Parliamentary parties on 27th August 2019 it was agreed that opposition parties would try to legislate for a no-deal position, keeping a no confidence vote as a Plan B contingency. However on 28th August 2019 the government announced that it would prorogue Parliament on 9th Sept 2019 and call a new Parliament with a Queen’s Speech in mid-October – a five week period with no Parliament to hold the government to account at a time when the major decisions about relationships with the EU may be taken. A prorogation means that all Bills still passing through the stages of legislation will not become law unless they new Parliament starts that legislation from scratch. So, legislation to prevent a no-deal would have to get through all stages of legislation (which includes being passed by the Lords) before 9th September – a very constrained and difficult legislative feat.
A five-week prorogation of Parliament is almost without precedent, but the government claimed this included the usual 3-week recess in which political parties held their annual conferences. The difference of course is that Parliament votes for a recess to hold political conferences and could choose not to do so. The government decided to take this decision for Parliament. This action makes it extremely difficult for Parliament to pass as law a course of action and very difficult to hold a government to account at a time when decisions affecting generations are being taken. The Labour Party was quick to point out that this is a very dangerous precedent and undermines the whole point of Parliament and democratic election of its members. There have been demonstrations in protest across the country attended by remainers and leavers alike, as well as by members of all political parties.
So how did we get into this position?
- Half hearted support for the EU
The UK is full of excellent projects funded through the EU. Unlike other EU members, the UK is reluctant to acknowledge them. We prefer to believe the populist writers who invent stories about straight bananas: we complain about unelected EU bureaucrats (forgetting our own are unelected): and we bemoan a lack of EU democracy (again forgetting that the UK, amongst others, preferred to keep power in government hands rather than empower an elected EU parliament). We have used the EU as a whipping boy. Nowhere is this better illustrated than by Johnson waving a Manx kipper saying the EU stopped it being sent without all manner health and safety precautions. It transpired that the regulations were created by the UK and had nothing to do with the EU.
The Labour Party has always recognised that there are areas of the EU that need to be reformed and transformed. A critique of an institution and organisation should not be seen as antagonism and a desire to destroy. All institutions and organisations are in a state of development to meet changes in the environment. Only when they do not meet an agreed purpose, cannot change, or have no mechanism for reform, is there a case to be made for abolition. In fact most EU members recognise that the UK has been a force for change and reform in the EU.
- Conservative fears about UKIP
UKIP was a political party on the fringes of public consciousness. With a new leader it utilised all the half-heartedness, described briefly above, to promote an electoral surge. It appeared that the Conservative Party would be the loser to UKIP in the ballot box, so a referendum was seen as a way of crushing UKIP and securing a Parliamentary majority for the Conservatives – something they had just secured in 2015, much to their own surprise, after 22 years.
- Referenda naivety
The UK is not a plebiscitary democracy and is therefore very inexperienced in referenda. Coupled with this, the Conservatives were confident they would win an EU referendum. Little thought was therefore given to the ramifications of the questions. It was a simple in or out. Even UKIP envisaged that an “out” vote would result in some kind of deal with the EU. A deal was seen as “easy-peasy” because the EU would not be able to agree amongst itself. When the results were narrowly in favour of leaving, it was realised that “leaving” could mean a variety of relationships from “soft” to “hard”. Worse, different groups then started claiming that the results meant whatever they wanted them to mean, and whatever suited their political aspiration.
- Referendum rules
Not having a great deal of experience of referenda meant that the rules governing the conduct of messaging, money, groups and individuals were badly thought through. The advent of social media as a new vehicle for promoting a message was inadequately understood by the electoral authorities. We were not even sure of the legal weight of the referendum result (hence the wrangling about what was in the election manifestos and assertions by UKIP that if it lost it would demand another referendum). The result was a potpourri of fallacious posters, exploitation of ignorance, and some of the lowest artefacts of the advertising trade. Expertise was systematically derided, and facts became the chambermaid of ideological assertion. Any new referenda need an overhaul of rules and regulations or we will have a repeat of a shameful pre-plebiscite run-up.
- No plan
No real thought or planning had been given to what leaving might mean and entail, especially as there was no agreement as to what the UK really wanted in terms of leaving. As post referendum time passed, the implications of leaving slowly began to dawn on decision-makers, and the costs of replicating EU organisations (e.g. approval of medicines, GPS etc.) became apparent. It is doubtful if UK citizens realise that they may have to purchase visas, health insurance and green cards to holiday at their farmhouse in France.
- Negotiating style
The Anglo-American negotiating style posits a poker game at which the players hide their hands and there are winners and losers in a zero-sum game. The European negotiating style is for both sides to state what they want and then the negotiation is about trying to give everyone as much of what they want as is possible. This cultural difference, with the UK confused about what it wanted, made the negotiation on withdrawal and a deal very difficult.
- Post-colonial sense of entitlement
References to how Britain stood alone in the war (forgetting the USSR and the help from the colonies and USA) were, and still are, used to demonstrate that the UK is so important in the world that a great future awaits us. There was no realisation that the great trading blocs (America, China, India, Brazil, Russia) are culturally and politically integrated countries of huge size, populations and resources. They have clout because they organise themselves with agreed standards, internal supply lines, and large markets. Against the new emerging geo-economic order, the UK is an economic minnow.
- The Irish Backstop
As part of the Good Friday Agreement there is an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland. Flows of goods, services and people across the Northern Ireland border are seamless and all governments want this to remain. Under May’s deal with the EU the whole of UK would remain in the Customs Union until a deal with the EU was ratified to avoid either a border checkpoint in the Irish Sea or treating Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. However, the EU (and Ireland) are concerned that if no deal is ratified or talks break down, there will be an open doorway into the EU for goods that do not meet EU standards. The EU would have to impose a border on Northern Ireland (which would cause difficulties given the current seamless nature and the integration of the two economies) or it would impose a border check around Ireland. The Withdrawal Agreement therefore states that Northern Ireland will remain in the Customs Union until both sides are satisfied with the arrangements.
The UK government (and it appears Parliament though that is less clear) feel this arrangement could keep the UK in the Customs Union “by the back door”, while the EU cannot afford to have a loophole in the integrity of its customs arrangements (or there will new loopholes leaking goods across the whole of Europe). The EU was particularly alarmed at Johnson’s letter saying the EU should remove the backstop and in the same letter stating that the UK wants to change regulations and standards. They also find it difficult to understand the concept of “other” forms of checks, and vague references to IT when there are no exemplars of borders functioning in this way.
So where now?
While some say that Johnson is playing a shrewd negotiating game, others say he really wants to try and apportion blame solely to the EU for being intransigent when they have made it clear they cannot threaten the integrity of the EU.
Despite some rather optimistic claims through the media, it is difficult to see the current talks (or lack of them) going anywhere unless there is a covert back-door negotiation going on.
Even a “no-deal crash-out on 31st October” will resolve very little. Arguments will continue about trade with the EU for many a year, and, if the UK government refuses to make agreed payments, continue in a spirit of bitterness.
The only way of breaking the impasse is either through a legislated “no no-deal”, or a vote of no confidence followed by a caretaker government with the limited objective of negotiating an extension, holding a general election and then holding a further referendum.
The time now available in Parliament to do this is very constrained. While all other non-government parties have agreed to a legislated “no no-deal” route, the Liberal Democrat leader appear to remain intransigent about the Leader of the Opposition taking a role as caretaker PM. They are important as numbers are tight, but they are not more important than the largest voting bloc. Unfortunately, this looks like an attempt by the Liberal Democrats to carpet-bag a veto over the caretaker PM. It also looks like a very personal antipathy to Corbyn irrespective of the needs of the country. Attempts to transfer the blame to Corbyn by saying he is so unpopular that he should step down for another candidate, look like attempts to position the Liberal Democrats for an election rather than stop “no-deal”. The fact that Swinson dissembled about whether she had held discussions with her “preferred” candidates does not make her look better. Fortunately, the government’s rather transparent stratagem to by-pass democratic processes have meant there are an unknown number of Tories horrified by the dictatorial machinations of the government and ready to vote against the government. But will they simply vote for a “no no-deal” law which they will ensure never reaches the statute books, or will they go as far as to vote against the government in a no confidence motion.
While Swinson may be so misadvised as to think the Liberal Democrats are entitled to a veto, she needs to be reminded that there were elections in 2017 in which they only managed to scrape 12 seats, their vote share went down, and that the Labour Party secured 40 per cent of the vote. She also needs to be minded about the punishment the electorate imposed on the Liberal Democrats for their coalition of austerity with the Conservatives. And yes, locally, the Kingston & Surbiton electorate rejected Edward Davey – and could well do so again. The electorate has a habit of punishing parties that put self-interest and their own idiosyncratic antagonisms above the needs and well-being of the country.
The present policy position of the Labour Party is to try and heal the ideological rift in the electorate. To do this it would seek a deal with the EU that resulted in close economic ties and then would put this to the electorate in a referendum which included the option to remain. Politicians seeking to promote their own interests may try to deride this, but they have to explain how they will mend the bitter rifts in society engendered by a referendum instituted by one party to resolve its own difficulties.
But by the time we reach a general election, the precedent of a government deciding for Parliament and using arcane derivations of precedent to silence Parliament will have had profound implications for the future of our democratic structures.