Friday, 3 November 2017

Stopping Brexit is a race against time. Labour MPs are in pole position

Perhaps, just perhaps, historians might look back at this week and say, that is the week that the tide started to turn against populist politics and at least some parts of the world managed to save themselves from it.

Probably for some states, Turkey, Hungary, Russia and perhaps Poland, from where I write, it is too late. But some with longer-established democratic traditions still may have the will and the mechanisms to turn it around, in time to prevent lasting damage.

It has been the week of two signal events: the first indictments in Trump/Russia, which may yet lead to the early collapse of an ignominious presidency; and a poll showing that public opinion may finally have twigged that Brexit negotiations are headed down a blind alley with no good result for Britain.

The first is the tip of an immense iceberg which is as yet far too early to call. But the second we can project a little into the future. So, when a YouGov poll says 53% of voters think we were wrong to leave the EU and 47% right, it is worth reflecting on. First, it could be a mere blip, an outlier. Second, this does not mean the Remainers in that poll think that we can even try and leave, as YouGov themselves argue here.

But let’s suppose that 53% were to become 60%, or even 70%. At what point does public opinion become strong enough that politicians have to sit up and think about remedial action? Clearly that point exists, if you can push the percentage high enough. Public opinion can be a fickle thing: but when it starts to decide something unequivocally, it cannot be ignored.

Conventional wisdom since the general election has said that you cannot challenge Brexit, because it is a done deal and that anything which goes against this “non-binding” vote is now democratically unacceptable.

But you know what? Sod the tyranny of conventional wisdom.

Tell that to the Catalans, currently unravelling centuries of ties and a forty-year old constitution which ties them into Spain, that a one-year old (non-binding) vote is enough to tie up your future forever. You can argue either way whether they should have independence or not, but what you cannot argue is this: they are not letting statute stand in the way of sheer, brute will power and neither should we.

Once you have moved on from the idea that a single (non-binding) vote must be recognized as immutable forever, your horizon expands. You start thinking the unthinkable, that things can be changed.

But the clock is ticking. There comes a point also where Brexit truly does become unstoppable. It is likely to be in 2019, when a final vote on terms is probable, if not cast-iron.

So on the one hand we have a potential move in public opinion against the tendency towards self-harm, if only it can become decisive enough. On the other, a ticking clock. If there were ever a time for action from Remainers, closet or otherwise, it is now.

Who is best placed to act? Why, MPs, of course, as Jonathan Todd wrote at Labour Uncut yesterday. And, in particular, Labour MPs. Only they have the numbers and the weight to act, if they can just be fearless in the limited window which is opening up.

Lib Dems and Scottish Nationalists are already counted. But Labour backbenchers, originally so vociferously against Brexit, have been apparently cowed by the twin surges: that of encroaching Corbynism on the one hand, and the apparent intractability of the British public on Brexit on the other. A case of head down, focus on the constituency. But this may just be their moment, if only they can grasp it.

Politicians in a representative democracy have a duty, not only to follow public opinion but also to lead it. If they can help tease the public towards an endgame in which Brexit is challenged, the polling could eventually reach that tipping point where the Tories collapse.

No-one can predict the mechanism. Some kind of cross-party coalition of convenience, probably. But it requires organization and some kind of spirit of resistance.

Perhaps this is all fanciful. Perhaps Brexit is already unstoppable, although even a Brexit implemented could be swung “softly” in a way which minimised the damage, à la Norway.

But in the end, do not those in a position to do something have an obligation to, well, do something? This is, after all, the most momentous constitutional event in Britain’s postwar history, like it or not.

We can act. Or we can sit there and wait for it all to happen, as bystanders.

Daddy, what did you do in the great Brexit crisis of 2017?

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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