Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Country before party, reprise

This post was written prior to last night's votes

Today, Parliament will have arguably its most important day of votes in decades.

There are three particular ones which matter: on the EEA, on the Customs Union and on a “meaningful vote” for the Commons on the final deal.

The Customs Union one Labour will vote for, but it’s not to get us to stay in theCustoms Union. It’s just to get Theresa May to actually tell us what progress she’s made towards any participation in a Customs Union. As The Independent’s John Rentoul put it: “ ‘I haven’t made any’ would meet that requirement.”

As if this were not enough, the current position of both major parties on a customs union is nonsensical. Both are asking that Britain be able to negotiate its own trade deals as well, the absence of which power is the whole point of a customs union.

In other words, they are subscribing to what we might reasonably refer to as “Schroedinger’s Customs Union”, that is, a customs union that Britain is part of and not part of at the same time.

Next, that Parliament should effectively be left to sort out the next steps, in the event that the “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit package is lost. Labour will at least vote in favour of that.

No such luck with the vote on staying in the EEA, Britain’s last chance to have a Norway-style arrangement and actually hold onto the trade benefits the leadership is disingenuously claiming to want to hold onto (although, in reality, it doesn’t really). Labour MPs are being whipped to abstain.

But why are Labour MPs, the majority of which are apparently Remainers, even caring about the whip?

A PLP that rebelled on mass against Corbyn two years ago are now – with some honourable exceptions – supine, either for fear that their constituents will punish them or that their careers in a politically-destitute Labour Party will suffer? Even with the public now turning against Brexit, albeit slowly?

And what of that public? We rule-followers of Britain seem, frustratingly, to have an attitude to an advisory referendum far above and beyond the call of democracy. It seems clear that, in practically any other European state, pragmatism would have got the better of people and politicians.

On the amendments in general but the EEA in particular, as Neil Kinnock put itover the Lords’ vote: “It would be a serious evasion of duty if Labour did not seize this chance to protect our country from the rockslide of hard Brexit.”

And then, finally, if you wanted any further reasons why Remainer MPs might consider it a public duty to break the whip tomorrow, there is Russia.

After this weekend, were it not before, it now seems clear that Russia not only deliberately intervened in the US presidential election but also in the Brexit referendum, on the side of Leave. Whatever you voted, this is clearly not a good thing. Not only with its online trolls and bots, but by offering a financial “opportunity” – not a bribe, oh no, that would be cheating – to Leave.EU’s Aaron Banks in the run-up to the referendum campaign. Not to mention the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In short, it is clear that a hostile foreign power is now rubbing its hands with glee at the thought that Britain could exit and weaken the European Union.

It is already, through its authoritarian allies in Hungary and Poland, pulling at the stitching which holds that union together.

The reality is that it may yet, in our lifetimes, invade (likely denying everything, as it did in Ukraine) members of NATO, which would formally require either a military response or acceptance that NATO was dead. And if you don’t believe that, ask some of the Baltic state leaders what they think about Russia’s recent exercises there.

A couple of months back we talked about the fact that, with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, at some point, the time would come when moderate MPs would be forced to choose between party or country.

That point has now come, at least for the Remainer majority. And it is not “party” in the wider sense of what the majority of the party’s members and supporters want – they have already made it clear that they want the softest of Brexits or, preferably, no Brexit at all.

No, it is “party” in the narrowest of senses: whether or not you will displease the Leader and the Whips’ Office. You can take your chances with your constituents in a couple of years’ time. Furthermore, the theory that you will be “punished” if you go against their referendum wishes remains anyway largely untested.

And so this, ultimately, comes down to your career prospects under a leader who will very likely never become Prime Minister; who, if he does, will surely enjoy the most disastrous premiership of any PM since Eden (or earlier); and who, let us not forget, himself defied the whip 428 times while Labour was in power. It is not difficult to conclude that we are living a temporary, largely unsustainable, situation within the party.

If you are a Leaver MP, fine, vote with your beliefs. But if you are a Remainer, how can you possibly in all conscience vote with the Tories, for a nonsensical position which you know will leave your constituents poorer. You cannot.

If there ever were a “country before party” vote, it is surely this one. If you have been in Parliament long enough – and, at this point, relatively few of you have – you may have felt that internal tug-of-war in 2003 over Iraq. But Iraq, for all its ability to split the party on different interpretations of moral imperative, did not affect the daily lives of all your constituents.

This does. In fact, it affects almost all the things that we, the party of the many, claim to hold dear. Jobs. Investment. Internationalism.

In the end, you can vote with your conscience. Or you can explain to your kids, as they survey their economically-underperforming future over the next couple of decades, why you didn’t.

This post first published at Labour Uncut
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