Liberal Democrats Newham

A reflection on the EU Referendum by John Underwood

Five weeks ago I was confused. A small majority of the voters said they wanted to leave the European Union, a slightly smaller number said they wanted to stay. If you put all those who voted into a very large fleet of the old Routemasters in proportion to the way they voted, there would be, on average, two or three more leave voters on each bus than remainers. A majority, certainly, but how significant, especially when there can be no return from Brexit, at least to where we were before the vote. It would be the duty of Parliament to find a way of achieving as much of the Leavers’ wishes as were possible without ignoring the needs of the Remainers. It might not be surprising if the MPs decided that it was next to impossible in view of the narrow gap between the sides and impossibility of a compromise between Yes and No.

The next confusion was how many people, apparently the Prime Minister among them, thought that Referendum was binding. He ought to have known better, the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote contained a clause binding Parliament to act on the result according to the majority choice, whichever way it went. Without such legislation, and the Brexit Referendum Bill did not have it, Parliament does not even have to look at the result. Politically it would be unwise but is it only politics that matters? What about the good of the United Kingdom as a whole (which might not be improved by some consequences of Brexit) and the rights of citizens which may be reduced if free movement throughout the EU is removed from them. They also have to pay attention to politics as ‘the art of the possible’. Leaving the EU will require a vast amount of legislation. Is there enough parliamentary time to complete that? If not, would it be safe to entrust the immediate and long-term future of our country to a guillotine? The consequences of incomplete or unworkable legislation will rebound for years and occupy even more parliamentary time while still trying to run the country. Indeed, would it be possible to reconcile the leave campaign promises to give us our borders back (i.e. no more free movement) and access to the single market without being bound by the EU standards?

All that now seems so simple when we saw the effects of the Referendum on the two larger parties. The Tories choreographed a beautiful dance macabre in which all but one played their parts perfectly. The wild card, the joker, had to be removed by a quick stab in the back, followed by the even quicker removal of the executioner. It came down to open claws at dawn, then one of them said the other was unsuitable for office since she had no children and then withdrew because she needed more time to be with her son. That seemed remarkably civilised compared with what was happening on the other side of the house.

After sacking his Number One for mutiny, Corbyn received sackfuls of resignation letters from the Shadow Cabinet, including West Ham’s Lyn Brown, jumping on the

bandwagon just a trifle late to be noticed. Any Corporate CEO seeing the wholesale departure of his board of directors and most of his heads of department you would expect would find it worrying and if not immediately, the share-holders would rapidly make their views felt. The Labour party membership, however, are not shareholders. They appear to subscribe to a view that once elected the leader deserves the total loyalty of all members, whether they voted for him or not. The Parliamentary Labour Party then voted no-confidence in the leader: 172 to 40, 75% or the total PLP. Democracy is shown by the start of deselection procedures on many of them. If 52% to 48% is an overwhelming majority how can this be dismissed as unconstitutional and therefore meaningless.

It would appear that there is no way to remove a Labour Leader. No requirement to stand for re-election, no vote of confidence. Even if members stand against the leader, he is automatically placed on the ballot paper without the approval of MPs as required for everyone else. (That is probably a correct interpretation of the party constitution, they had to find a QC to work it out for them.) Changing a constitution is a serious task, usually requiring a higher majority ad turnout for routing decisions. (At least it is in most democratic organisations from darts clubs to amateur orchestras, but apparently not the UK). I have serious misgivings about any organisation which does not allow the membership to question or remove the leaders. Even the Armed Forces have procedures for servicemen and women to report cases of misuse of authority. They aren’t very good and need a lot of improvement, but at least they exist. The entire purpose of the Leader of the Opposition and his team is to hold the Government to task, to question and to criticize. What would happen if Labour took power and Corbyn behaved to the opposition with the same contempt that he shows to his opponents within the party? It would be an even bigger attempt to wrest sovereignty from Parliament. Anyone trying that should pay attention to history, the last one who did had his head removed in Whitehall.

There is a gleam of hope. In 1981 four Labour members, two MPs, 2 ex-MPs) left the Labour Party for a variety of reasons including unilateral disarmament and election of the party leader by an electoral college in which the unions had 60% of the share. They formed the Social Democratic Party which later merged with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democratic Party. If this stubborn recalcitrance continues who knows how many rebels there will be and they will still be MPs, even if not Labour for a long time, deselection might be irrelevant then. In the meantime I hope someone is getting on with the important issue: finding a way of making Brexit work.

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