Tag Archives: eu

Revoke or Referendum?

I’ve been fascinated by the response to the new Lib Dem position to fight the next election on a platform of revoking Article 50 and doing so if (and at the moment, it’s a big if) they win an outright majority. Polly Toynbee has denounced it as “extremist” with Emily Thornberry deciding to up the ante by comparing the party to the Taliban (I don’t know where I stand with regard making jokes about this reaction, possibly because I haven’t come up with any good ones, but I think Rajin Chowdhury makes some strong points about the unfortunate racial dimension that, as a white man, I’m privileged to not be impacted by).

Even Caroline Lucas has got in on the act, describing the policy as “arrogant, self-indulgent, cynical and very dangerous” – her point being that the policy is likely to ignite divisions rather than heal them.

There’s a few things to unpack here. Basically, there are three questions: is the policy undemocratic?; is the policy divisive?; and, is the policy likely to be a vote winner?

In terms of the latter, I’ve heard a lot of people express the worry that it isn’t – including, funnily enough, some of the six million people who signed a petition a few months ago demanding article 50 be revoked without a referendum (indeed, I don’t recall Lucas, Thornberry or Toynbee denouncing that petition). All I can say to that, aside from that time will tell, is that I would imagine the Lib Dem leadership team did their research very seriously before committing to this position and that, thus far, the polls have borne that out.

Is it undemocratic? Well, this is an interesting one. I’m still trying to keep up, as a constitutional reformer, with the situation that all my opponents have switched from saying that parliamentary sovereignty should and does trump everything else to seeing them consistently argue the exact opposite, including by people who for decades argued to leave the EU on precisely these terms. Before the crazy started, a party pledging to keep the nation’s status quo constitutional arrangements after winning a democratic mandate in a general election wouldn’t be considered noteworthy, let alone undemocratic or extremist.

Of course, you can argue that if the Lib Dems were to do this it is still unlikely they would win more than 50% of the popular vote. This is of course true. Nor was there a majority in the popular vote to impose austerity in 2010. Nor was there a majority voting for a whole host of policies which have had a major impact on our lives since time immemorial. This is a problem the Lib Dems have always recognised and pledged to do something about; neither Labour nor the Conservatives have ever made any such commitment.

There is also the argument that a general election result cannot trump the specific mandate of the 2016 election. This is where things start to slide into the third question, which is largely about politics. But I would point out at this stage that not only does that referendum result have no legal status whatsoever, but also that any democratic regime in the world which has referendums as a central mechanism for making major decisions, particularly Switzerland, would likely have stricken that result down as unconstitutional a long time ago.

If you think referendums should form a part of decision-making, then it is incumbent on you to prevent them from being quite so open to abuse as they currently are. The UK is very, very bad at holding referendums: we don’t have a legal framework to do so other than one that was sketched out in 2000 to deal with, at the time, a series of abandoned referendums for regional assemblies. We haven’t significantly updated referendum law since them, despite the debacle of the 2010 AV referendum providing us with a very salutary warning as to what might happen in a higher stakes national ballot.

It is perhaps Cameron’s greatest failing, having decided to hold that cursed referendum in 2016, to imagine that the unfair practices done in his name in 2010 would be done against him in 2016 – despite knowing that a number of the same people were involved in both campaigns. Not only did he not take that into account, but he doubled down, unjustly excluding 16 and 17 year olds and even EU citizens from the debate, for no reason other than to hand the leave campaign an unfair advantage by excluding the people with some of the greatest stakes in the result from being able to take part.

In short, if you are going to make this claim that the 2016 result should be binding, you need to at least be able to make the case that it was held democratically. In that regard, I fear, you would be on a very sticky wicket.

Finally, as in all things, we are left with the argument that this policy is divisive, and that we should be healing divisions between remainers and leavers, not deepen them. And this argument certainly has some superficial merit: the country is indeed deeply divided.

I guess my counter to that is that I’m not at all convinced that a compromise exists that can heal those divisions, and that the best approach would be to adopt the position that will at least end this ongoing festering wound. Revoking article 50, for all its risks, would at least give British politics a chance to breathe, and to start a dialogue about something, anything, other than Brexit – a great many of which would help heal those rifts. Keeping the debate going by contrast will only ensure those divisions continue.

From where we are now, I can’t see a compromise that will keep most people relatively happy. There certainly was a window of opportunity. In the summer of 2016, like a lot of people, I worked on the assumption that we were going to end up with the softest of soft Brexits and that, by 2019, would effectively have a trading arrangement akin to Norway. The result was close enough that no-one could reasonably argue that there was a strong mandate for a “hard” Brexit in which the UK went it entirely alone. Better yet, from monitoring the debate, both Vote Leave and Leave.EU had consistently argued that claims that we would drop out of the EU without a deal were “Project Fear” and specifically cited Norway as a model example.

To be clear, it wasn’t an option that I exactly relished: the Norway model is essentially the Leave position made manifest. We’d have to pay billions to the EU and have very little say in return – certainly no more votes in the European Parliament or Council of Ministers. But hey, there was a mandate, and I guess we have to listen to the will of the people. What’s more, only a few absolute headbangers were calling for a harder Brexit and surely Theresa May wasn’t going to listen to them?

How wrong I was. The subsequent conduct of the May administration appeared to work on the basis that the referendum had been a thumping victory for leave and not the narrow one that it was in reality. And as they did so, so did leave opinion harden. One of the greatest acts of gaslighting of the last few years has been to attempt to argue that the subsequent debacle has been because of remainers refusing to compromise and secretly undermining the talks, rather than leavers. Theresa May made a deliberate decision to put them in the driving seat and leave everyone else out in the cold.

So we ended up with a deal that didn’t please anyone and a leave contingency even more determined to leave at all costs, and this crazed government we have now. I didn’t do anything to create this situation and neither did Jo Swinson. The response by politicians on the leave side following Jo Cox’s murder by an extremist was not to pause for thought but to double down on the rhetoric about “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people” – and indeed we now have a government that has shut down parliamentary scrutiny, legally due to our shoddy constitution, or otherwise.

To be clear: this is not the situation we were in in 2016 where there was legitimate hurt on both sides that needed to be addressed. We’re in a situation where one side of that divide has been radicalised, and the other side has been repelled as a result. I’ve criticised the idea of centrism in the past, arguing that politicians shouldn’t be aiming for the moving target of the middle way because they are then entirely subject to the whims of their opponents, but it increasingly feels that trying to find a middle way here isn’t merely fudge but appeasement.

You don’t deradicalise a significant body people by trying to meet them halfway. Not only are people like Stephen Kinnock’s attempts to exhume the withdrawal agreement doomed to fail; if they had been successful they would be lumped in as filthy traitors just as much as the rest of us. Equally baffling is this idea that a Labour negotiated withdrawal agreement would somehow satisfy anyone, least of all the Brexiteers.

And so we return to the topic of a second referendum. For years, despite my misgivings of referendums, I thought this was the least worst option. I could see how revocation would be simpler, and it would certainly be my dream option, but I couldn’t see how it could be a politically acceptable solution to anyone other than a small cadre of remainers. I supported attempts to bring Labour on board and finally get off the fence by supporting this position; if they had done so a year ago we would likely have had the referendum by now.

But the question of what options you put in the referendum has become increasingly hard to answer. Six months ago, if Parliament had supported such a proposal, it was still just about possible to hold a referendum on remain versus Theresa May’s deal; I can’t see how that could be seen as anything other than a stitch up now. You could put crashing out of the EU with no deal at all as an option, but while people might relish the fight, it is surely not a responsible option any respectable political party could consider – it would be putting people’s lives up for debate in a public poll.

The other option is for the leave option to be a new withdrawal agreement. This is roughly what Labour seems to be tearing itself apart over now. The problem is, it’s an incredibly silly policy. Do you argue for remain and put forward a withdrawal deal that you don’t believe in? Do you say you’re going to support the withdrawal deal that you negotiate, and thus alienate your remain supporters? Or do you stay scrupulously neutral, as if that could possibly mean anything? Labour has got itself into such a mess that it might actually be for the best for them to have a formal position to remain, but give Jeremy Corbyn a free rein to negotiate the best deal he can come up with and campaign for it in the subsequent referendum in a personal capacity. That I can say that in all seriousness shows quite how hard to sustain the referendum position currently is. What looks likely is that Labour will end up committing itself to a policy almost identical to the one that David Cameron campaigned on in the 2015 general election; and look how well that turned out.

I can still see a referendum still happening as a compromise between the Lib Dems and Labour. Paradoxically, if the Lib Dems kept its position of supporting a referendum, the lack of pressure would probably make it harder to achieve. We’ve now reached a point where Labour feels it has ownership of the policy – helped by the Lib Dems vacating that space – and that will make it harder for the likes of Len McCluskey et al to persuade Corbyn to go back on it if they found themselves in government (I would be amazed if McCluskey didn’t still have a go though).

Ultimately, this muddle only strengthens my case that no position exists any longer that both leave and remain supporters can live with, and the fact that Labour is even considering an attempt at such a byzantine approach says more about the lamentable state it is currently in than anything else.

No Brexit policy is going to heal divisions; it is thus up to political parties to base their policy on what is best for the country, not try to ameliorate people with fudge. The Lib Dems have thus adopted the most responsible, straightforward and open position.

Ultimately, Brexit has only highlighted the deep divide in the UK; it didn’t cause it. If we’re going to ease that rift, we have to start looking at the deep inequality and alienation that was exploited in that poll. I’d have liked to have heard more emphasis on this coming out of Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth last week, and I have heard equally little from Labour conference in Brighton this week (scrapping posh schools, however desirable, won’t cut it). If pro-Europeans are ultimately going to win the peace, they need to start offering a vision of EU-membership from which the entire country reaps dividends, not just London and the major population centres. I don’t think offering a bit more hope would go down too badly in the election, either.

Brexit and the austerity paradox

Here’s a conundrum. I think it is widely understood now that at least one major factor for why the Remain side lost in the EU referendum campaign was that a significant number of people in the poorest parts of the country did not feel that they enjoyed any of the economic benefits of being a member of the EU and wanted to give the political establishment a bloody nose. There were certainly enough of those voters to make the difference between staying in and leaving the EU, given how close it turned out to be.

So if we’d spent the last decade investing in those parts of the UK and ensuring they saw greater economic renewal, more jobs and a higher standard of living instead of forcing austerity on them, driving up reliance on foodbanks and increasing human misery in the process, we wouldn’t now be seeing the sort of meltdown that we’re witnessing going on in the City right now.

Here’s the thing though. The City had made it perfectly clear that it wanted that austerity. Indeed, the City has quite a lot of form when it comes to threatening governments with economic hardship if it doesn’t get its way. During those infamous “5 days in May” in 2010 when we had no functioning government after the general election, the mood music coming from the Square Mile was grisly. The constant refrain, especially from the Lib Dems in the coalition, was that if we didn’t follow this path economic disaster would follow. I lost count the number of times that Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander over-egged the pudding and claim that we were on the brink of economic disaster on the scale that Greece has experienced over the last few years.

I can mock Clegg and Alexander, but the fact remains that there was some truth in this. The City was telling us to follow a course of action, and were threatening to punish us if we didn’t get in line. They had the whip hand, just two years after wrecking the global economy when you would have thought there would be a little more contrition.

In retrospect, I wonder: would the market have been able to cope with a little less austerity if what it got in return was the UK remaining in the EU? With the benefit of hindsight, I think the answer is yes. And yet here we are now, staring at economic disaster, with no political leadership in Westminster, and with the money men more in charge than ever. There is talk of sensibly abandoning austerity, but only because the economic case is pretty hard to dismiss (just as it was in 2007). And in the longer term, it looks like we’re going to be more dependent on the good will of the markets than ever. Far from having our sovereignty return from Brussels, it’s been punted a couple of miles down the Thames.

For several decades now, there has been an agenda to decouple politics from economics, with both politicians and business alike preferring to pretend that never the twain shall meet. There is only one economic model that works, and politics should focus on non-economic matters. So at the same time as we see all political parties becoming uncritical market capitalists, we see identity politics and nativism take hold. The reality is that the two are fundamentally intertwined. There are deep political consequences to economic decisions, which in turn can – and has – had fundamental economic consequences. Somehow, and I don’t know how, we need to create a greater awareness for how the decisions made on the floor of the stock exchange impacts daily life in Hartlepool. The alternative is a political system which continues to consume itself and drive itself increasingly to extremes, which in turn leads to economic ruin.

Why I’ll be voting “remain”

I decided a few weeks ago to break my blogging silence in the run up to the referendum, and the events of yesterday have somewhat concentrated my mind. I had imagined this article would be a magnificent rant about the lies and hate-mongering of the Leave campaign, but as I come to write this, I’ve found myself rather angered out.

Like many people with a history working in politics, Jo Cox’s murder feels close to home. I was working in Lib Dem HQ in 2000 when Cllr Andrew Pennington was killed by a constituent in Nigel Jones MP’s constituency office. I’ve worked the political beat in West Yorkshire. I campaigned for one of my friends, also called Jo, who also went on to represent the community she grew up in in Parliament. So yeah, despite having walked away from party politics, there are plenty of parallels in my own life to have given me pause for thought over the last 24 hours.

The referendum itself has become an undignified, ghastly mess. As a survivor of a previous referendum campaign, this of course has not surprised me one bit. What has surprised me rather more by how, as we near the finish line, I’ve found myself feeling quite as strongly as I did.

Twelve, even six months ago, I was feeling distinctly ambivalent about the EU. The way Greece has been treated, essentially as the sin eater for Eurozone’s shortcomings, has been appalling. The refugee crisis has been met with moral cowardice and indifference. Regardless of the TTIP’s merits or flaws (I’m genuinely on the fence), its secrecy has been, to say the least, undignified. For quite a while now, it hasn’t felt like the EU I felt proud to be a member of at the turn of the millennium.

The one thing I can say about this referendum is that it has clarified my thinking on that. Because the question arises, again and again, what the alternative is. I’ve heard countless people talk about how the EU is “undemocratic” – and yet not a single supporter of leaving the EU seems interested in a system that would be more democratic.

I can think of a number of ways in which the EU could be made more democratic. Opening up Council meetings, for example; there’s even a debate to be had over directly electing the Commission president (regardless of the pros and cons of that particular one, I doubt Jean-Claude Juncker would have had an easy time winning a popular vote). None of them whatsoever involve negotiating EU legislation in the same way that we negotiate bilateral treaties – entirely in the hands of the executive, with most of the work and negotiating done by civil servants entirely behind closed doors.

If we’re serious about improving the democratic scrutiny of EU legislation however, the most crucial place to start is home. Why, for example, are the committees which do the lion’s share of scrutiny of draft EU legislation, seated in the entirely unelected House of Lords? Why doesn’t our parliament scrutinise legislation as closely as so many other countries take for granted, particularly Nordic countries such as Denmark? In turn, if Parliament really wanted to give people more say, there are plenty of models it could adopt. None of these reforms would require agreement in Brussels – we could adopt them tomorrow if there was the political will.

If the EU ceased to exist tomorrow, the need for it would continue. We need trans-national agreements on standards; you might bristle about having to meet EU standards, but believe me you would bristle a lot more if you had to comply with 27 national ones. We need trans-national agreements on social and employment rights, because otherwise employers will face a Dutch auction, with the companies with the worst records in looking after their employees free to price out those with the best. And yes, all too often the EU, far from being an exemplar of free and open trade, is a cosy club of wealthy nations. But scrapping an organisation with protectionist tendencies with a free-for-all in which nation states will be under even greater pressure to roll up the drawbridge, isn’t going to solve that.

Most of the EU’s failings can be put down to narrow national self-interest, something which the EU exists to mitigate. You don’t solve that problem by embracing narrow national self-interest; I’d have thought that was self-evident. I’m actually not convinced that its main problems are institutional; predominantly, they’re cultural. “Europe lacks a demos,” by which is meant a sense of common identity and purpose amongst the people, has become a cliché, but it is nonetheless true and I can’t see an easy solution. Put simply, the vast majority of people just don’t feel a sense of ownership of the European institutions, let alone control. People struggle to name their MEPs and our media does little to report their work. As such, we have a set of actually quite open and democratic bodies which effectively operate in secret because so few people are actually paying attention.

It gets worse though. I think you could equally argue that local government largely lacks a “demos”. It is increasingly becoming true of national parliaments as well. Since 2009 and the expenses scandal, closely followed by the coalition government’s utterly failed programme of reform, the feeling that Westminster is unreformable and irrelevant seems to have set in. Increasingly, political outsiders are being invoked to ride in and solve all our problems, regardless of how unrealistic and futile their positions are. And it’s a global phenomenon: for every Nigel Farage, there’s a Donald Trump; for every Jeremy Corbyn there’s a Bernie Sanders.

What I’m getting round to saying here is that the problem with the EU is not rooted in the fact that we look to our cosy nation-states to represent us and solve our problems, but that democracy itself is in crisis because it is reliant on a sense of identity and common cause that we are losing rapidly. It’s a loss the left is struggling with more than the right, but even though the right is finding itself the beneficiary, it is becoming something shrill and even more incapable of providing reforms that don’t simply make things worse. Moderates who indulge their right flanks are being replaced by demagogic parodies of the politicians they have supplanted.

Not even countries with the best democratic systems are proving immune to this problem, which is fundamentally technological at root and thus irreversible (unless you consider nuclear apocalypse to be an option). Our problems are increasingly global ones. Our communities are too, even if they’ve become narrower. Walking away from the EU won’t stop that; it will just make our problems harder to solve.

Nowhere is this more true than in the case of migration. Economically, we have benefited hugely from immigration and we simply can’t control our borders without international cooperation. There simply is no drawbridge to pull up. Where there is a clear failure in our immigration policy, it is our national failure to ensure that the wider public see those benefits – especially in the case of providing decent social housing for all.

The refugee crisis isn’t going to magically go away if we decide the leave the EU. The tight border controls at Calais aren’t magically going to be made impermeable if we go – and does anyone seriously believe that the price of French cooperation in that regard is not going to go up if we do? Laughably, the Leave campaign’s solution is a “points-based” system along the lines of Australia – a country with a higher number of immigrants per head of population than we do; and while they’re busy plastering brown faces on their billboards with an explicit aim to scare white people, they’re quietly telling Asian voters that they’d make it easier for their relatives to come to the UK.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more disreputable political enterprise in the UK, with the stakes as high as they are, yet it plugs into people’s fears and has proven effective. And does anyone seriously doubt that if they get their way on the 23rd, public dissatisfaction about immigration will get anything but worse?

I have no idea what the solution to any of this is. What I do know is that things will go downhill, much more quickly, if we vote to leave next Thursday. What I do know is that the EU, already under pressure as people across Europe increasingly vote for insular and and xenophobic parties, will struggle even more. And I know that those self-same xenophobes, whether they wrap themselves in Nazi flags or claim to be insulted at the suggestion that they have anything in common with fascists, will only lead us to more violence, death and bloodshed. Not a single one of these problems will go away if the UK votes to remain, but we might just get a little bit more time to breathe and come up with something that might work. And I can’t believe that close pan-European economic, political and social cooperation won’t be part of that solution.