Welcoming the Independent Group of MPs

The news that a group of MPs have left Labour to form the Independent Group feels both exciting and dangerous. It might well be the first clear break in the resolution of the crisis around Brexit. But, as the SDP found, the British electoral system creates a massive problem. Unless some Conservatives join soon, it also risks Theresa May calling an opportunistic General Election. Just because that would be grossly-irresponsible doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

The Independent Group

There had been rumours that something was in the offing. A video showed in my twitter feed from Chris Leslie announcing his resignation from the Labour Party, and I caught up with the remarkable news. Leslie’s words were wise, measured and statesman-like. He reminded me of Roy Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture, which signalled what then seemed to be the tectonic shift in British politics that gave birth to the SDP. The criticism of Jeremy Corbyn was stinging but fair. The criticism of Labour for failing to oppose what the Tories are doing on Brexit was spot on. He came across as a man of integrity, remaining true to the principles that took him into the Labour party in leaving a Labour Party that has moved far from that place.

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Out of BrexitChaos part 2: Government of National Unity

Enabling a People’s Vote, and defusing the present sense of chaos, needs a Government of National Unity.

Kenneth Clarke: well-placed to lead a Government of National Unity?

In the preceding article, on the People’s Vote, I argued that the process should be given significantly more time.

But we also have a real problem: both of the big parties are too fractured either to govern or to face a General Election. The unedifying results create the opposite of the sense of stability needed for such the People’s Vote.

This is the time for a Government of National Unity bringing people together from across Parliament, not as a formal coalition between parties, but as an interim arrangement, which would need a more collaborative way of working. The obvious person to lead this is Kenneth Clarke. This is partly because of his own considerable depth and experience. Age means he is also likely to stand down at the next General Election, so it would be clear that the Government of National Unity is there to provide stability in an exceptional time without being subsequently returned to power. He is also sufficiently unpopular with the right wing of his own party to mean that MPs from across the Commons could support him.

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Out of Brexit Chaos, part 1: People’s Vote

The Brexit process began as an internal Tory party squabble, but its resolution has to move from there to mature thinking about the future. Part of this is around the People’s Vote done thoroughly, overseen by a Government of National Unity.

Calling for a People’s Vote

This means asking the rest of the EU for a significant extension to the Article 50 period. This is not for significant further negotiation — if Brexit has to happen, May’s deal is pretty good — but to enable things to be done with considered thinking about the future.

I suggest that the process needs a People’s Vote, but on a longer timetable than people are suggesting to allow adequate preparation. It needs a Government of National Unity to provide the stability for this to happen, and for enough time afterwards for political parties to draw up manifestos in the light of the result, on which to have a General Election.

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Projecting imperialist fantasies onto Europe

There’s a wild — and delusional — optimism at the heart of the fantasy of a hard Brexit and trading on World Trade Organisation rules. The idea of “lots of trade deals” has been dubbed “British Empire 2.0”. What binds these together is people dealing with the awkward legacy of empire by projecting the negative emotions onto the EU and fantasising that we can capture the imagined glory of empire again.

The problem now is unresolved things from the past being worked out in the present, with the UK seeing its own imperialist tendencies in the EU, rather than acknowledging them, chasing an ill-conceived flight of fancy that tries to recapture the past without recognising its shadow, doing real damage in the present and even more serious damage to our future.

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Looking beyond Brexit — to help us escape Brexit

I am one of many Liberal Democrats who sees Brexit as a slowly-unfolding disaster, with no conceivable upside. There is every reason to oppose it. In that comment is an implied vision for the future — much less attractive if Brexit actually happens — but it doesn’t reach the same spot as Brexiteers with bright images of what’s in store (albeit detached from reality), or Corbynistas whose optimism would run aground on the harsh realities of a Brexit-induced recession. But there is real hope for what is in view on the other side of a People’s Vote choosing, after all, to remain in the EU.

On the People’s Vote march, September 2018

The preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution is a good place to start — we “exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.

This is not about a narrowly party-political agenda. It is about embracing the bright future on offer to a Britain at the heart of the EU, which we are in danger of failing to grasp, but gets in touch with the vision that took us in and has enabled us to make a real contribution — not least to bringing about the Single Market.

Putting some flesh on those bones, in no particular order:

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Xenophobia and Brexit (again)

Early in December there was a revealing juxtaposition in my media feeds. There was a story by Matthew d’Ancona in The GuardianLet’s be honest about what’s really driving Brexit: bigotry”, and the Daily Mail inadvertently providing evidence.

Protest in Newcastle soon after Referendum result

The Guardian piece put a persuasive case for seeing bigotry at the heart of the support for Brexit. It is persuasive but not totally compelling, in that I know people who voted Leave out of a sense of alienation or wanting to waive two fingers at politicians, and others who voted Leave because life has been very tough and they felt that “something has to change” — without thinking too closely of the possibility of things changing for the worse.

And the Daily Mail ran one story appealing for volunteers to help in the NHS, and another proudly proclaiming that 11,000 people had come forward.

What’s intriguing about the Daily Mail story is that the claim has been that “immigrants are taking our jobs”. Though the reality is that immigrants also boost the economy and therefore create jobs, this has been a real fear. But Brexit is leading to staff shortages in the NHS, and the Daily Mail is proud of people volunteering to plug the gap, then something else is going on. Volunteers are not paid. The Daily Mail initiative has turned “immigrants taking our jobs”, which sounds like an economic argument, into “we should be prepared to work for nothing”, as a price (apparently) gladly-paid for getting rid of foreigners.

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Brexit as an attack by the wealthy on the rest

Two years ago I wrote an article suggesting that Brexit makes sense as a new “class war” — in this case an attack by the rich on the rest. The details have changed, but the suspicion persists.

Shortly before Christmas, Dominic Raab made the extraordinary suggestion that we might crash out of the EU on a hard Brexit, not pay the agreed £39Bn settlement, and use that money instead on tax cuts for business. A friend acidly — and rightly — suggested that, when more and more people are needing food banks, and there seems to be an explosion in the numbers sleeping rough, there might be other uses for that money. Her point was underscored by the death of homeless person just outside the Palace of Westminster later the same day.

As a point of fact: if the UK fails to honour what has been agreed, then why would any foreign government trust us? This money is not a sweetener: it is honouring commitments the UK government has already given. If foreign governments can’t trust us, how on earth are the promised “trade deals” to be negotiated?

And the idea of “trickle down”, where money given to the rich somehow boosts everyone has been seriously challenged. The perception is that it instead widens the gap between rich and poor in a way that fuels social tension.

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Demography undermining the legitimacy of the 2016 referendum

Support for Remain was hightest among young voters and lowest amongst elderly in 2016. Young people coming onto the register and older voters dying is gradually changing the balance. Even if nothing else changes, these demographic changes will remove the majority for Leave towards the end of 2019. This erosion of the legitimacy of the 2016 vote is a strong argument for a People’s Vote.

Support for Remain was highest among young voters and lowest amongst the elderly in the 2016 referendum. Young people coming onto the register and older voters dying is gradually changing the balance. It will take only a few years to reverse the result. In among all the reasons for a People’s Vote, this erosion of the legitimacy of the 2016 vote is a powerful reason to ask voters again.

There’s been lots of discussion of whether the 2016 referendum result makes sense as “the will of the people”. Much of that has centred on lies from the Leave campaign, their apparent bending of election law and the possibility of Russian interference. But YouGov found that 71% of those under 24 who voted, voted for Remain, where among the over 65s that figure falls to 36%. The implication is that, even if no-one changes their mind and there’s no change in voter participation, Remain will be ahead of Leave by the end of 2019.

Writing soon after the referendum, David Howarth asked if it is reasonable for the elderly to bind the young like this.

In May 2018 The Express took up the story, and also naming serious concern over the long term legitimacy of the result.

The numbers

The poll in 2016 simply records the numbers voting Remain and Leave. Various organisations undertook polls soon after the referendum in which they asked people whether they voted, and if so, how. For the purposes of this post, I am drawing on a YouGov poll, offering some fine-grained data. I’m making four assumptions:

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The People’s Vote is not in the bag, alas

A People’s Vote is looking increasingly likely, but it’s outcome is not in the bag, especially if there are three options.

People’s Vote March, September 2018

There’s a warning in a comment from Gina Miller: “We discovered that a vast swathe of people who would vote for no deal across the country would do so because their perception is that no deal means remaining”.

As a strong supporter of full EU membership, the danger is that I seize on every opinion poll that suggests Remain would win in a People’s Vote. But the polls are still uncomfortably close: Remain is ahead almost everywhere, but not by nearly enough. The tracking at whatukthinks.org shows Remain on 36%, Leave on 33% and “don’t know” at 31%. That’s too close. Over at BrexitCentral numbers are being quoted that show Leave in a strong position. My twitter feed showed a BMG poll putting Remain at 52% and Leave at 40%, with the gap widening, but BMG also have a more fine-grained poll showing 51% against a second referendum, and “Canada Plus” as the preferred option for all age groups except those under 34.

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Speech to East Herts and Broxbourne Liberal Democrats AGM 21 November 2018

Speaking about achievements in the last year, particularly Sophie Bell’s victory in the Watton-at-Stone by election, and the fast-moving situation around Brexit.

Mark Argent

It feels as if we are in a very different place from this time last year. Sophie Bell’s super victory in the Watton-at-Stone by election means there is now an oppostion party on East Herts District Council. In Sawbridgeworth, Annelise Berendt Furnace has been doing a brilliant job on the Town Council. Seeing what she’s done in that role, the people of Sawbridgeworth would be daft not to elect her to the District Council in May. The action day in support of David Payne in Goffs Oak on Saturday is another step along the way — in the last elections there we’d gone from fourth to second and are working hard to go further. I won’t be at that action day — instead I’ll be with the people canvassing as part of Terence Becket’s campaign in the by election in Meads ward, Bishop’s Stortford — another place where we have a real prospect. Plans are coming along well for the District Council elections in May.

Help is needed for all of these — you can sign up to volunteer or to donate via the “contact” section of Hertford and Stortford Liberal Democrats web site.

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