Brexit, the state of the Parties and their Lordships
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What is astonishing about the political situation today is the fragility of the Conservative Party and the incompetence of the Government – easily the worst in my political lifetime. The fundamental problem that the Tories have is that they rely on two political bases. Firstly their members and activists who are right-wing, rather old, and vehemently anti-EU. Some are conservative in a nostalgic way, don’t like the modern world, hate things like gay marriage and “all the foreigners and immigrants”, just want things to be like they used to be – but are scared of any threats to the NHS and pensions. They are strongly patriotic.
Others are aggressively reactionary, often economically neoliberal (low taxes, abolish all the regulations, small state and look after yourself with private provision, get rid of red tape and rule by foreign bureaucrats. Some younger ones may be socially liberal on things like gay rights but not on penal policy and welfare benefits. They are strongly nationalistic rather than patriotic. But all these groups are united on the Big Issue of the Day – Brexit. For different but overlapping reasons they hate the EU and want out regardless (see poll figures below). They went into raptures at the idea of blue passports. They are vital to the presence of the Conservatives as a force on the ground.
The second lot are the people who fund the party. Much fewer in number but essential to the existence of the national party machine in all its facets (policy-making, propaganda, networking). Business people (often men), many from the financial sectors, construction companies, exporters and importers, private sector “fat cats” and their corporate entities. Many share the right-wing views and prejudices of the Tory grassroots but younger people and women may be more socially liberal, and there is a good number of richer ethnic minority people particularly of south or east Asian origin. They are often economically neoliberal and may have more liberal views on immigration than Mrs. May who at heart is with her grassroots. But what unites a majority of this second group is that they are anti-Brexit – and if Brexit has to happen, they want as close a relationship as possible and most of all to stay in the customs union and preferably the single internal market.
Of course there are exceptions and differences amongst all the groups but taken as a whole this is a major division of views amongst supporters and within the present government. Many MPs are torn between their own views which align with those of the financial and corporate world, and the views of their constituency parties.
Then we have the Labour Party whose position is not tenable beyond the short term. In spite of riding high in the polls, half a million members, new waves of activists, and greater surface unity than for many a day, Labour is even more overtly confused and entangled by its divisions on Europe. A poll by the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London of over 4000 members of the four main parties (including the SNP) found that 78% of Labour members thought there should be a second referendum. (Con 14%, LD 91%). 87% thought we should stay in the single market and 85% in the customs union (Con 25% and 27%; LD 96% and 95%). A caveat – this poll was carried out last June. But opinion generally has moved to a slightly more anti-Brexit position since then – in any case, the views of party members are likely to be more informed and secure than those of the general public.
These are extraordinary figures when set against the official Labour policy. Some 80% or more of the huge new Labour membership (552,000 at June 2017) – if this survey is correct – do not agree with the line that is being imposed by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Keir Starmer has rather unconvincingly dragged the party into supporting continued membership of the internal market and the customs union during the anticipated two year transition (which is probably inevitable anyway if such a transition is to mean anything much). But in a series of interviews and speeches in the middle of January, Corbyn repeated that it was “not possible” to stay in the single market after Brexit (clearly untrue) and that Labour “does not support nor will be calling for” a second referendum.
Meanwhile Labour MPs are split three ways. There is a small but vocal group of pro-Brexit throwbacks such as Frank Field and Kate Hoey. The determined group of anti-Brexit members including heavy-weights such as Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie are organised and may gain support as time goes on. The third group are the constituency cowards who voted against Brexit in the referendum but are frightened of their voters. It’s this large group that allows the Labour leadership to continue their duplicitous stance, sitting on an ever more painful razor-wire fence which they cannot get off without ripping to shreds the deceit of their General Election “victory”. As everyone now knows this was achieved by seizing back the working class UKIP vote in Brexit-voting Labour seats and sweeping up the anti-Brexit voters everywhere. It’s not clear whether Corbyn and McDonnell will move further on these matters or quickly enough for the passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.
So what of the Liberal Democrats and what of the prospects for this dreadful bill in the Lords? On the broad issues of the day other than Brexit, I don‘t think we really know where the balance of opinion lies within all the members who have joined since 2015 who are a majority. There is certainly some vociferous people (on the internet anyway) who are disturbingly right-wing (neoliberal) on economic issues but whether they amount to more than a small but noisy group remains to be seen – I suspect not. There are certainly major debates to be had on the nature and place of Liberalism in the Britain of the 2020s.
What is not in doubt is the solid opposition of all wings of the Liberal Democrats to Brexit. So far this has produced quite a few new members and a degree of respect amongst pro-European people generally, but no advances in the polls. We just have to believe that this will come in due course as the divisions in the two larger parties foul up politics ever more by the week. But whatever…the job in hand is to do everything we can to stop the calamity that is facing the UK, and the potentially dangerous consequences for Europe. And if we cannot stop it, to reduce the calamity and dangers as far as we can.
Which brings us to the House of Lords and what used to be called the Great Repeal Bill. The now snappily named European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is just the first but perhaps most important of half a dozen or so “Brexit Bills” which will occupy the time of Parliament for the rest of this year. It’s a dreadful Bill, the biggest Government power-grab for decades and a serious threat to the very parliamentary sovereignty that Leavers pretended that the Brexit vote was about.
It’s just arrived in the Lords from its travails through the Commons, and had its Second Reading in the week before this issue of Liberator plops through the door. Ten days in Committee are expected to start just after Parliament’s February half term, with some five days on Report after Easter. Gruelling times – and remember that the Government has not got a numerical majority in the Lords, even of the politically aligned peers.
The Lords are not going to kick it out as a whole but they may cause a whole lot of bother. It’s “only” about 60 pages long but there are more than a few really big issues. The whole question of “Henry VIII” clauses – where substantive new law can be made by ministerial declaration. The single internal market and the customs union. The Irish border. The matter of a second referendum (or a “first referendum on the agreement”), and “a meaningful vote in Parliament” (the Grieve amendment). The transition period which looks more complicated by the day. All the rights that are derived from EU law (environmental, citizens, labour protection). The charter of fundamental rights itself. The interaction with devolution within the UK. Retaining access to a plethora of EU agencies and projects. What happens if there is no deal, or a rejection of the deal by Parliament or in a referendum. Whether the Article 50 timescale might (or indeed whether it can) be extended. All the sectoral interests (defence, security, agriculture…)
Some of these things are to be the subject of separate Bills which are coming down the line, though whether this will persuade their Lordships to leave them alone under this first is another matter. There is a Cross-Boundary Trade Bill which has started in the Commons, which may be a “money bill” which the Lords are supposed to pass on the nod, though they don’t have to do so. There is a Withdrawal and Implementation Bill to follow the Withdrawal Bill. There’s the “promise” of an Agriculture Bill. And various more, and your brain starts to addle and your eyes to glaze over. And all against a backdrop of every government department struggling to stand up.
But then we are back to the politics. Numbers in the Lords will matter. About 250 Conservatives. Just under 200 Labour. 100 Liberal Democrats. A scatter of others – 6 Ulstermen, 3 UKIP – a Green and a Plaid Cymru (but ludicrously no SNP) – and about 210 Cross-benchers and “non-affiliated”. And 26 Bishops though it’s rare for more than three or four to turn up at a time. The Government can be beaten, but it’s the Lords not the Commons. For even the biggest votes it’s rare for more than two-thirds of the members to vote. The Government and the Liberal Democrats can get over three-quarters of their members into the lobby. Labour are (should we say, to be polite, since we need their help) less successful, particularly after 6pm. A lot of Crossbenchers don’t vote much.
But of those who come to vote, there will be a lot of Crossbenchers and “others” on our side. There may be a few Tory dissidents, perhaps balanced by a handful of Labour Leavers. Andrew Adonis will try to lead the charge but a lot of his own party may be less than impressed, and the Labour front bench will be hamstrung by instructions from their razor-wire fence sitting leadership in the Commons.
With all the fragility and incompetence of the Government, and the underlying instability of Labour’s position on Brexit, the Lords ought to be able to help to create the earthquake that British politics needs this year. But it will not be easy, our obscure procedures will not be well understood away from the red benches and carpets, and it will need a lot of luck!
This article first appeared in Liberator 388, January 2018. To subscribe to Liberator which we strongly recommend please go to https://liberatormagazine.org.uk.