Commentary by Derek Bateman
Ah, consensus. What is the deep satisfaction that comes from working harmoniously with others but the balm of humanity itself? Brothers and sisters together in search of peace and shared destiny…
It makes you wonder how St Francis would have fared as a politician. ‘The Hon Member for Assisi Central is asking like-minded MPs from different parties to join together to prevent Brexit.’ For it is in giving that we receive…
You can argue that being together in a political system and voting in a chamber, albeit for different policies, is a form of co-operation and it is certainly true that under the skin of a parliamentary institution, agreements are reached between groupings and individuals whose precise form is rarely divulged to voters. It’s probably the case that without such clandestine channels, the system itself would seize up.
What we rarely see is an outward display of partnership in which selfish interests are subjugated in favour of a wider common good – in the way everyone except the Tories combined to deliver devolution as the expressed will of the people. Twenty years ago they showed it could be done because there was a manifest public majority for what had been a long-anticipated initiative and because, briefly, their interests aligned.
Aren’t we approaching a similar place today? Accepting the primacy of world peace and climate change as global challenges, it remains the fact that EU membership and the UK’s continuing engagement with the European institutions is the single most important issue confronting the country. Given that it was essentially an internal Tory Party game of Cleudo that led to the referendum being held at all while continuing EU membership was for most liberals and conventional conservatives a comfortable fit, is it not remarkable that those same forces have not coalesced to save the country?
The evidence of decline is pretty much universal from the Bank of England to the Resolution Foundation to the TUC. There is as much unanimity among economists as there is on climate change among scientists. To disagree is join the flat-earthers.
What happens when there is a gathering threat to the country – it’s economic and social health, it’s international relations and its defence? Coalition was the response in the face of German aggression. And what should happen when there is common agreement – co-operation.
Is the problem that in Britain there is no agreement on how to proceed? Well, it’s surely tricky for democrats that in a free vote the people have spoken. My question though is what did they vote for? Yes, it was to leave but how many knew and accepted it would mean lower living standards, higher food prices, greater bureaucracy, fewer jobs and travel restrictions? Some polls now say the majority would vote to stay in having been confronted with the evidence they were denied during the referendum process.
But even if we accept that the UK must now ‘leave’, does that also infer departure from the areas that guarantee us free trade and market access? Has anyone ever voted knowingly to make themselves poorer? It is around the customs union and single market where the non-Conservative parties should now be talking to each other to produce a common front. I’m pretty confident some discussions do take place one-on- one and views are synthesised into party positions but the great enemy of all politics is the people, or rather how the politicians view the people. Most are terrified of public opinion and would rather do the hokey-cokey in a chimpanzee onesie than fall foul of voters’ wrath. It is fear of the public, and of course the newspapers they read, that prevents much honest discussion of issues or the implementation of policies that will face short-term hostility. The maintenance of a united public front is paramount.
The block of progress here is of course the Labour Party. Or more specifically, the leadership. I don’t doubt the nationalists, Green and Liberals at Westminster would combine to form a united front, however gingerly they worded the text. But to change government direction, the Opposition needs to be on board and yet, watching Corbyn, it’s hard to know if he’s up or down the gangway, if he’s committing to sailing at all or if he’s just about to be seasick. This isn’t an issue on which prevarication is acceptable. There has to be a principle behind his position, a stance in which he believes and a bottom line which he will not breach. What is it? How can we have come to far in the Brexit saga and yet still be in doubt?
The conclusion has to be that in principle, he agrees with Brexit – it would be best if we were out. He sees a state free to interfere in the market at will and to plough subsidy into the holes he identifies without Brussels diktat. Just how much of industry and services there will be after Brexit is another question. His natural stance is to be at war with business and it is the power brokers of the conglomerates imposing globalisation who have the ear of the Brussels bigwigs. That’s the narrative except for those pesky EU-inspired rules on tax havens, meeting corporate tax obligations and ensuring workers’ rights.
Currently Labour are contorting themselves to make this look like pragmatism even to hiding division but organising Brexit out of a vote at conference. A government-in-waiting it is not.
Weirdly, Labour appears drunk on hubris as if an election had been won and the conferment of a laurel wreath on the leader’s brow was formality awaited. They look very silly, worse even than the Lib Dems pretending those years of coalition for no discernible return, never happened. Instead of looking for allies, instead of thinking strategically in the wider interest, all we hear from Brighton is sound and fury with student politics warning that they will smash the SNP and ‘return Scotland to Labour’ – all deeply unfortunate and misguided when the need is for unity in the face of both austerity and Brexit.
High on their own rhetoric, they have forgotten the people and ignored the national interest. The language is designed to insult Labour folk who have switched or who seek independence – despite it being shelved for the time being. This is not a party of partnership or maturity. It is not a party of European social democracy. Labour has become a left-wing UKIP, self-regarding, inward and disruptive. It is having too much fun for serious politics.