Consent and conciliation: Brexit and the Border

Given the ambiguity in December’s Joint Report between the UK and the EU, the UK’s reaction to the EU’s draft Withdrawal Agreement is unsurprising. Equally unsurprisingly, anger focused most on the protocol for Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The Irish Border is Brexit’s most fraught question. People can cross it without checks due to the Common Travel Area. Military checkpoints closed over time: the last came down in the last decade. Goods cross unchecked, thanks to a customs union and shared regulatory standards. And thanks to common EU systems, VAT and excise duties don’t need to be checked either. Brexit puts this at risk.

Border protocol

The protocol clarifies that the UK and Ireland can continue to make provision for the free movement of persons without checks. This is crucial: controlling travel between Ireland and Northern Ireland would prove unworkable. The symbolic and human implications of trying would be appalling. Checkpoints would likely become targets. In 1939–52, we had controls between Great Britain and the island of Ireland instead.

More contentiously, the protocol lists areas where Northern Ireland would apply EU law to avoid checks on goods or customs. The ‘common regulatory area’ would cover:

  • EU law on the free movement of goods
  • EU customs legislation, with Northern Ireland considered part of the EU’s customs territory
  • bans on restricting imports/exports, both upfront and by the back door
  • EU law on VAT and excise duties.

EU sanitary and phytosanitary rules and standards for agriculture and fisheries would apply. The same goes for wholesale electricity markets, much environmental protection, and state aid as it affects EU-Northern Ireland trade.

You can argue about whether every aspect of this protocol represents the ‘bare minimum’ to avoid a hard Border. Ukraine’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement provides a precedent for internal market treatment on the basis of ‘approximating’ legislation. (I suspect ‘approximation’ will look very much like ‘adoption’.) Other approaches which recognise the Court of Justice of the European Union’s jurisdiction could also be found.

Still, I can’t see how you avoid any border checks without regulatory alignment in goods, a full customs union and shared law on VAT and excise duties. And paragraph 49 of the Joint Report was wide-ranging:

The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. … In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

Both sides have defined a hard border to mean no physical infrastructure. I read this to mean UK, and not only Northern Ireland, alignment. And there are fundamental problems with a full economic border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Border economics

Obviously, the economics don’t explain why borders in these islands are so contentious. But Northern Ireland stands to lose more than most of the UK from Brexit. So we should scrutinise claims about the economics of the Border.

Northern Ireland’s exports are more EU-focused, and dramatically more Irish-focused, than Great Britain’s. 35% of its exports go to Ireland alone. But ‘exports’ don’t cover trade within the UK — and 59% of Northern Ireland’s external sales go to Great Britain.

Data: Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency

That holds across the vast majority of sectors. For instance, 61% of Northern Ireland’s external sales are of manufactured goods, and mainly go to Great Britain.

Data: Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency

Some reply that a sea or air crossing is inherently more onerous than a land one and so can better accommodate checks. This carries some weight. But economically, it’s hard to argue it makes up for the impact on nearly four times the sales. ‘You’ve got to cross water anyway’ doesn’t work for UK manufacturing trade with Germany. It can’t logically work for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland either.

There are some exceptions. No one sensible should break up the all-Ireland single electricity market or have different rail gauges on the island. But absent very compelling evidence, the economics of an regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea don’t stack up.

The Belfast Agreement and the Border

More fundamentally, unionists’ case rests on the Belfast Agreement’s principle of consent. Many have argued that principle requires special status if a choice must be made. They claim border checks should reflect Northern Ireland’s Remain vote.

It’s superficially plausible, but I think it falls on reading the Agreement. The parties agreed to ‘recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland’.

Brexit makes it harder for nationalists to accommodate themselves to the UK. That’s one reason voting Leave was such a mistake. But the principle of consent clearly relates to the choice between the Union and a united Ireland. It cannot be cited in and of itself to argue for particular relationships with the EU.

Special arrangements for Northern Ireland don’t breach the principle of consent in a literal sense. And all sides accept Northern Ireland is unique. Other parts of the UK do not have the right to join another state guaranteed by international treaty. And the world’s most lopsided liberal democracy can hardly insist on total internal symmetry.

But there is a principled difference between more autonomy for Northern Ireland and differentiation aligning it with another state. That’s particularly true when Northern Ireland has no direct say in the arrangement. Being in the UK entails more than MPs at Westminster. Beyond a certain point, the spirit of the principle of consent must be given its due. I believe an state-like economic and regulatory border within the UK passes that point.

Precedents exist for excluding parts of the EU from its customs union, and indeed for excluding parts of EU member states from the EU itself. But Northern Ireland is neither small and uncontested nor distant and geographically isolated. It is reasonable and just for unionists to expect to remain meaningfully integrated into the economy of their state.

The Border is deeply sensitive for nationalists — London’s insensitivity on that point stands as an indictment. We should avoid forcing a choice on borders if we possibly can. But constitutional status, in spirit and letter, is just as sensitive for unionists. On this, the DUP is quite as firm as it claims. So is the UUP. Liberal unionists such as Sylvia Hermon expect alignment to be UK-wide.

The EU27 side is making a fundamental mistake if it thinks the Agreement means an unmarked border with Ireland trumps avoiding an economic border with Great Britain. Strand Two of the Agreement does indeed provide for a North-South dimension. But it’s carefully defined, far more so than in the Sunningdale Agreement which preceded it.

In fact, it’s crucially important and insufficiently understood that the Belfast Agreement is far clearer on constitutional status than Sunningdale. There are reasons for that. It is quite as dangerous to ignore unionists’ concerns on status as to dismiss nationalists’ fears about borders.

Consistency cuts both ways

On Brexit, I normally criticise our government for wishful thinking, denialism and contradictory commitments. And there’s plenty of fault to lay at London’s door. Casually dismissing the Border problem, blithely assuming Dublin would give ground and pretending technology could fix a fundamental policy problem stand testament to that. But the EU27 side’s position on the Border has contradictions too.

Paragraph 50 of the Joint Report is crucial:

In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.

Barnier has said that how the UK delivers on paragraph 50 is a purely UK affair. That’s rather disingenuous. The EU has rightly pushed back on UK hints about turning a blind eye or exempting most businesses from customs controls — they’d create a smugglers’ paradise and break WTO law to boot. By the same token, the UK can’t turn a blind eye either.

So London can’t unilaterally prevent any barriers within the UK and deliver on paragraph 49. The EU and UK would have to extend arrangements to prevent barriers on the island of Ireland to Great Britain to do that. And having signed up to paragraph 50, the EU should surely allow it to be deliverable.

So the EU has a choice too, not just the UK. It’s currently saying something along Canadian lines (or perhaps a bit more like the now-abortive TTIP) is the only realistic option for Great Britain. Combined with the draft protocol, that clearly means an economic border in the Irish Sea — and a fallback option which doesn’t really deliver on the Joint Report.

Compromise works both ways

To be clear: I believe the UK Government is far more at fault in the Brexit negotiations than its EU counterparts. It has failed to make the effort to understand its partners — worse, it indulged in self-indulgent nationalist rhetoric at the price of alienating them. It has failed to prepare its people to face the gulf between Vote Leave’s fantasies and Brexit’s reality — May’s speech on Friday was a belated, partial start. And it has spent far too long effectively seeking to gain the economic benefits of the EU without the institutional obligations.

But the EU’s ‘Norway or Canada’ mantra (though it shouldn’t be taken wholly literally) carries its own problems. A balance of rights and obligations is fair and reasonable. A binary approach makes it politically impossible to solve the very question the EU labels a sine qua non. (And of course, ‘Norway’ wouldn’t solve the Border issue anyway.)

If the UK can move further towards realism and away from its needlessly hardline Brexit policy, and if the EU can define avoiding cherrypicking as a balance of rights and obligations and not a binary split, there might be a way to give everyone something. It would probably include something close to the Withdrawal Treaty protocol for the whole UK.

The UK might hope for more input into drawing up regulations, drawing on EEA precedents. It might ask for a little more room for regulatory manoeuvre. It would seek concessions on services, perhaps drawing on Ukraine in both cases. The EU could demand a substantial financial contribution. It could also expect a liberal and preferential UK migration policy short of free movement. And London would need to accept regulatory alignment as binding. (Kevin O’Rourke and Sam Lowe and John Springford have put forward very similar options.)

The UK could then say it had reduced economic disruption while curbing EEA movement; the EU would be able to say there was a real price for leaving; the UK and Ireland could remain borderless. From Great Britain’s perspective, I’ve tended to see an EEA-ish Brexit as the least-worst option, especially for services. However, Northern Ireland’s greater reliance on manufacturing and links with Ireland make it different. And given the stakes, I’d be willing to put Northern Ireland first.

I accept this is asking a lot of the EU. But I hope the EU might consider its origins as a peace project for our continent. And so I’d argue it, too, should prioritise protecting the peace project on these islands.

This post was originally published on on 4 March 2018.


Dear sensible Conservatives …

I’m not just writing this with liberal Conservatives or Conservatives who voted Remain in mind. I’m thinking about all of you who know that politics involves trade-offs, opposition matters in democracies and disagreement with the Government is not treason to the country.

Your views on the current Government vary. A few of you are quietly or openly miserable. Many see Theresa May as one of the sensibles at heart, trying to keep the diehards within the tent. Others think her Brexit policy is broadly tolerable. But I imagine you all look across the political divide, see what’s happened to moderate Labour and think it could be much worse for you internally — even as you fear losing to Corbynite Labour.

Labour pains (and possibly precedents)

It certainly could be much worse for you. I’m a Labour moderate: I know what ‘worse’ looks like. But in some ways, your situation feels like a much more extreme version of Labour’s 2011 or 2012. At the time, we had a leader whose basic priority was to keep Labour’s internal coalition more or less on board. We also had a groundswell of feeling in, around and sometimes in complicated opposition to (combined with a sense of ownership of) the Party. In our case it was driven by a mix of being in Opposition and the sheer scale of Government cuts to the most vulnerable. And we had a longstanding hard left element of the Party — a small one in Parliament and a larger one in the country.

The soft left and many who now identify as moderates liked lots about this state of affairs— not wholly unreasonably. Ed Miliband went on the March for the Alternative in 2011. New Labour was self-consciously disavowed — either as too centrist, or as an outdated response in new circumstances, or both. Labour started to sound more critical of business, less keen on markets in public services, less interventionist in foreign policy. All of which was well within the mainstream of politics, whether you agreed with it or not.

On the side, sources like Another Angry Voice became quite well-liked and read by much of the left. Owen Jones was read and shared with sympathy by many social democrats. They were clearly to the left of the leadership — how far wasn’t too clear to many at the time. Organisationally, the unions had been shifting left over years. CLPs were moving that way too, with an inevitable impact on candidate selection. It’s not surprising that the 2015 intake had a significantly larger share of genuinely Corbynite and would-be-Corbynite-if-we-could-get-away-with-it MPs than the rest of the PLP.

We also tend to forget that nasty incidents relating to anti-Semitism and foreign policy predate Corbyn’s leadership. Under Miliband, three Labour MPs saw fit to invite Raed Salah to the House of Commons — and of the three, only Jeremy Corbyn was on the hard left. During the Gaza offensive in 2014, a shadow minister cheered the fact that protesters forced a Sainsbury’s to close — and yes, she apologised, but how did we ever get there in the first place? When an MP’s language called a Jewish Ambassador to Israel’s loyalty to the UK into question, it took a week for Labour to get him to apologise.

Meanwhile, Miliband tended to nod to the left of the soft left in his rhetoric, even when policy remained pretty resolutely social democratic. By 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn borrowed the same rhetoric and most of the policies too, Andy Burnham and (to a lesser extent) Yvette Cooper found themselves struggling to tell Labour members why they shouldn’t vote for him apart from saying he couldn’t win an election. Liz Kendall was the only candidate who consistently said Corbyn was wrong on policy as well as tactics. And the moral case against Corbyn was only made by a very few. The rest is history. Whether social democratic Labour will ever reassert itself against left-populist and hard left Labour I don’t know. But our parlous state is obvious to all.

Conservatives and the nationalist right

I see parallels with the Conservatives and the nationalist right now. Theresa May is no liberal and in many ways she’s an anti-liberal — a true Home Secretary turned Prime Minister. But she isn’t a zealot at heart. And most of the Cabinet is trying to keep the zealots onside en route to a Brexit which I would deem moderately hard, but would probably include a lot more regulatory co-operation and alignment (UK rule-taking in disguise) than said zealots actually want. But in so doing, too many of the sensibles are aping their language and assumptions.

May herself did it repeatedly. Her attempt to portray differences of view as somehow threatening to the nation when she called this year’s election was a case in point. Somehow we had reached a point where political division in the House of Commons — in an adversarial assembly! — was supposed to be a problem. She drew on the language of conspiracism as well as the nationalist right in her absurd claim that the EU was trying to influence the UK election. Earlier, her ‘citizen of nowhere’ remarks played into the same sort of rhetoric and language.

Boris Johnson, whose patriotism is so all-consuming he probably decided whether to back Brexit solely on the basis of his own personal advancement, has played the same game. (I normally disapprove of blanket cynicism about politicians. However, every now and again the evidence requires exceptions to be made.) Our born-again patriot Foreign Secretary recently declared himself ‘troubled with the thought that people are beginning to have genuinely split allegiances’. One assumes his convictions are of recent origin as he only renounced US citizenship this February.

Even more recently, David Davis — also a Brexiteer, but probably more pragmatic than many of his fellows — wrote to demand Labour MEPs have the whip withdrawn for voting in favour of a European Parliament resolution. The relevant section ran as follows:

The European Parliament … is of the opinion that in the fourth round of negotiations sufficient progress has not yet been made on citizens’ rights, Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the settlement of the United Kingdom’s financial obligations …

I think the UK national interest is served by recognising our weak negotiating hand and a) settling on citizens’ rights rapidly and in good faith, b) settling as much as possible on the Irish Border while pointing out that the extent of EU-UK divergence will dictate the nature of border management and c) agreeing the broad outline of a financial formula. As far as the money is concerned, getting a decent final relationship is worth virtually any amount. British MEPs also have a duty to their constituents’ interests as they see them (including, I might add, non-UK EEA nationals when it comes to citizens’ rights). They have every right to use their votes to nudge the UK Government towards reality as they see it.

You might disagree with me on the merits of that view. But it is not unpatriotic to hold it. It is not “acting against your country” to advocate it. The national interest is a contested thing, which is one reason we elect people with a responsibility to adjudicate upon it. To call on opposition parties to withdraw the whip for “voting against the national interest” is as toxic as it is disingenuous. It’s not all that far from “enemy of the people” as applied to judges. And “enemy of the people” wasn’t all that far from “traitor”.

This sort of rhetoric has made far deeper inroads into mainstream Conservatism than the hard left equivalent managed in mainstream Labour before autumn 2015. It’s a dangerous game to play. And if I can’t persuade you it’s wrong in principle, think on this: if you don’t want a total car crash in March 2019, at some point you will have to disappoint the people who actually believe this stuff.

You will have to compromise on the Brexit bill. Your deep and comprehensive free trade agreement will involve copying large parts of EU law in all but name. Even after any transition ends, the European Court of Justice will — though probably not directly — continue to have influence over law in the UK. You will probably find your two-year transition period isn’t long enough. You will discover that immigration can’t be cut to tens of thousands without damage you won’t be willing to tolerate.

Do you think the obsessives on the nationalist right will spare you when you try to bring them back to Earth? Philip Hammond was sympathetic to Brexit not that long ago. He backed Remain in the end, but he was distinctly eurosceptic. He is implementing a policy of leaving the single market and not forming a customs union. He still has Brexiteers baying for his blood now. What is it about the record of lifelong europhobic obsessives which makes some of you think they can ever be appeased? What happens when you have to tell them Utopia doesn’t come wrapped in a Union Jack?

So if I were you, I’d draw some lines in the sand sooner rather than later. I’d resist the temptation to define disagreement as unpatriotic. I’d remind myself that pragmatists can’t control zealots forever. I’d get ready to fight sensible, moderate conservatism’s corner. And I’d remember that if you co-opt the zealots’ language and instincts for too long, you’ll have nothing to defend yourself with if they come for you.

For the good of the country — though of course your zealots would deny my right to say such a thing — please learn from Labour’s social democrats. Given the chance, the hard left turned on us. Given the chance, the nationalist right can turn on you in turn.

This post was originally published on on 28 October 2017.

Dissenting Labour

Some have tried to analyse what happened in the election on 8 June and to make predictions for the future. They have more courage than I. Personally, I won’t hazard any guesses about how voters will behave in future for a while.

But clearly I was wrong about how the public would react to Jeremy Corbyn. I didn’t expect Theresa May to prove to be as woodenly, jaw-droppingly, clunkingly useless as a campaigner as she turned out to be. But I would never have predicted the surge in support for Labour which we saw. I always thought people would look at a manifesto like our 2017 effort and conclude we still couldn’t count. I thought voters would look at Corbyn’s history, ‘friends’ and record and run a mile. I thought people would recoil from linking terror attacks to foreign policy days after an atrocity like Manchester. I will eat my share of humble pie on all counts.

But my objections to Corbyn were never solely, or even mainly, about electability. And even though we won 40% of the vote rather than 25%, I do not believe we gave voters a credible or honest choice this year. We failed to prioritise in public spending, neglected the poor to the benefit of the middle classes, offered a Brexit policy as incoherent as the Tories’, undermined our own foreign and defence policy and left the moral objections to Corbynism undiminished. I will take each in turn.

Nostalgia is not a basis for public spending choices

Our optimistic campaign belied our often backward-looking manifesto. Nationalising the utilities was a case in point. You can already switch energy providers: I’ve done it. Companies can compete: we don’t need a public option energy company per region to make it happen. I accept people aren’t great at actually using this right, but I’m not sure adding a public option will change that much.

We do have a problem with an energy market where too many get a raw deal. I suggest we should deal with that and tighten rules on (for example) offering social tariffs, rather than letting private energy companies cherry-pick while the most vulnerable consumers gravitate to the public companies at public expense. Granted, the National Grid itself is a monopoly. But nationalising it would cost around £25 billion — let’s assume we don’t nationalise its overseas holdings. Is this really the top priority for an investment programme?

Similarly, I see that water is a natural monopoly — but is nationalising it worth £69 billion or so of capital spend? Our manifesto complained about price rises. A hypothetical Labour Government would want to bear down on prices more than the private sector (reducing bills by £220 a year, at what cost we know not). Presumably, it would therefore want the state to bear more of the cost. How long would the argument that nationalising profit-making industries would pay for itself last?

Neither the National Grid nor water companies will stop needing investment if they enter public hands. Bearing that in mind, I question whether pitting capital investment in water and electricity networks against building and repairing schools or hospitals will deliver much investment in the former. It seems much more likely that the political attention and, in the end, the capital spend will go on the latter. The failure to invest was one of the main reasons for privatising utilities in the first place. But add in nationalising the Royal Mail and (presumably) at least some costs from setting up our new public energy companies and we probably planned to spend well over £100 billion on changing who owns things. Surely we’d be much better off actually investing in the UK’s future than changing the nameplates on our utility companies?

We had some rather better ideas as part of our £250 billion fund. (Is this the right amount? I’ll leave that aside. Our economy is faltering but not currently in the doldrums. That said, interest rates are low, borrowing is cheap and I can see a case for investment to soften the damage from Brexit. The figure feels suspiciously neat, but I’m not an economist.) Funding HS3 could give the Northern Powerhouse some teeth and help metro Mayors present northern cities as an alternative to London. Funding HS2 to Manchester and Scotland could significantly increase rail capacity.

But if we think £100-odd billion of extra borrowing is feasible on top of £250 billion, then what about expanding our public transport network further? What about supporting green energy projects? What about upping our offer on social housing, or supporting private housing developments? What about seed funding for businesses seeking to export outside the EEA, since we know there will be trade diversion when Brexit happens? Or an infrastructure fund targeted at areas where recent migration is particularly high?

I’m not saying all these ideas are all right, or even that any of them necessarily are. But the wider point stands: could we not find something future-facing to throw billions at rather than refighting the 1980s?

Redistribution is not a sideshow in tax and benefit policy

I agree far too many low-income consumers struggle with energy and water bills. It would have been much better to target our efforts on boosting low incomes. But on welfare, our manifesto had far more to offer the well-off elderly and middle-class graduates than the working or non-working poor.

Labour is a party of the left. Shifting income and wealth to the poor should be core to what we believe. But this year, we pledged to protect the triple lock on pensions and universal winter fuel payments. We prioritised a group largely protected from austerity and made talking about generational fairness even harder. We committed £11 billion to abolishing tuition fees. This is a direct gift to graduates, who will generally do much better than their peers and who in any event repay fees in line with their incomes. We did this even though fees were never actually shown to stop people going on to higher education.

Meanwhile, we failed to commit to ending the freeze on working-age benefits. Inflation has risen to 2.9%, which means these cuts will bite harder now. And yet we forgot the people we were founded to represent. We could afford to scrap student fees. But apparently we couldn’t afford to, for example, restore the Social Fund. The Social Fund used to help fund things like a bed or white goods for, say, someone who left their abusive partner and had nothing. We couldn’t promise to end the benefit cap. Nor could we, say, lower the taper rate for means-tested benefits to ease the path into working more hours (or working at all). Younger, mainly middle-class voters — admittedly the group who swung most strongly to Labour; clearly Jeremy can target voters better than I thought — and better-off pensioners trumped those in greatest need.

This wasn’t even electoral strategy — just carelessness. Note how Labour spokespeople kept chopping and changing on the benefit freeze, just as Theresa May did on the ‘dementia tax’. They simply hadn’t thought about it. We were caught out because our ‘radical’ leadership didn’t think about the distributional impact of our policies. We let the Liberal Democrats offer a more progressive approach to benefits than we did.

I understand Labour manifestos need an offer for all parts of society. But this isn’t a return to socialism. It’s middle-class populism which forgets the whole point of socialism — greater equality. We confused bungs for the fairly well off with narrowing the gap between rich and poor. We did exactly what we’ve spent years attacking the SNP for. We committed the same sin the Liberal Democrats did for years. We should be embarrassed if this is how we define a move to the left.

Coherence is not an irrelevance in Brexit policy

If we weren’t nostalgic or regressive, we were too often incoherent or outright evasive. Our Brexit tactics may well have worked electorally. But we were no more honest than the Conservatives about the trade-offs in different deals with the EU. We promised ‘a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union’. We said our Brexit policy differed radically from the Tories’ and listed a number of institutions we wanted to keep links with.

I agree that tone matters in negotiations. But how did we propose to keep the benefits of the single market without its rules? How do you keep the benefits of the customs union without a common external tariff? What did our manifesto mean? As three spokespeople have each recently given different Labour policies, I assume the Shadow Cabinet is no clearer than I. I accept Brexit poses horrible dilemmas for Labour. I accept we may even have won votes with our approach. But the country deserved better than a non-policy designed to evade rather than elucidate. We should have tried to offer a Labour vision on the UK’s biggest challenge.

Our manifesto was shot through with a failure to think things through, to say anything about how to achieve lofty aims. I cannot find a single word in the manifesto about how to build more houses in the private sector, for example, except for guaranteeing Help to Buy funding — yet we committed to a housebuilding revolution. I know the Tories’ manifesto proved dismally thin, but shouldn’t we do better than them?

Credibility is not an optional extra in foreign and defence policy

Labour’s leadership was incoherent on welfare and evasive on Brexit. It also wilfully fudged one of the most basic issues for any government: foreign policy, defence and collective security. Corbyn’s hostility to NATO and sympathy for just about any enemy of the West, however vile, was one of my biggest problems with him as leader. So of course I welcomed our manifesto support for NATO.

But it isn’t enough for the manifesto to state that Labour supports NATO, or even for a Labour Government to stay in NATO. For collective security to mean something, adversaries need to believe we’ll actually defend our allies, or at least that we genuinely might. No one can, in the end, force a Prime Minister to honour a guarantee to a NATO ally. MPs could ultimately depose a Prime Minister who refused. But by then, Estonia (say) could well find itself overrun already. Anyway, the point of collective security is to avoid getting to that point.

I’m afraid the fact that Corbyn’s reaction to the invasion of Crimea was to describe Russia’s actions as ‘not unprovoked’ actually matters. The fact that he was shouting about closing down NATO as recently as 2014 actually matters. The fact that Corbyn’s reaction to every foreign policy dilemma is to blame the West actually matters. This is not a man who, prima facie, deserves public trust on the basics of security. And even if voters don’t see that in a Leader of the Opposition, our enemies most certainly will see it in a Prime Minister.

This means that Corbyn’s refusal — even during the election campaign — to commit to defending a NATO ally matters all the more. We already have Donald Trump in the White House. Other NATO governments have been desperate to get the man to say — himself — that he’s committed to Article 5, because evidence of commitment matters. On current evidence, Corbyn in Number 10 would mean two of NATO’s three main defence powers’ commitment was questionable. That could be a deadly threat to the whole Western world.

Corbyn needs to do everything he can to show he can be trusted on this issue. He can’t just dodge the question because his anti-Americanism trumps anything Putin does to his neighbours or Assad does to his people. Pieties about a better world aren’t enough. In the actually-existing world, I want to know my Prime Minister will support such protections as we have unless and until I have a real alternative.

Moral qualms are not irrelevant if you win enough votes

I can see why many Corbynites feel their critics always attacked them on electability and suddenly changed tack on 9 June. Personally, Andy Burnham and Owen Smith frustrated me because they didn’t challenge Corbynism enough. And the Corbynite narrative labelled all critics unprincipled, so I understand the irritation of those who believed it. (It also labelled them all right-wing at the same time — rather inconsistently, but there we go.)

But actually, I meant everything I said about Corbyn’s blind spot on anti-Semitism. It wasn’t a proxy attack. We should be ashamed that Ken Livingstone is still a member of the Labour Party. I have not forgotten how, faced with concerns about anti-Semitism, Corbyn once elected to explain this as part of a conspiracy against him. I have not forgotten how, when a Labour MP faced anti-Semitic abuse at the launch of a report on Labour anti-Semitism, Corbyn apologised to her abuser. I still think Corbyn’s understanding of anti-Semitism fails to acknowledge how anti-Jewish hate has mutated and the new forms it took after World War II. I know anti-Semitism was a problem on the left before Corbyn became Labour leader, but I want him to ask himself why it is that so many anti-Semites seem so much keener on Labour since he won. I have no reason to believe he will. I have no reason to believe he is any more committed to tackling this issue than he was before 8 June.

I do not regard Corbyn’s support for violent over constitutional Irish republicanism as a minor historic flaw. I’m not willing to gloss over Corbyn taking money from Press TV — a theocratic regime’s state broadcaster — and keeping quiet in the face of anti-Semitic remarks. I’m not OK with his indifference to Falklanders’ self-determination. I don’t buy his claim that referring to Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’ was some sort of diplomatic norm. I think the long list of extremists, including (sorry, but it’s true) Holocaust deniers, he’s shared platforms and associated with is a genuine problem. I worry more, not less, about these now he has come so much nearer to power than I ever thought he could.

The people around Corbyn worry me at least as much as the man himself. I have not forgotten John McDonnell’s praise for the ‘bombs and bullets and sacrifice’ of the IRA. Nor do I fail to notice his continued support for the Cuba Solidarity Campaign — apologists for a repressive dictatorship. The idea of Seumas Milne (one of whose favourite hobbies is minimising the crimes of the Soviet Union) having real power worries me no less than before. The idea of Andrew Murray (a member of the CPGB till recently) having real power worries me no less than before. Milne and Murray do not just stand for a more left-wing version of my politics. Their record tells me that their attitudes to parliamentary democracy, views on foreign policy and moral compasses differ profoundly from my own.

You cannot just gloss this over. If Corbyn, McDonnell, Milne, Murray and others no longer hold these views, they need to recant them. They need to draw the line between democratic socialism and the far left. And then they need to stand on the democrats’ side of the line.

Here I stand

In the end — unless convinced otherwise by argument, not voteshare — I remain a liberal-minded social democrat. I am neither a left-populist nor an anti-Western hard leftist.

I believe in multilateralism in foreign policy and defence alike. I am unequivocally opposed to political violence deployed in a constitutional democracy. I believe our public spending should be targeted to redistribute wealth, not give more to people like me. I believe in difficult trade-offs. I am a parliamentary democrat, not a democratic centralist. Whether Corbynism wins 25%, 40% or 75% of the vote, it is not what I believe.

Does Corbyn’s Labour have room for dissenters? Ed Miliband let Corbyn and McDonnell pledge to try to wreck a Labour Government’s Budget. The history of the hard left suggests they’re unlikely to return the favour, given a choice.

More than that, I have to accept the election result on 8 June shows I must have misread the popular mood — at least in part. Perhaps my politics are less popular than left-populism. Perhaps a leader with Corbyn’s history, personal beliefs and ‘friends’ can get away with all three.

I don’t know where that leaves me now. I do know I can’t be a quiet loyalist when faced with a leadership with whom I fundamentally disagree. I will not pretend. Here I stand.

This post was originally published on on 28 June 2017.

Northern Ireland at Westminster: confidence, supply and the principle of consent

Northern Ireland’s MPs rarely play a big role in Commons arithmetic. With only 18 out of 650 seats, they’re rarely decisive in the United Kingdom’s elections. Furthermore, none of the UK-wide parties win seats there.

So we’re not very used to Northern Ireland’s politicians having much say in the government of the UK. The current maths shocked us all. And as a Labour member, I clearly hold no brief for a Conservative confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. But the way the legitimacy, as opposed to the wisdom and policy content, of such a deal has been attacked has often been problematic at best. And at worst it’s ignored Northern Ireland’s right to a say in the UK altogether.

Who are the DUP anyway?

Much commentary on the DUP has been rooted in an ignorance of their nature. DUP politicians are indeed socially conservative in a way those in Great Britain rarely are these days. Greater scrutiny of that conservatism would be thoroughly justified. They show no sign of trying to export those norms to Great Britain — they will probably mainly want more money for Northern Ireland. But it would be a thoroughly good thing if we heard more about the impact of DUP attitudes on women and LGBT people in Northern Ireland. It is striking that Westminster never tried to equalise its abortion laws with Great Britain’s through all the years of direct rule. (We should also note this isn’t just the DUP’s prerogative in Northern Ireland. Our own sister party, the SDLP, is just as opposed.)

There are valid points to make about the history of several DUP politicians. The rhetoric and behaviour of the late Ian Paisley deserved excoriation — though in the end he formed a joint Executive, which we should remember too. It’s fair to say that it did at times display a worrying level of equivocation over loyalist terrorism. Recently, the RHI scandal and Arlene Foster’s stubbornness speak ill of DUP attitudes to good governance.

But conflating the DUP’s periodic failure to keep its nose clean with the role of the IRA mistakes the case. Conflating deeply conservative religiosity with having been inextricably bound up with terrorism won’t get you very far in understanding Northern Ireland. And DUP flirtations with Ulster Resistance were very different from the IRA’s responsibility for nearly half of deaths during the Troubles and its inherent connection with Sinn Féin. I’m not saying there aren’t a great many charges to lay at the DUP’s door over many years. But I am saying it’s a different set of arguments. The DUP is not the PUP.

Confidence, supply and the peace process

It is wholly fair to worry about the impact on the impartiality of the UK Government, perceived or actual, in the Northern Ireland peace process. The key part of the Good Friday Agreement cited here reads as follows:

The two Governments:

… affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions …

It doesn’t constrain government formation in either the United Kingdom or a united Ireland. (Imagine the reaction were a united Ireland banned from giving Sinn Féin a role in government in Dublin and you’ll see why not.)

But it would be wholly unacceptable for the UK Government to be parti pris on either side in the peace process. A full coalition, with collective responsibility across government policy including the Northern Ireland Office, currently would make the UK Government’s position impossible in practice. But that’s not on the cards. A full coalition would serve neither the DUP’s interest nor the Conservatives’. The DUP wouldn’t want that level of responsibility; the Conservatives will have to reach beyond the DUP to make this House of Commons function anyway.

The main issue, from a Tory point of view, is guaranteed support for its Budgets — supply. And with a confidence and supply deal, there is no need for matters relating to the NIO to be included. It is completely fair to be worried about the quality of those assurances and to scrutinise the substance of a confidence and supply deal. Obviously, there would need to be assurances about impartiality, which the Irish Government states it has been given. And as the SDLP’s leader has very sensibly said, “We have to judge it on its merits and see what the deal looks like.”

A confidence and supply deal may well be a bad idea. It may very well be politically unwise. But it’s not constitutionally or politically illegitimate in and of itself, any more than it was when Labour toyed with similar deals in 2010.

The principle of consent

Above all, too many in Great Britain have seemed hostile to the very notion that Northern Ireland’s MPs might affect the balance of power at Westminster. It feels a bit like the concerns in the 1950s that integrating Malta into the UK might allow its MPs to do the same in close elections. But unlike Malta, Northern Ireland already forms part of the UK. Its MPs have every right to a say in its governance, as do MPs from England, Scotland and Wales.

This is a basic principle of fair treatment of the UK’s constituent countries. It also goes to the heart of the principle of consent in the Good Friday Agreement. That Agreement recognises that Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK is based on the will of its people and can only be changed by that same will. Membership of the UK confers certain rights, including a voice in the House of Commons. If you don’t grant the region the right to its say in excepted and reserved matters and its voice in Parliament — and if your view is essentially that it can only have that voice so long as it never decides anything, you’re only granting that right in the narrowest possible way, if at all — you’ve got a pretty shallow understanding of the principle of consent.

It’s natural that, say, Sinn Féin’s leadership would argue Northern Ireland politicians should have no role in helping form a UK Government. They’re an abstentionist party and they seek a united Ireland. And of course they have every right to that position. If Northern Ireland and the Republic ever wish to form a united Ireland, the UK should give effect to it without demur.

But in the meantime, there’s no need for the rest of us to take a very specific view of legitimacy at face value. Northern Ireland’s rights within the UK extend further than simply not expelling it from the body politic. Whatever you think of the DUP, we should all remember that.

This post was originally published on on 20 June 2017.

On electoral responsibility

Elections are brutal things. Politicians usually do what they need to do to win. Frankly, as a Labour member I often wish we were more ruthless.

Still, a politician fighting for votes should always remember there remains a country waiting to be governed afterwards. There is no dead of night into which your silliest turns of phrase or your most careless commitments disappear. Theresa May’s predecessor was sunk by one of his most careless commitments: I imagine he could advise.

When it comes to silly turns of phrase, politicians should also remember hurt feelings have consequences. The United Kingdom proved that how people feel matters on 23 June 2016. As a result, we now face our most challenging and complex negotiations in many decades. In those negotiations, 27 other countries hold almost all the cards. The Union they form together has clear principles of its own. It has a vital interest in preventing British free-riding leading to other countries trying the same thing. And it currently has higher priorities than pure economics, as the UK of all countries should understand just now.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May and her ministers have promised the British people they can have their preferred EU benefits (or near as damnit) without the obligations. She spoke the language of antagonistic nationalism to please her party’s zealots at Conference. She threatened where she should have conciliated. She rattled sabres instead of building bridges, and she failed at every turn to manage expectations. And today she chose, after a leak highlighting the hubris and ineptitude of her government’s Brexit ‘strategy’ — probably aimed at warning the German public they might have to pay a fair bit more if the talks collapse — to accuse the very people whose goodwill she needs most after 8 June of ‘interfering in our elections’.

I presume Mrs May called this vote because she felt confident about the outcome. Politicians are not in the habit of ceding three years in office on a whim. So by her own lights, she can presumably afford a modicum of statesmanship. She can afford to start preparing the public for the climbdowns which will be required for a deal. She backed Remain, however quietly, and she knows Vote Leave sold a pack of lies to win. She knows we can’t have what they promised.

At some point, one of two things will happen. British expectations will gradually return to earth, allowing us to move towards some inferior-but-not-devastating deal with the EU over time. Or British expectations will meet EU reality and the result will be a car crash. It seems our Prime Minister deems the latter worth making more likely in the cause of (in her view) winning a majority of 140 rather than 120.

I imagine it will indeed win votes. But seeking to govern is not just about seeking votes. This irresponsibility may well come back to haunt Mrs May, even if she wins her mandate. She will richly deserve it, if so.

It’s just a shame it will come back to haunt the country too.

This post was originally published on on 3 May 2017.

Sentiments and statistics: why CANZUK won’t fly

The idea that the United Kingdom should try and rebuild closer ties with Canada, Australia and New Zealand raises its head from time to time. Obviously we’re close friends, with ties of history, language and culture, and there’s nothing wrong with reinforcing old friendships.

But thanks to Brexit, we’re hearing a bit more about this kind of thing than usual — with a focus on some kind of economic and geopolitical partnership. So is there a business case for CANZUK as a primary relationship for any of these four countries? Let’s look at where our potential partners currently sell goods and services.

Data: World Bank statistics (I grouped CANZUK, EU-27 and GCC figures myself)

In the United Kingdom, nearly half of our exports go to the rest of the EU. When you add EFTA members in, a majority goes to countries in or partly in the single market. By far our largest non-European partner is the United States. China and the Gulf Co-operation Council states both come in ahead of CANZUK. You might try and argue that we’ve had a lot of trade diversion to the rest of Europe. But even if you doubled our trade with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it’s never going to be anywhere near enough to make up. We are a Euro-Atlantic economy.

Data: World Bank statistics (I grouped CANZUK, EU-27 and GCC figures myself)

In Canada’s case, it’s quite obvious that nothing and no-one could match the scale of US trade. It’s next door, it’s huge and it’s economically fairly integrated. Again, China and the EU-27 both come in ahead of CANZUK. Again, there’s no way CANZUK could even come close to matching trade with the neighbours.

Data: World Bank statistics (I grouped CANZUK, EU-27 and GCC figures myself)

A clear majority of Australia’s exports go to east Asia, with the developed English-speaking world clocking in at about 10%. CANZUK would theoretically be the fourth-largest destination for exports, but over half of them go to New Zealand. (Let’s also note that Australia and New Zealand already have a free trade agreement.) Australia trades mostly with its neighbours and within its geographical region.

Data: World Bank statistics (I grouped CANZUK, EU-27 and GCC figures myself)

New Zealand is the only CANZUK country where CANZUK would be the top recipient of exports (or even in the top three). But that’s overwhelmingly down to Australia, where 17% of New Zealand’s exports go. The UK makes up 3.4%. (Incidentally, the EU-27 accounts for about twice that.) Again, New Zealand is mainly an Asia-Pacific economy.

So all four of our prospective partners show the usual truth in trade: countries tend to sell to their neighbours. The UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are already mature, developed economies, so any idea that their vast growth potential could make up for diversion from elsewhere doesn’t stack up. There is no sensible case for CANZUK as a main economic bloc for any of its members.

But CANZUK has been sold as a geopolitical partnership, not just (or even mainly) an economic one. Do the defence and security arguments stack up any better? Clearly the four countries spend a large amount on defence between them — over $96 billion, though nearly 60% of that is spent by the UK. We have served together in many conflicts. Australia and New Zealand are committed to each other through ANZUS. Canada and the UK are allied through NATO.

But again, look at members’ defence strategies. The four countries share two main things: a predominant focus on their own regions and a critical dependence on the US. Our most important joint defence endeavour is the Five Eyes, where the US is the most powerful member. Only the UK even aspires to have a global reach in its own right. Our Strategic Defence and Security Review cited our military and intelligence’s ability to ‘project our power globally, and … fight and work alongside our close allies, including the US and France, to deter or defeat our adversaries.’ Note the US and France are the two main allies cited. It is abundantly clear that the UK’s main defence commitment lies in NATO.

Australia’s Defence White Paper from last year is clear. Its priority is to ensure an independent ability ‘to defend Australia and protect our interests in our immediate region,’ and then to ‘enhance Australia’s ability to contribute to global coalition operations.’ Its two principal allies are the United States and New Zealand. Canada’s key roles are ‘defending Canada,’ ‘defending North America — in partnership with the United States’ and then ‘contributing to international peace and security.’ New Zealand’s focus includes the need to ‘defend New Zealand’s sovereign territory’, ‘meet New Zealand’s commitment as an ally of Australia’ and ‘contribute to, and where necessary lead, operations in the South Pacific’.

Granted, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore have one joint security commitment. They have agreed to consult on responding to a threat to the latter two countries. But the Five Power Defence Arrangements aren’t a collective security agreement. They stem from a UK withdrawal from commitments east of Suez in 1968–71, not a willingness to take on new ones.

The FPDAs are generally agreed to contribute to security. But does anyone believe the UK and Canada could possibly defend states in the Pacific in an existential crisis without the US? Would Australia and New Zealand be in a position to assist in Europe if the roles were reversed? That may be a remote prospect, but a true collective security commitment requires the answer to be ‘yes’. I don’t think anyone actually believes that would be the answer without the Americans. So what, meaningfully, are we going to do together in the field of security and defence on our own?

There’s no decent case for making an economic priority of CANZUK. There’s no real defence or security case for it either. We’re all liberal democracies with similar positions on global issues, but we can already co-ordinate our foreign policy as and when we want. No doubt we could bring in freedom of movement between our countries if we particularly wanted, though it’s hard to see that as practically transformative. But in the end, this is about sentiment.

If ever the UK needed to be frank about its role in the world, the time is now. Brexit is going to be damaging anyway: if we get it wrong, it could be catastrophic. Our priorities are to minimise the damage to our relations with our nearest neighbours, try to keep the transatlantic alliance in one piece and develop economic ties where they will do most good.

Whether we’re ‘more like’ continental Europe or mainly-anglophone-developed-democracies-but-not-the-US is subjective and highly politicised. Much of the argument boils down to rival sentiments. But our trading patterns, principal threats and security priorities aren’t sentimental. And an economic, foreign or defence policy governed by sentiment would be doomed to failure.

This post was originally published on on 8 April 2017.

Revisiting representation

It is hard to overstate how large a challenge to the parliamentary system the EU referendum result represents. Around three quarters of MPs judged that the UK was better off in the EU. But despite their judgment, our economic and geopolitical compass is being reset.

Our current predicament is a perfect demonstration of the problems of plebiscitary democracy grafted onto parliamentary systems. Using a referendum to validate a permanent, crucial step a government wishes to take is one thing. Sometimes the people should authorise a change in the rules of the political game as well as Parliament.

But here, a government offered a dramatic change it deemed profoundly unwise, with no plan for how to do it. It didn’t have a plan for Brexit, because it didn’t want Brexit. It couldn’t offer a prospectus, because any Brexit deal depends on the views of our EU partners as much as our own. That’s not its fault. But there wasn’t even a negotiating pitch to scrutinise. The Scottish referendum in 2014 abounded with dubious assertions. The Scottish Government’s White Paper was full of holes. But at least the holes were there to be picked.

In 2016, we were offered a promised land without any Moses tasked with getting us there. The unreality, the wilful dishonesty about what can and cannot be done, continues to this day. And in the name of democracy — in the name of the people — attempts to expose that are being delegitimised by government. The public were promised the chance to take back control from Brussels. Instead, the Government has taken yet more control from a cowed Parliament.

Defending parliamentarism

So as many have said, we need to stand up for parliamentary democracy. We elect people rather than choosing policies directly for good reason. Government is not a series of on-off and one-off decisions: policies need to be pursued over time and there are many variations. Further, policies intersect with each other. Deciding everything separately and giving priority to everything ultimately decides and prioritises nothing. (Electing people to run one particular service is a bad idea for similar reasons.) Representative democracy requires policy to be discussed: as we’ve seen, referendums can serve to prevent that.

Parliament needs to reassert itself, and we all need to reassert some of the basic principles of a parliamentary system. Parliament has every right to be forceful in shaping how the EU referendum result is implemented. The referendum answered one question. It didn’t give our new Prime Minister some unchallengeable, quasi-telepathic insight into ‘the will of the people’. And MPs have a perfect right to make a judgment their voters don’t like and judged in their turn at an election.

A parliament of representatives?

But if we want parliamentarians to do that, we need to make representative democracy work better and broaden its reach. We need to look at how our parliament works. The public rejected the (non-proportional) Alternative Vote in 2011. We’re unlikely to get another shot at voting reform soon. But our current Parliament’s make-up makes it harder for the public mood to be reflected through representatives rather than referendums.

By that, I don’t mean first past the post isn’t proportional and that’s a bad thing, though it isn’t and, in my view, that is. I mean that major changes in voting behaviour are stifled and points of view go unheard in the national debate for too long. Sometimes that means we ignore grievances for too long. Other times it means we respond to them too uncritically, because we didn’t argue with them openly.

Take the rise of UKIP. The obvious point, from a reformer’s point of view, is that for a party to win an eighth of the votes and one solitary MP is simply unjust. I agree. Others would counter that UKIP’s rise has nonetheless had a profound effect on the behaviour of Labour and the Conservatives. Well, yes. But how transparent has that effect been? On one level it sounds admirably democratic: rather than producing a mishmash, listen to UKIP voters and address why they’re voting that way. But while a political party can often be wrong, the saying goes that voters never can be. So how do UKIP’s policies and beliefs get tested and held accountable on a daily basis, like mainstream parties’?

That should be happening in Parliament. There should be a UKIP Shadow Cabinet, UKIP Select Committee members, UKIP voices at Prime Minister’s Questions. Yes, that gives them a platform. So be it: when an eighth of voters speak, they have earned a platform for their chosen party. But it also incentivises — forces — the other parties to actually argue with UKIP, not just ignore it and then try to flatter its voters. Every so often it’d get its way, but then it seems quite capable of doing so without MPs.

Its presence in Parliament, if earned, could have been an early warning for Parliament. In 2004, I was all for allowing free movement from the new EU member states from day one. Strategically and economically, I stand by it: we kept and cultivated friends in eastern Europe and we were richer for it. But politically I was utterly, catastrophically wrong.

Now, it’s quite likely that the House of Commons elected in 2001 would have had a few UKIP (or Referendum Party, or whatever) MPs, probably not all in Conservative areas, to raise the alarm about enlargement. Perhaps we’d have responded by imposing transitional controls after all. Perhaps we wouldn’t have. But the early warning mechanism would have been there. We might not be leaving the European Union now.

What kind of reform?

Reform doesn’t have to mean some remote national list system where parties with 1% of the vote hold all business up. Quite the contrary: British traditions of constituency representation and keeping party HQs from having too much control over who ends up in Parliament matter. But the idea that these preclude anything but one system, with no nod to proportionality at all, is quite some straw man. It is quite possible, building on systems we’ve already used in the UK, to design a system which fits into our parliamentary culture.

The obvious choice would be an additional member system designed to fit British political culture. Most MPs would be elected as they are now. The other list MPs could be chosen through an open list, representing local areas — not huge regions. A system where an area the size of, say, Surrey has 6–7 constituency MPs and 4–5 county MPs really won’t fling us all into Israeli-style chaos. The electoral areas wouldn’t be big enough — though you could add a 4–5% threshold to make sure. And the number of county MPs per area would be small enough for voters to meaningfully choose individuals, not just parties.

This would mean an end to the days when 10% or 15% of voters were denied proper reflection of their views in Parliament. That includes people whose voting choices I don’t like, and quite right too. Parliament should be the cockpit of UK national debate. Robin Cook argued that if you wanted that to be the case, you should want Parliament’s hours to fit the print media news cycle. I’d argue you should also want Parliament to represent the major strands of political opinion in rough proportion to their size.

Our current system fails to deliver that basic requirement. It also makes it harder for the two largest parties to hear from voters outside their strongest areas. Not insurmountable, of course — Labour and the Conservatives have both managed it in their time — but harder. That matters because Labour voters in Surrey and Tory voters in Tyne and Wear should have some political representation they choose. But a fairer system would also give Surrey a voice in the Labour Party, and Tyne and Wear a voice in the Conservative Party.

Co-operative government

Of course, a sensible proportional system would probably require a party to win around 44–45% of the vote to get a majority on its own. With current voting patterns, parties would have to work together to govern. Quite right too. I can see how a party with 45% of the vote — even 40% — might claim, on a moderate platform, to represent the popular will. I cannot see 35%, which my own party won in 2005, as much of a mandate to govern alone.

There is no reason co-operative government must end voter control. Parties in coalition-prone countries are generally good at signalling their priorities in dealing with others. In fact, such evidence as we have suggests our parties aren’t much (or any) better at delivering their manifestos than the continentals! Junior partners in coalition get about the share of ministries their share of seats suggests, and the broad political complexion of the legislature is generally reflected in policies passed.

At the moment, UK parties second-guess which broad electoral coalitions 35%-40% of voters might prefer. In other countries, voters themselves send a broader range of political forces to Parliament and meaningfully control their relative strengths. So in Sweden, voters know the four parties which will work together on the centre-right. But they can alter the influence each party has within that bloc — a larger say for the Centre Party, say, or the Liberals.

To my mind, that compares rather well to the UK, where mainstream social democrats and liberal-minded conservatives are (for now) wholly unrepresented by party leaderships. No doubt uncompromising leftists and traditional conservatives felt the same a few years ago. Why not let the people themselves decide how much weight they wish to give both?

Mediating mandates

There’s a tension here between two principles many constitutional conservatives cherish. The first is the doctrine of the mandate itself. In UK mandate theory, a party goes to the country with a manifesto, wins a majority in the Commons and then enacts said manifesto. The argument runs: a majority single-party government is clearly in power, clearly responsible and clearly accountable.

The second is the idea of ‘government by discussion’. This is surely key if we want Parliament, not just government, to stand up for its right to make its own judgments. Decisions should be debated and considered in Parliament, and will be so more fully than most people wish to do themselves. MPs can then be held accountable for their judgment.

It’s pretty clear why these clash. The first implies policies will be pushed through smoothly and easily; the second implies they’ll be tested and scrutinised. Obviously, no one actually treats both as absolutes. But contrasts between a pure plurality mandate and muddled coalitions are therefore unhelpful. Yes, the ‘mandate’ is more diffuse in a proportional parliament. But it’s broader, and a culture of negotiation fits better with ‘government by discussion’.

More than that, it’s government by discussion, not unchallengeable mandates, we need to bolster now. It makes sense for governments which only reflect a minority of voters and parliaments where new views find it hard to get a seat at the table to use referendums, precisely to make a mandate unchallengeable. An over-obsession with the mandate, narrowly defined, is part of the disease, not the cure.

Just now, reasserting parliamentarism means reasserting the value of deliberation, discussion and debate. To do that, we need to make sure the main strands of opinion are properly represented in Parliament. I know constitutional conservatives won’t like this argument. But they of all people should remember the old quote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

This post was originally published on on 13 March 2017.