Exciting vision or doctor’s mandate? The problem for the centre-left

I wasn’t at the Progress Conference on Saturday. I’d promised my friends (and myself) a broadly non-political weekend after the past couple of months. But it seems that at least parts of the Conference were in ‘tell hard truths to our own side’ mode. In particular, Stephen Bush’s speech has attracted much comment:

There’s clearly plenty of truth in this. It is indeed wearing to hear social democrats talking about being divisive as if that were the issue. Quite clearly it isn’t. The issue is that we dislike Corbynite politics and want something different. Some allowance needs to be made for moderates’ exhaustion from trying to hold the hard left off. But to return Labour to its mainstream tradition, you need to persuade and inspire people who currently like Corbyn. Alternatively, you need to get people in to outnumber them. And no, Labour moderates can’t easily shout about electability in our current state.

But I’d make two main points in return. First, the Corbynite left can cross lines social democrats can’t. I’m not calling for a naive form of ‘straight-talking, honest politics’. (Bush is quite right there. Note to self: stop doing it.) But it’s hard to counter an entire prospectus based on the pretence that middle-class corporatism equals redistribution, sums we know don’t add up and a foreign policy which sells parochialism as ‘peace’ once people have bought into it.

If people believe fantasies, they’ll always sound better than messy trade-offs. In that case, how do you pit realism against the big lie mode of politics and win? I’m sure a sufficiently charismatic and inspiring leader could do a great deal to address that. And no doubt much more can be done to frame the issues differently. It’s still a huge problem.

The second problem is the unappealing truth of where we find ourselves. The UK faces several crises which we need to address, with limited state bandwidth to devote to them. Fortunately for all of us, I have neither any prospect of becoming Prime Minister nor any desire to try. But were I in charge, I have a rough idea of what I’d prioritise.

I’d need to find a substantial amount of money just to keep core bits of the public realm from falling over. The NHS, social care, councils, welfare and the justice system desperately need cash. To be clear, the cash injection wouldn’t even be to make things (much) better: it’d mostly be to stop them from getting worse. As we’re talking tens of billions of pounds of current, not capital, spending (and we’d better have some room for manoeuvre to prop the economy up if Brexit goes disastrously wrong), this means broadly-based tax rises. By all means try to hit the very rich too. But there’s a reason social democratic paragons have higher VAT than we do, not just higher top rates of income tax.

I would, of course, try to minimise the damage from Brexit. This means delivering the softest version compatible with electoral acquiescence and political reality. Unfortunately, a Brexit with a severely constrained trade policy and free movement probably won’t stick. If that’s true, it gets worse. The least-worst Brexit is different in Great Britain and Northern Ireland — but the consequences of substantial differentiation between the two are unacceptable. And it may well be that neither of these least-worst options can be agreed. Whatever the result, the question is how much worse off we end up — not what we gain.

I’d also look to our east and west and conclude we as Europeans were dangerously exposed. We have a currently indifferent hegemon across the Atlantic and a dangerous revanchist at the other end of the North European Plain. Democratic Europe should be planning for a real security crisis in which Washington abandons it. It shows little sign of doing so. The UK is of course one of Europe’s best defence and security performers. That doesn’t make it anywhere near good enough, and the 2% of GDP floor has ceased to be high enough. Unfortunately, we are in no position to advise others on pan-European policy and expect to be listened to. But Europe needs to make a start. To get anywhere, the UK will need to commit serious additional resources of its own.

I am well aware both that climate change is rapidly reaching a tipping point, if it hasn’t already, and that the UK can do little on its own to turn things around. We’ve long since reached the point where we need to talk frankly about adaptation and mitigation. This includes our responsibilities to the wider world, most of which got much less than we did out of the emissions which created the crisis. By all means try to push the wider world towards keeping climate change in bounds. But don’t bet the mortgage on the wider world responding.

I’d look to bolster our institutions and our constitutional safeguards. When the extremes seem on the rise and more and more politicians seem happy to pull threads out of our liberal democratic fabric, this is now urgent. There are many possible ways to do this. We could have a stronger and more democratic second chamber, no longer vulnerable to prime ministerial packing or easy charges of illegitimacy. It could have a power of veto over amending certain key statutes. (Better yet, we might try to require a parliamentary super-majority of some sort to do so.) Ideally the Commons’ voting system would make it harder for one party to control it, if reform could pass a referendum. (It wouldn’t. I know better than to try to hold one now.) But frankly, even a reliable defence of the roles of the BBC and the judiciary would be a start.

And finally — the one potentially cheery thing on the list — I’d want to start doing something about the housing crisis. That might mean planning reform, dropping the ‘every sperm is sacred’ approach to every acre of the Green Belt (can we all please note the M25 is in the Green Belt and stop confusing it with AONBs, by the way?), major capital investment in housebuilding (a much better use for public money than renationalising water and creating public option energy companies), untying local authorities’ hands and a dash of statist ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to land banking. We could even tie a land value tax (or a property tax of some kind) to providing ongoing revenue for housebuilding.

The problem is obvious. This is a daunting list, quite possibly more than any government can realistically manage in five years while keeping everything else ticking over. It’s also a pretty cheerless prospectus, with one significant but deeply divisive exception. (Let’s not kid ourselves that the voters are going to hear ‘property tax’ and think ‘a home for my kids’.) Essentially, it amounts to ‘stop things from falling over, implement a bad decision tolerably and try to protect ourselves in a dangerous world’. But right now, I honestly think a sensible government needs to play doctor more than visionary.

Clearly, Labour members and quite a few British voters want to be inspired. Unfortunately, damage limitation doesn’t have much of a heroic arc. I’m not sure the centre-left has often, if ever, managed to win a doctor’s mandate. And I’m not sure there’s an obvious way to square the circle. Can the centre-left make making the best of things sound hopeful?

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 8 May 2018.

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Labour’s despairing dissenters

Anyone who’s tried to hold the political or moral line in Corbyn’s Labour knows the drill. Criticise Jeremy and you definitely get nowhere. Cite something Jeremy’s said to back your argument and you probably get nowhere. Draw a pragmatic line and the Corbynites call you unprincipled (except on Brexit, which is of course completely different). Draw a principled line and the Corbynites think you’re hiding a conspiracy under a moral carapace.

Much ink is spilled about how moderate Labour messed up its response to Corbynism. I’m sure that’s true in many ways. Yes: from moaning about McDonald’s to a premature leadership challenge, moderate Labour messed up on plenty of counts. Yes: moderate Labour should realised that Labour members wanted clear red water, at least in rhetoric. (It turns out they’re much less fussed about actual redistributive policy, but I digress.)

That’s all perfectly true. It’s also beside the point. Because people who think sorting all that would be enough for the median Labour member now are kidding themselves. It’s far, far worse than that.

If we’re honest with ourselves, today’s terrible poll just confirms what we already knew. Only 19% of Labour members could bring themselves to answer that their party faced a serious problem with anti-Semitism which needed urgent action without equivocation. 30% of members actually seem to believe that, even though the main representative body for British Jews has effectively declared Corbyn beyond the pale until things improve, Labour has serious no anti-Semitism problem and it’s all being hyped up to undermine him and/or stifle criticism of Israel.

Some cite the fact that 47% think it’s a genuine problem, but deliberately exaggerated to damage Labour or Corbyn (or, again, to stifle criticism of Israel), as comfort. Quite which bits of the problem anyone can seriously deem exaggerated is, frankly, hard to tell. But I suppose it’s less bad than outright denial. I suppose some people will be new to the issue and won’t have fully processed the scale of the crisis. I suppose some will have read ‘exaggerated’ as ‘leapt upon by others’ and not quite clocked what they’ve signed up to. (None of this excuses failing to see the age-old ‘shadowy conspiracies’ trope lurking in the middle option, but there we go.)

Even discounting generously, it’s a grim figure. And 61% think failing to even call for Christine Shawcroft to stand down from the NEC counts as handling the issue well. In short, a comfortable majority of Labour members seem OK with how this is being handled.

That is damning. It also places Labour dissenters in an impossible bind. When I stood in solidarity with British Jews on Monday, I hoped this horror might at least be a turning point, that more people who claimed to believe in equality might put it before loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn. For a few hours I even kidded myself it felt different this time. But if you’d asked me before last Sunday, I’d have said dissenters would make themselves more unpopular for speaking out. And now I’ve seen the poll, I’m not really surprised by the results.

Corbyn loyalists: if you think Labour dissenters are acting from calculation, put it from your mind. So far as I can see, talking about Labour’s moral crisis makes our internal position worse, not better. But so long as we stay, we have no choice. How can we keep our heads down and live with ourselves? We have to think about the long game. But we also have to look at ourselves in the mirror. (No, I don’t have a game plan. There was a time when I hoped someone cleverer, preferably with some actual influence, might have one.)

So, yes: when certain lines are crossed, some Labour dissenters stand up. This time they’ve exploded in rage because Corbyn’s personal enablement of anti-Semitism was exposed once too often. And it makes most members angry. And they dig in deeper. And the dissenters’ plight gets worse.

Short of leaving, what else can they do?

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 31 March 2018.

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 Medium.com on 28 June 2017.

On Article 50

Whether the Supreme Court was legally correct to say that Parliament must legislate before the Government can invoke Article 50 is for others to debate. Rightly, the courts gave judgment and have settled the issue. Politically, I always believed the Government should seek approval from Parliament for its timing and strategy.

But the Supreme Court’s decision places Labour in a truly poisonous position. Most of our voters backed Remain; most of our seats backed Leave. We cannot defy the referendum result; we cannot back a hard Brexit. I do not envy our embattled MPs.

Second Reading

I can see why Jeremy Corbyn wishes to ask Labour MPs to vote for the Article 50 Bill at Second Reading. And ultimately, I won’t blame him for that, although I disagree with a three-line whip. I know Labour cannot simply ignore the referendum result, and that many – probably most – will feel they should vote in favour to show they accept that result.

But Labour MPs overwhelmingly backed Remain. In many cases, their constituents did too. MPs like Jo Stevens, Catherine West and Tulip Siddiq put themselves at great risk if they ignore their own residents’ views. And some – those who are and have always been committed Europeans – will feel their consciences can only stretch so far.

I accept parties of government must have a position on such issues, but frankly I see little point in pretending Labour is in any danger of being in government soon anyway. The current struggle is for survival – one which many MPs will struggle to win if they alienate their Remain-voting constituents. Jeremy can take his position, and most Labour MPs will back him, but it is divisive and unhelpful to force MPs’ consciences at Second Reading. MPs will split hopelessly anyway; best to make some shred of virtue out of overwhelming necessity.

Third Reading

The more important question for the national interest is how Labour MPs vote at Third Reading. Here, there comes a point where Labour MPs must consider the policy consequences of their votes, however electorally inconvenient that may be. Reluctantly, I accept the country voted to leave: overriding the vote without a referendum would be anti-democratic and could occasion a terrible backlash against mainstream politics, and we would lose a second referendum by a larger margin than the first. We now need to try to minimise the damage. As such, I recognise Labour cannot reject Article 50 en masse regardless of the circumstances.

But once the UK triggers Article 50, we have a two-year window in which to negotiate an exit agreement, hopefully with a transitional deal as we move to a new relationship with the EU. It’s all very well to talk about meaningful parliamentary votes on the deal, but we can only extend those talks if every other EU member agrees. It’s legally uncertain whether we could even revoke Article 50 outright unilaterally, but clearly the Government will not do so. That means a vote on the final deal on exit and transition is very likely to be a choice between whatever May comes up with or nothing at all. Backing the Tories’ deal or being thrown out on WTO rules isn’t much of a choice.

If Parliament really wants to influence the shape of Brexit, it has to exercise that influence now, before the two-year countdown starts. And that means Labour’s backing for the Article 50 Bill must depend upon the amendments the Commons passes. If Labour MPs will not vote against the Article 50 Bill at Third Reading in any circumstances, they will effectively show that in the final analysis, they are prepared to let any kind of Brexit through.

The referendum gives Theresa May no right to a blank cheque. Nor does she have a right to ride roughshod over the views of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s administrations and legislatures. Her form of Brexit will do enormous damage to the people Labour represents. It may well poison our relations with the rest of Europe at the very time when the United States may abandon our continent too. Labour should not sign her cheque so long as it stays blank.

Labour and Brexit

More broadly, Labour needs to be frank about the true implications of what Theresa May plans to do. She has said she wants to leave the single market and the customs union, although she seems to have some notion of simplifying customs proceedings. Responding to her speech, Keir Starmer said: ‘It is good that she has ruled out that hard Brexit at this stage.’ He also said ‘I accept that form follows function’.

His response ignores the secret of the single market. The rules and institutions of the single market are the single market: the form creates the function. It is simply not the case that May’s ‘bold and ambitious free trade agreement’ will do the same job. And Labour does no service to scrutiny by allowing that elision to pass unchallenged.

Jeremy Corbyn’s response shows where such a path leads us:

We welcome that the Prime Minister has listened to the case we’ve been making about the need for full tariff free access to the single market but are deeply concerned about her reckless approach to achieving it.

It is simply not good enough to say ‘hard Brexit’ is only about process, not endpoint. Labour should back remaining in the single market and level with voters about the tradeoffs – as well as the reality of our EU partners’ position. The Opposition should puncture the Government’s delusions, not indulge them.

In conscience

Finally, I will not lie about what I would do at Second Reading if I were a Labour Member of Parliament. I could not in good conscience vote to give any impression I approve of what we are about to do. I do not approve, even if I try to be resigned. I am a passionate European and I always have been. I believe the European project is, for all its faults, the greatest attempt to build relations between our countries on the basis of law and not just power we have ever seen. I believe it has made an invaluable contribution to peace, democratisation and constitutionalism on the continent of Europe. I believe it is part of a web of institutions and habits of mind and inaccurate historical memories, a web which helps keep the dark heart of man at bay. And I would not want it said that the United Kingdom’s representative assembly walked away from it as one.

NATO: on solidarity

Labour is collectivist by instinct and culture. Founded by the trade unions, it could hardly be otherwise. The welfare state the Attlee Government did so much to build was founded on collective insurance. Labour has stood in solidarity with oppressed groups, minority communities, countries under attack and many others in the past.

Collective security is solidarity by another name. It’s wholly fitting, therefore, that the Attlee Government took the United Kingdom into NATO as a founding member. As the Cold War deepened, western Europe needed the United States to guarantee its security. Not all NATO’s members were always democratic, but it nonetheless bound free Europe to the US. Since then, it has formed the bedrock of British defence policy. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty provides almost our ultimate insurance – our fallback in an existential crisis.

When the Iron Curtain lifted and the Soviet Union fell, new eastern European democracies wanted to join NATO. Given their history, it’s hardly surprising. On a continent where collective security lost its meaning, Chamberlain and Daladier browbeat Edvard Beneš into signing away the Sudetenland in September 1938. Czechoslovakia was dismembered by Hitler the following March. A Franco-British guarantee meant nothing. In September 1939, Britain and France did honour their guarantee to Poland. Poland still suffered years of unspeakable horror. In 1945, eastern Europe came under Soviet control: the ‘people’s democracies’ only fell in 1989. Again, the West stood aside. You might say the West had little alternative in 1945-8: it’s a sobering and unedifying story nonetheless.

That so many of those countries have now joined the community of Western democracies is a cause for celebration. Churchill’s ‘capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe’ no longer languish behind an Iron Curtain, but have joined with their sisters to their west. NATO has provided the anchoring for a community of states linked by law to grow together.

The last Labour Government was a good friend to eastern Europe – championing its right to a place in the Western world. And until now, no Labour leader has ever wavered in their support for the Atlantic Alliance. Michael Foot opposed nuclear weapons, but he kept Labour pledged to NATO. Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalence at present and in public, and his hostility in the past and probably in private, is unique. His opposition to NATO deployment in eastern Europe as a deterrent to a revanchist Russia is deeply misguided. His refusal to say he would defend NATO allies under attack is profoundly dangerous.

In 2017, eastern Europeans have good cause to value their NATO membership. In February 2014, Russia and Estonia signed an (admittedly unratified) agreement finalising their border. In March, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea because Ukraine wanted to sign a deal with the European Union. Both countries have large Russian minorities. Both once formed part of the USSR. Granted, Ukraine is central to Russia’s sense of self in a way which doesn’t hold true for the Baltics (of course, this doesn’t make its aggression any better). But another crucial difference is the guarantee under Article 5.

It would be unwise enough in normal circumstances to disdain our current insurance policy with no alternative in mind. In these abnormal ones, it is almost farcical in its foolishness. In 2014, a great power annexed a neighbour’s territory on the continent of Europe for the first time since 1945. Its leader is hostile to the liberal international order on which the UK relies, and nothing in his history suggests ‘relationship resets’ or a pacifying stance will appease him. It has links to far right (and radical left) parties in democratic Europe. It props up a toxic but anti-Western regime in Syria. It interfered in the US presidential election and may have even affected the outcome.

Thanks in no small part to the US election, NATO has rarely faced greater threats from within. In eight days’ time, a man whose commitment to European security is questionable will become President of the United States. That Donald Trump and Theresa May agreed on the importance of NATO in a telephone call is of limited comfort, even if he meant what he said. Credibility means everything in deterrence: it matters that Trump once said he wouldn’t mind too much if NATO dissolved, not just whether he continues saying such things as President. This is exactly the moment at which European governments must try to ensure NATO does not wither on the vine. It’s also a moment when NATO’s word must be seen to be its bond. I struggle to imagine a worse time to argue for undermining its shared deterrence strategy in Europe.

History makes clear that Britain cannot ignore the rest of Europe, that its security is bound up with its continent. Brexit does not change the essential fact, however much Nigel Farage might like it to. If the US disengages, Europeans will need to look to our own security: the UK has no opt-out. But in any event, it would be profoundly wrong to let Putin dictate policy in eastern Europe – and even more so to regard any NATO ally as somehow dispensable. I see nothing left-wing about old-style spheres of influence. I see nothing progressive in ignoring eastern Europeans’ right to choose their own destinies. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became liberal democracies by their own free choice. They are our allies. They deserve better than to be treated as our buffer states.

Collective security is vital for democratic Europe. It has not faced such severe threats from without for many years. It has rarely, if ever, seemed more besieged from within. Britain could never separate itself from the fallout if it broke down. And even if it could, it would be an appalling act to abandon our friends and allies to Vladimir Putin. No true progressive should countenance it.

Saving the single market

Dear Labour MPs

The referendum result is a terrible tragedy, but I understand the people have spoken. I am not asking for a second vote unless voters actually want one, which they clearly don’t now. I accept we have to try and make the best of Brexit. But we shouldn’t just let its most hardline advocates define our future. I am horrified that so many Labour MPs who campaigned to remain are saying an end to free movement of EEA nationals must now be a red line.

Most of you campaigned for Remain – so you know the EU means what it says about the single market’s four freedoms being indivisible, because you travelled the country saying so. But to reiterate: Brussels is not bluffing. The European project relies on common rules for common benefits. Conceding that principle sets a dangerous precedent for the future – throw your toys out of the pram, walk away from your neighbours and reap the rewards. It would be a tragedy of the commons on a continental scale.

Some of you talk about an ‘ambitious negotiating strategy’ to try and square the circle. Yes, other EU countries face challenges too: the threat from Marine Le Pen, Angela Merkel’s difficulties with the refugee crisis, Matteo Renzi’s upcoming constitutional referendum. But offering Britain some sweetheart deal would make their electoral troubles worse, not better. Polling clearly shows their voters do not want us to get any such deal. Some mainstream politicians have talked about greater border controls on entering the passport-free Schengen Area or even longer-term ones within it, but curtailing or ending EEA free movement rights is a distinct issue. Renzi has said an end to free movement won’t happen. Whatever changes Sarkozy puts forward for Schengen, he’s not challenging EEA nationals’ rights (and no French mainstream candidate will go further than him).

Some might point to the fact that, technically, EU free movement is on a different legal basis from the models the EFTA countries apply. The EEA countries have slightly different rules on free movement – essentially, EU citizenship is not a relevant concept and the right is (technically) free movement of workers rather than people. If Switzerland’s compromise on ‘local preference’ in hiring gets consent from Brussels (far from guaranteed), perhaps we could secure something similar to effectively stay in the single market in goods (though not in services). The Swiss model would harm a country as dependent on service exports as Britain. Either approach keeps free movement – and selling tweaks as radical changes failed dismally in the referendum. In the end, you only put off the evil day when we have to choose: do we accept the single market’s rules or not?

If Britain insists on ending free movement, therefore, we will make our way out of the single market. That will damage working people’s incomes, jobs and communities far more than immigration ever could. The evidence simply does not support the idea that immigration depresses wages overall. At worst, it may have a small effect on some low wages – though even then, it mainly seems to affect other migrants rather than British workers. Of course, if you’re on the breadline, a small change has a big effect. But the lost jobs and tax revenue (and guess whose tax credits or public services will be cut to make up for that?) from hard Brexit will dwarf any notional gain in wages.

To be clear: this is not about metropolitan liberals refusing to listen to anyone outside the M25. I understand you want to meet voters halfway on immigration. And yes, we probably have relied on low-paid labour from elsewhere too much and for too long. You can talk more about training our own people. You can ask why we don’t pay enough for British people to do more of these jobs. You can say tackling both of these could reduce immigration and slow the pace of change. You can spell out that people feel that their society changed too fast without their being asked. You can use plainer English to talk about the issue – metropolitan liberals should stop insisting that you tie yourselves in linguistic knots whenever it comes up.

But there is a difference between doing all that and staying quiet while the Tory Right sells us snake oil. It won’t appease people in the end anyway. What do you think will happen if Britain marches to hard Brexit and the country ceases to be a gateway to the world’s largest single market? Do you think angry voters will be less angry once investors go? Once Nissan leaves Sunderland? When people find themselves without work? What will Labour say to them then?

You are the Official Opposition. I realise fulfilling that role is much harder with our current leadership. But you are still the second largest bloc of MPs, and you can put pressure on a Government with a small majority in perilous times. Theresa May could well be held hostage by those Conservative MPs for whom no level of anti-European zealotry would ever be enough. Labour MPs need to press her to minimise the damage Brexit does, not encourage her to maximise it.

Yes, the referendum result mandates some form of Brexit. But all of us, not just some of the 52%, should have a say as we decide what form we choose. Please reconsider, for all our sakes.

Best wishes
Douglas Dowell

Voting records, Labour leaderships and anti-politics

Owen Smith is standing for the Labour leadership on a platform well to the left of what anyone would have deemed possible in 2015. From standing firm against Tory spending plans, through pledging a series of specific tax rises, to investing in a British New Deal, to strengthening workers’ rights, it is very obvious which side of the fence he’s on. There’s no Blairite triangulation here – simply a clear, left-wing, domestically-focused programme.

As a result, attacks on Owen have had less to do with his policies and more to do with his background. The attacks on his career before Parliament are deeply unfair and have been rebutted elsewhere. However far to the left we move, we can’t just dismiss anyone who has worked in the private sector as inherently suspect. But many comments about his record in Parliament deserve an answer, too. They aren’t just unfair and misleading. They’re part of a toxic kind of politics, which any true idealist should shun.

Owen in Parliament (or being attacked for being an MP)

The (in)famous vote on the Welfare Bill in July has been covered over and over again, and plenty of people have explained what it meant in detail. Briefly: Labour tabled a ‘reasoned amendment’, which would have killed the Bill while giving specific reasons. It then abstained on the Second Reading because some parts of the Bill (like an increase in apprenticeships) were good. It tried to change the Bill in Committee, and then voted against it at Third Reading. The Tories have a majority, so it would have passed anyway. I completely agree we made the wrong call, and so does Owen Smith: we should have made our opposition clear. But Labour MPs weren’t just letting the welfare cuts through. It was simply trying to change it first before trying to vote it down, good bits and bad alike.

Owen has also come under fire for not voting on the Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill in October 2010. (For context: he entered Parliament for the first time in May 2010.) This was a Private Member’s Bill which aimed to ensure that minor procedural errors in strike ballot notices didn’t invalidate the ballot. Employers have been exploiting the law aggressively in recent years, so I have plenty of sympathy with the idea (though I might argue with bits of the detail). It’s good that a large number of MPs turned up to vote for it. But the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government had a majority of 73 and was never going to give it Government time. As a result, it was never going to actually become law. We don’t know if Owen had a constituency commitment; we don’t know what else he might have had to do at the time. We do know this wasn’t a do-or-die vote. Frankly, we know that if he had an important constituency meeting, he’d have been better employed there.

Owen’s been attacked for ‘going fishing with Tory MPs’. Yes, Owen went on a trip which involved fishing one summer. He’s Vice Chair of the All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Angling, raising awareness of issues relating to the sport. You might think that’s not very important, but millions of voters go fishing, and there are hundreds of APPGs covering almost everything. They all include both Labour and Tory MPs: Jeremy Corbyn used to chair the APPG on Mexico, with three Tory MPs and Ian Paisley’s son as officers. It’s hardly surprising if, as part of a group looking at angling, the Angling Trust might have been keen for these MPs to, well, experience angling. And having looked at Owen’s expense records, I can find no evidence he claimed any expenses for the trip.

And on expenses: one of the silliest attacks on Owen has been for claiming more expenses than Corbyn. Owen represents Pontypridd in the Welsh Valleys; Corbyn’s seat is a Tube journey from Parliament. Of course his expenses are higher. He has to travel further and he has to have two bases (if you don’t believe me, remember the Commons regularly finishes at 10.30pm or 7.30pm). If we compare a Welsh MP’s expenses unfavourably with those of the MP for Islington North, we may as well just say London MPs are preferred as leaders. In a country where metropolitan elites are forever mocked, I shouldn’t have to explain why that would be profoundly damaging.

Why it matters

This is dishonest, misleading stuff, easily explained for any who honestly want an answer. More importantly, it’s toxic. It takes the diary trade-offs, policy compromises and parliamentary tactics which being an MP will always involve and uses them to ‘prove’ an MP dishonest, on the take or lazy. Taken to its logical conclusion, it makes an effective legislature impossible. It’s a left-wing version of UKIP.

How do different sports’ concerns, or issues from a country far away, or information about British industries make their way to Parliament? Partly from MPs’ own backgrounds, but mainly from talking to people outside Parliament with an interest or expertise. Select Committees and APPGs are part of that process. You know how oppositions get some concessions from governments in Parliament? They work with their opposite numbers in the Lords. They put forward amendments and they may word them to get some government MPs or peers to back it. They may meet ministers to talk about what concessions they can get if the Lords lets a Bill through. And sometimes they work constructively and consensually on legislation on which no one disagrees much.

If any attempt to compromise, or negotiate, or secure concessions just proves perfidy, we have two choices. Parliament could just grind to a halt. Alternatively, the Government can ram all legislation through with no meaningful scrutiny, no chance to improve it and no opportunity for the Opposition to win concessions. Do you want either of those? Does any sensible person? Do you want a closed Parliament where MPs do nothing but casework or sitting in the chamber?

This sort of campaigning takes the basic work of MPs and actively undermines it. Worse, it depends and builds on ignorance of how Parliament works, when activists should be trying to do exactly the opposite. It’s not just attacks on Owen Smith, and it’s not just Corbynites. Those memes of an empty Commons talking about a debate on [popular/important issue] and a full one talking about [expenses/unpopular issue] – never mind that the first was a snapshot in the middle of a long debate and the second was actually Prime Minister’s Questions? They’re part of the same culture. So is the mindless counting up of how many parliamentary questions (PQs) an MP asked. Never mind their relevance or that a minister doesn’t ask PQs or an MP might chair a Select Committee and do far more for scrutiny that way. Just assume they’re lazy instead.

It’s hardly surprising democracy is held in low esteem if all the key participants and the activists mock it just as much, and with as broad a brush, as any cynical non-voter. Activists presumably believe in the power of politics, and campaigning, to effect change. If so, they should fight within Parliament, and battle for parliamentarians’ support, to their hearts’ content. But don’t feed into a culture which treats all MPs as lazy, all leaders as liars and all deals as betrayals. If you paint politics as a cesspit, don’t be surprised if the public agrees with you. And don’t be surprised if the new politics ends up nastier and narrower than the old.