So the UK government has finally capitulated and declared the inevitability of what just about all of us have known for several weeks: that the European elections, due on 23 May, must take place since there is simply not enough time for any withdrawal to be ‘ratified’ in the UK under the terms of the extension of the two-year Article 50 process offered at the Special Council meeting last month.
Typical of the government’s style this might be – shut your eyes, put your fingers in your ears and pretend something isn’t happening until such times as reality becomes too much to bear and you have to cave in (TS Eliot was quite possibly right, by the way) – but an election is neither something to ‘regret‘ nor to object to on the grounds of cost, both of which, in their own way, seek to put a price on something which is priceless. Theresa May might regret having to hold an election given the calamitous state of the Tory Party – out of funds with donors running shy of leadership uncertainty, and consequently having to run a ‘cut-price’ campaign, and in internal ‘meltdown‘ over the state of her own leadership of it – but that is of course a different matter entirely; and, while the state of public opinion on the government’s mishandling of the Brexit negotiations is no doubt a reason for fear of May 23 by the government itself, holding people accountable is what democracies were designed for. (NB the 8% who ‘approve’ the government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations is an argument all by itself that all referendums should require super majorities – it’s twice the marginal 52:48 gap created by the 2016 referendum.) Bring it on.
Now the UK’s participation in the European elections is confirmed, and we have the increasingly real prospect of these delivering an annihilated Tory Party falling apart in office, the extended talks between Labour and the Theresa May faction of the Tories seem to have fulfilled a substantial part of their purpose. In contrast to Paul Mason, however, I wouldn’t argue that Labour should pull out of them just yet. They will surely fall apart in due course anyway under the weight of their own contradictions, with Theresa May unable to offer even a customs union on anything other than a meaningless temporary basis – itself incapable of resolving the problem of the Northern Ireland border, insufficient to deliver anything like a jobs-first Brexit and leaving the question of services entirely untouched – still less move on any other of her red lines. The talks are, quite clearly, going nowhere other than to underline that the current party of government is fractured, incapable and without a mandate.
But, that is useful purpose enough in the present situation. Furthermore, in the slightly more medium-term, were Labour to swing behind a confirmatory vote, as is my own hope, there is a clear strategic requirement for it being able to indicate to its leave-backing voters who have not already gone for the full Farage that it first did all it could to secure a deal with the government which delivered the mandate of the 2016 referendum (recognising its lies, obfuscations and fraudulent data manipulations); and that the reason for that failure lay entirely at the door of the government’s own intransigence. This is not just about triangulation; it is about driving that existing wedge in the Tory Party home and, providing that strategy continues to work as it currently appears to be doing, I’m still on board.
Mason (above link) is right, however, in arguing that Labour needs to campaign actively in the election; and with clear support for the Party of European Socialists manifesto (which affiliates like-minded parties from all over the EU and Norway, and forms part of the progressive Socialists and Democrats grouping in the European Parliament) and, subsequently, to engage where possible with the greens and the left. The European elections are about the future of Europe and, tempting as it is to see them as a referendum on Brexit, they are (and need to be) much more than about that. That said, it would be good to see an increase in the the low levels of turnout, historically 35-40%, this time around. The Labour manifesto will clearly embody the PES principles to which its candidates sign up, although it will clearly also be embodying existing Conference policy on Brexit. Much as I’m in sympathy with the intention of Tom Watson, and others, to gain a greater commitment to a confirmatory vote at the NEC meeting, the manifesto can do little more than articulate what is existing policy.
The difficulty here is, of course, that we cannot wait for Conference to debate a change in policy since, by then, it will be too late; if, indeed, only a clutch of European countries now want the UK to stay, then any further extension beyond 31 October is clearly already out of the question. Personally, I’m also reluctant to have my vote on 23 May depicted as a vote for a Brexit-supporting party: I will be voting on European issues and about the future of Europe, and with a view to the MEPs I help elect playing their full role in the next European Parliament to end austerity and construct a Europe for the many. With that in mind, and remembering the specificities of a European Parliament election being more than about domestic issues, let there be no talk of any vote for Labour as being a vote for a Brexit-supporting party.
With the news from at least one source (quoting a report in the Telegraph) that Theresa May is engaged in scenario planning for a three-way referendum – her deal/no deal/remain – if (and when) the talks with Labour fail and Parliament can find no other route forward, it’s clear that the time is right to keep on talking while, all the while, keeping on the pressure for that confirmatory vote.