No single party has been responsible for the steady erosion of trust in politics that we have seen over recent decades. From New Labour’s invasion of Iraq on a false prospectus to the Lib Dems’ tuition fees deception to the litany of Tory broken promises on everything from industrial strategy to immigration targets, the trust gap was already dangerously deep and wide well before June 2016.
But there can be no doubt that the EU referendum super-charged the anger and cynicism that has had such a corrosive impact on our politics. From the Leave campaign’s promise of an extra £350m for the NHS to the government leaflet which claimed that every household would lose £4,000, the claims and counter-claims have served only to undermine the integrity and accountability of our institutions. This pattern has continued throughout the Brexit negotiations, with politicians and campaigners on all sides accentuating positive possibilities and glossing over inconvenient realities. But these false promises and exaggerations have not just misled the public, they have left MPs with a lack of clarity over what is and isn’t possible.
12 March is set to be yet another pivotal day because Parliament is likely to conduct two critically important votes. The first will be on a vote for a second referendum, possibly the Kyle/Wilson amendment which states that the Prime Minister’s deal should be subject to a confirmatory referendum with Remain on the ballot paper, and the second will be on the deal itself. Given the crucial nature of these votes, it is essential that MPs go through the division lobbies with their eyes wide open, and with all the facts on the table.
There has been no shortage of high visibility debate about the contents of the draft Withdrawal Agreement, so it is reasonable to expect that every vote cast will be done so on the basis of a fully informed choice. However, very little time and attention has been given to the fact that if we vote for a second referendum on 12 March, we will by definition be voting for the UK to take part in the European Parliament (EP) elections. This lack of clarity and transparency should be a cause of profound concern.
The elections will be taking place across the EU between 23 and 26 May, and the newly elected EP will meet for the first time on 2 July. The new EP would not be legally constituted if the UK is still a member state on 2 July but there are no British MEPs. So, if we wish to extend Article 50 beyond 2 July then we will have to agree to take part in the elections.
The Institute for Government has confirmed that it takes a minimum of 25 weeks to organise a referendum, so it is equally clear that Article 50 would have to be extended well beyond 2 July if Parliament votes for the Kyle / Wilson amendment.
Some claim that it will be possible to find some sort of workaround that would enable us to extend beyond 2 July without having to participate in the elections. But this argument does not stack up, for two vitally important reasons.
First, there would be a flood of litigation. British citizens would be well within their rights to sue on a range of citizenship-based issues because their rights as EU citizens are not being adequately represented. And second, the EP will play a central role over the summer in the nomination and confirmation of the new Commission President and his or her team of Commissioners. If the UK is still a member state but has no MEPs the legitimacy of those nomination and confirmation processes would be fundamentally undermined.
So, the EU really means what it says. This is not a ‘negotiating ploy’, and there are no workarounds, sleights of hand or backstairs fixes. Their message is clear: if you want to extend Article 50 beyond 2 July then you must first and foremost commit to taking part in the EP elections.
Those campaigning for a second referendum must, therefore, be completely up-front on this point, as must the leadership of my party if Labour MPs are to be whipped to vote for any parliamentary amendment or motion which supports holding a second referendum.
Exaggeration and being ‘economical with the truth’ have had a deeply corrosive impact on trust in our politics and institutions. It’s something that the Common Market 2.0 cross-party group of MPs have fought hard against; our recent pamphlet was an attempt to cut through the noise and present clear, honest proposals which we are still confident MPs will support when the moment comes.
To the best of my knowledge, nobody from any of the second referendum campaign groups or from the Labour frontbench has issued a statement formally confirming that voting for a referendum and voting for participation in the EP elections are two sides of the same coin.
It is vital that they do so now. This is not about the pros and cons of holding another referendum. It’s bigger than that. It’s about trust in Parliament, politics, and democracy.