Labour’s Brexit dilemma

Before the EU referendum, many people thought that the outcome, whatever it might be going to be, was going to cause far more problems for the Conservative than the Labour Party. At least up to now, this is far from what has happened. Only one Tory MP, Kenneth Clark voted against Article 50 on 2nd February 2017 while 47 Labour MPs voted that way, showing how deep the divisions within the Labour Party over Brexit are at the moment.

A number of key statistics tell the story. Of the 230 odd constituencies held by Labour at the time of the EU referendum, 70% had Leave majorities. If London and a small number of university cities are excluded, the ratio rises to about 90%. Some of these Leave majorities were very substantial. In Stoke on Trent, where one of the recent bye-elections was held, the Leave majority was close to 70%. Among Parliamentary Labour Party members, however, the picture is very different. There is still only a comparatively small minority of committed Leave supporters, and most of the seats with the largest Remain majorities had Labour MPs.

This is what has caused the Labour Party such huge difficulties. Clearly there was a democratic vote in favour of leaving the EU on 23rd June 2017 which needs to be respected. Many Labour MPs who were both personally strongly for Remain and who had substantial majority support for this position among their constituency electorates, however, thought that they had good reasons, in their judgement, for voting against Article 50.

The danger then is that the Party as a whole loses out heavily in the country at large because of its ambivalent stance on Brexit – and more polling evidence emphasises the scale of this risk. On the one hand, of the 9.3m people who voted Labour in the 2015 general election, just short of 3.5m voted Leave in the EU referendum and half of these people, about 1.7m of them, say that they do not intend to vote Labour again at least partly because they are unhappy with Labour’s policies towards the EU. At the other end of the spectrum, fervent Labour-leaning Remain voters are concerned enough about Labour supporting Article 50 to desert the Party and to vote for the Lib Dems, which is clearly what happened in the recent Richmond by-election at the beginning of December 2016, where Labour finished up with only 4% of the vote.

Labour is thus threatened with losing large numbers of votes both among its industrial heartland blue collar erstwhile supporters, because it is not Eurosceptic enough, as well as from metropolitan middle class people, many of whom do not want to leave the EU at all.  Of course, issues to do with Brexit are not the only reason why the Party is in difficulties, but Brexit is currently dominating political discussion in the UK at the moment, and Labour cannot afford to call this issue wrongly. So what can it do?

The by-elections held on 23rd February 2017 provide some guidelines. In both Copeland and Stoke Central Labour’s share of the vote fell. Obviously, other factors were in play apart from Brexit but both the loss of the seat by Labour in Copeland and the low turnout in Stoke suggest that many Labour-leaning voters away from London and university cities are upset by the Labour Party’s lack of enthusiasm for Brexit.

Furthermore, even though there was some good news from a Labour perspective, this needs to be treated with caution. The threat from UKIP turned out to be much weaker than might have been expected, no doubt mainly because the Conservatives have promised to do much of what UKIP supporters want. Nor did either the Lib Dems or the Greens do well. The problem Labour faces, however, is that, as the main opposition party, it has to win support back from the government and this is not what is currently happening. Instead, it seems that the Conservatives have been much more successful on Brexit in positioning themselves where the country wants to be.

What, in these circumstances can Labour do? Really, there is only one way ahead on Brexit which has any realistic chance of helping it to recover the electoral support it needs to become an effective opposition, let alone the party of government. It cannot afford to disregard the result of the EU referendum both for democratic reasons and because the Party stands to lose much more support from those alienated by Labour backing off supporting Brexit than it is likely to lose by failing to obstruct the Brexit negotiations, which has to be Lib Dem and not Labour territory.

What Labour needs to do, therefore, is to recognise that it has to accept the referendum result and then to play as constructive a role as it can on the Brexit negotiations. This will not be secured by tactical manoeuvring against the government. It will be achieved by supporting the government wherever it is acting in the national interest, while no doubt carving out a distinctive Labour position where there is genuine difference of view, for example of social legislation. 

Brexit is all too likely to dominate the political horizon for all the period running up to the next general election in 2020. Labour needs to use this period to rebuild the electorate’s trust in the Party on the EU – as well as much else.

Photo by DavidMartynHunt

Time to call MEPs’ bluff

 

Last week, an article in the Guardian painted a bleak picture of the prospects for the UK fishing industry after Brexit:- “The hopes of British fishermen that the UK can win its “waters back” after Brexit are expected to be dashed by the European parliament, despite the campaign promises of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, a leaked EU document reveals.

MEPs have drafted seven provisions to be included in Britain’s “exit agreement”, including the stipulation that there will be “no increase to the UK’s share of fishing opportunities for jointly fished stocks [maintaining the existing quota distribution in UK and EU waters]”.

The document, obtained by the Guardian, adds that in order for the UK and EU to keep to commitments on sustainable fishing – contained within the United Nations stocks agreement – “it is difficult to see any alternative to the continued application of the common fisheries policy”

It is time for those MEPs to read Article 50, which they as a Parliament, and each EU member state have twice endorsed. While it is correct that where you have two nations’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) that adjoin one another you will have a straddling stock and the percentage share-out is agreed on the basis of the total allowable catch within each EEZ, it is totally wrong is to suggest to any degree that the share allocated to the British EEZ has to be shared out between the EU and the UK as at present.

Section 3 of Article 50 states “The treaties shall cease to apply to the state in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement, or failing that, two years after the notification Or failing that, if there is no agreement,  the treaties – including regulations – shall cease to apply two years after notice has been given.”

Going back to section 2 of Article 50, it says  “the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with the state”. It does not say that the leaving Nation has to negotiate.

Of course the MEPs are going to try it on. They don’t want to lose out taking a British resource for free, as they have been doing for over 40 years. Taking the phrase “the Union shall negotiate”, they want things to remain as they are  – in other words, as far as the UK is concerned, a shadow CFP. However, the main straddling stocks are located in the North Sea and English Channel, where our EEZ in that area is larger than the EU one. This implies that the EU should follow our policy, not that we should follow theirs – i. e, maintain the CFP.

The MEPs stress that we must abide by International law – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS3).  Actually, we would agree with this as sections 55 to 75 clearly lay out the guidelines for operating an EEZ. At one second past the two-year period stipulated under Article 50, competency and control reverts to Westminster. We return to the Fishery Limits 1976 Act and its amendments, which accepts the guidelines of UNCLOS3. This states that the marine resources within the British EEZ belongs to the British people. The EU and its MEPs in particular have no say in the management of our own EEZ post-Brexit.

To repeat, international law bestows the responsibility of the British EEZ of 200 nautical mile/median line zone solely onto the UK Government.

In order to prevent an overnight collapse of EU fleets by excluding them totally from day one from our waters, under UNCLOS3 Section 62,  we can make a generous offer in the negotiations. We could allow EU vessels a limited right to fish in UK waters on a decreasing transitional basis – to fish the overcapacity of our resource until we build up our own fleet.

So whatever the Guardian‘s source may say, while the MEPs can huff and puff as much as they wish, there is nothing they can do about it. The only way they can achieve their desire would be if a weak UK government capitulates and creates a British fishing policy based on the CFP for the British EEZ. In other words, giving the EU what they want and repeating Edward Heath’s betrayal of our fishermen. They must not cave in to pressure and deny our coastal communities this lifeline after over four decades of EU-instigated decline

Rise up? Throw up more likely!

Politicians rely on people’s short memories and none more so than Tony Blair, who must rate as one of the most deceitful, despised characters ever to have been Prime Minister. So his recruitment to the Europhile cause, trying to get people to “rise up” and overturn the democratic decision to leave the EU, is most welcome to independence campaigners.

Even Simon Jenkins in the Guardian has said Blair should “butt out”, adding that “former Prime Ministers do not campaign against the people”  Our President, my colleague George West, agrees. “It is time for the people of Britain to rise up against Tony Blair, a man who promised to take the UK out of the EEC if elected to Parliament.He should remember his promise  and stop blethering on about trying to keep us inside the European Union.”

Let us remember, he is the man who sent our troops into Iraq, ill-equipped on the strength of a dodgy dossier which was later found to have been plagiarised from a student’s thesis on the internet. The Weapons of Mass Destruction did not exist. Many better men than he were sent to their deaths or disablement on the strength of his deceit.

He now pretends concern that the controversy over Brexit could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom, yet he and his government bear the greatest responsibility for this. Devolution in Scotland and Wales was quite deliberately “asymmetric” – that is unbalanced and unfair, creating bad feeling between people in different parts of the kingdom.

Blair’s deputy, John Prescott, set about completing the process of dividing Britain by trying to create elected regional assemblies in England. The people of the North East rejected that soundly. Had the programme succeeded, the whole country would have been balkanised into regions of around 5 million people with their own representation in Brussels – bite-sized chunks for easier digestion by the EU. Scotland and Wales are, of course, EU regions.

The ideology for this was set out in a report on British identity by the Runnymede Trust which Blair commissioned. It was chaired by Lord Parekh and came to the conclusion that we now were “a nation of communities” and that the very terms British and Britain were so laden with racism that their use should be discouraged and, if possible, discontinued. On that account, the report considered a completely new name for our country but, in the end, made no recommendation.

These are the sort of people who will be backing Blair and who have made the very name “Blairite” one of the most deadly insults possible within the Labour party and its former supporters. David Cameron, of course, aspired to be “the heir to Blair” and the country gave him his marching orders with the referendum. Their day is done. With challenges as well as opportunities, we are on our way to being a free country now.

The London Convention and the future for UK fisheries

Time is not on our side. The acid test of whether ”Brexit means Brexit” is Fisheries. While there is no doubt that competency will return from Brussels back to Westminster when we leave, there is a real danger that the Government will run a parallel CFP in everything but name, continuing to give away 59% of the British living marine resource – in other words, the EU continuing to take 674,601 tons of fish out of our waters, at raw prices of £711,224,000.
 
The other important issue which needs to be considered is the 1964 London Convention. On Brexit day, when the EU regulations cease to apply, the London Convention will regain its force unless we act quickly. It is important to note that this is British legislation and nothing to do with the EU, apart from it being a sop to the French – a forlorn hope that it would change General De Gaulle’s mind in allowing Britain to join the then EEC. It granted five EU member substantial fishing rights within our 6 to 12 nautical mile zone, although France was by far the main beneficiary.
 
Under the terms of the Convention, after 1986, we can denounce the agreement by giving two years notice, so we need to do so at the same time as invoking article 50, as that is highly likely to be also a two year period. It would be ridiculous to find ourselves stuck with other Nations’ fishing vessels still able to fish in this narrow, but crucial inshore sector, even if only for a short period.
The Government is fully aware of this situation, but if they do nothing and allow these rights to continue, the five nations could possibly build up continuity rights, making it difficult to remove at a later date. This is as important as avoiding a shadow CFP to cover the 12 to 200 nautical mile zone. If the government fails on both these counts – an there are concerns that it might do without pressure being applied – we will face a repeat of the disaster of 1973, with the British people’s resource sacrificed a second time , increasing the decline within our coastal communities.
 
Not only that but once we appreciate that the boundary of the UK is the outer edge of our 200 nautical mile fishing zone. or median line and not, as is widely believed, the land boundary, we would effectively be losing three quarters of the UK. Given the government’s determination to control immigration – i.e., who sets foot on our land – it would be totally illogical to deny ourselves the right to control which fishing vessels may access our waters.
 
What is more, a failure to denounce the London Agreement or to replace the CFP with something totally different would open a legal minefield. The original London Agreement was vessel-specific and it is highly unlikely that any fishing boat covered by it is still in commercial use fifty years later, but any attempt to dismiss it as irrelevant for this reason would unquestionably be challenged in court. The fisheries regulation 1380/2013 is full of references to “union waters” and other terminology which assumes an EU of 28 countries including the UK, which will not be the case on Brexit day. So many changes would be needed to “repatriate” this regulation that it makes no sense to do so. We have time during the Article 50 period to devise something much simpler and better, based on the Faroese system and allowing only limited access to our waters for vessels of other EU member states using UNCLOS 3 as our guidelines here.     
 
There is no escaping the issue. On Brexit day, the UK – on other words, every single individual Westminster MP, is responsible under Intentional Law, for our managing our waters right up to the 200 nautical mile/median line limit. If they decide to give it away again, the responsibility for doing so, lies totally on their shoulders.
 
There is still everything to play for, but the subject of fishing will set the tone of Brexit. After Article 50 – and hopefully at the same time, the denouncing of  the London Convention – the next stage will be the scrutiny of the Great Repeal Bill in May to see what alterations they have done to the acquis coming into domestic legislation. Hopefully fisheries will be exempt, but to date the situation is not looking good.

The dark shadow of David Cameron hovers over Westminster

Finally, after a long battle over various proposed amendments, a vote following the third reading of the European Union (notification of withdrawal) Bill saw it passed by 494 votes to 122, a majority of 372. This is slightly down on the 384 majority in last week’s vote, mainly due to an increase in the number of Labour MPs voting against it. In spite of much whinging by a few unhappy Tory MPs, in the end, none of them joined Ken Clarke in the “no” lobby. The full list of MPs who voted against the will of the people can be found here.

The proposed amendments were voted down and the recent announcement by the Government that MPs would have a vote over the final Brexit deal was actually quite astute. It satisfies their demand to have a say but at the same time gives them very little wiggle room. There is no question of MPs vetoing Brexit at the end of the negotiations if they don’t like the deal. The choice will only be about how we leave – either backing the government’s package (whatever it turns out to be) or going for a disorderly Brexit relying on WTO rules only – an outcome that no one in their right minds would support.

So now the bill goes to the House of Lords. One government spokesman said “The Lords will face an overwhelming public call to be abolished if they now try and frustrate this Bill. They must get on and deliver the will of the British people.”  In other words, the Europhile majority must accept the result, just like many of their pro-remain colleagues on the House Commons. A gun is essentially being pointed at their heads and a call by Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone for their Lordships to block Brexit as their “patriotic duty” is unlikely to win many new friends either for her or any peers who follow her advice.

The Upper Chamber can propose amendments, which will then be debated by the House of Commons, but no one can doubt Mrs May’s determination to ensure that the bill will complete its  passage through Parliament in time for her self-imposed deadline next month. For all the huffing and puffing we are likely to hear from the Upper Chamber, it is therefore most unlikely it will amount to anything more than angry noise – just like the sickening behaviour of SNP MPs when following yesterday’s vote, they started first whistling then humming the EU’s “National Anthem” – the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – in the Commons chamber. They received a justified rebuke from the Deputy Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle.

Of course, all this would not have been necessary were it not for the incompetence of David Cameron, whose dark shadow must have been hovering over Westminster in recent days. Not expecting to lose, he did not draw up the referendum legislation in a competent manner. Whereas there was no ambiguity about how Westminster was to have responded if Scotland had voted to leave the Union, the Government’s promise in its booklet sent to every household that “The government will implement what you decide,”  carried no legal weight, hence Gina Miller’s challenge and the resultant hours spent debating the withdrawal bill.

Mrs May and her team have stood firm on their commitment to deliver Brexit and for this they deserve our respect and full support. However, the really hard bit is yet to come. Tough as beating down the opposition in Parliament has proved, it will not be nearly as tough as the challenges of negotiating a deal which will see us exit the EU seamlessly in two years’ time.

A quick look at the Brexit White Paper

The government White Paper this week charts the course the government intends to take to achieve the second leg of Brexit following the referendum result.  This should be to provide a ‘safe and beneficial exit’.

In effect, the government is not attempting to reach a withdrawal and settlement of the new relationship with the EU within two years after triggering Article 50, but is aiming to reach a settlement of the ‘framework’ within two years and thus leaving all the details for many years in the future.

It seems the government is splitting the Brexit job into two parts.

Job One:   Leaving the EU is being interpreted as negotiating a ‘framework’ within which the detailed negotiations will sit.

Job Two:   Detailed negotiations after the UK formally leaves the EU with a ‘framework’ settled.

So the question is this – can the government negotiate the details after formally leaving the EU with a framework agreement but in which framework the details are that each ‘chapter’ of the interface comes up for negotiation maybe years later?

In a way, the government is agreeing with the basic plan offered by the Leave Alliance during the referendum campaign – that the job is too big and complicated to do in two years.  The Leave Alliance solution was to remain in the EEA for some years, thus parking trade and other issues.  The government’s solution is to agree a ‘framework’ within two years and carry out the detailed negotiations later.  In this way it can argue that the UK has left the EU within two years.

Of course the first problem is then that the EU may well reject the splitting of the negotiations into ‘framework’ and ‘details’ because this is a new concept and because the ‘details’ are to some extent the ‘framework’.

Will the electorate and the Conservative Party accept that the UK will for most purposes still be in the EU after two years and the full withdrawal will take many years?

Also, by proposing to leave the EEA single market the government has added to its negotiating burden as it will have to secure trade agreements with the EFTA countries.

What happens if this course is pursued?  It depends on how the EU reacts.  It may go along with this in order to get the UK out of the formal political structure.  It might also say that the idea of separating the ‘framework’ and the ‘details’ is not realistic and put forward a more radical programme of detachment.

The Leave Alliance proposal would have been more certain, quicker, more attractive to the EU and would have more electoral support in the UK.  It would rest on off-the-shelf proven solutions.  The government’s proposals are the opposite of all these sensible proposals, are far more risky and uncertain and will involve the UK in many EU activities for years to come.