I was asked “What do I say to my MP about Brexit?” while speaking at the AGM of the Stockport for Europe meeting last week. And since it’s a question that I suspect many of the frustrated millions who have signed the petition calling for the revocation of Article 50, and/or marched on Saturday, are also asking, I thought it was worth sharing my answer.
My questioner explained that previous correspondence indicated that the MP was unhappy about Brexit, had been a Remainer in 2016, but was saying “we have to go with the will of the people”. They feared the MP was a party loyalist who wouldn’t go against the party whip.
As a first response to that, I’d point out that the most democratic way forward is to let the people rule now that the direction decided in 2016 has produced a result – to put Theresa May’s deal (or anything that might be subsequently agreed, such as ‘Norway Plus’) against the status quo, that is remaining in the EU.
How can it be undemocratic to let the people decide?
Democracy doesn’t provide indefinite or lifetime mandates. The 2016 vote was now almost three years ago – the period many nations allow between national elections (and somewhat longer than we’ve been managing lately). So why not check in now with what the people want, particularly with MPs so divided?
But ultimately, when looking at that MP question, we come down to a philosophical issue. Are MPs delegates or representatives?
Are they sent to Parliament with a direction to vote however a majority of their constituents would on any particular issue, irrespective of any view they might have formed after listening to years of debate? If so, they are delegates, and we might as well do without them and run the country by opinion polls. I don’t think, however, many would expect that to produce good stable government – we expect them to pay attention to what’s going on and make calls on it, so that we don’t have to.
If MPs are sent as representatives, the generally accepted position, then they have a duty to make a judgement on the knowledge and experience they brought to the role and have accumulated since. They (and we) know a great deal more about the UK’s membership of the European Union, and the possible impact of ending that membership, than in 2016.
MPs should not be simply basing their votes on the views of their constituents from three years ago. (And the composition of that constituency is not the same now as it was then.)
So let’s go to the basic principle: MPs have to act in the best interests of their constituents and the country as a whole – that is, or should be, their job description.
However, the practical reality is that MPs are also nearly all party members, many inhabiting ‘safe seats’ under our first-past-the-post electoral system owing their position more to their selection by local party members than their entire electorate, vulnerable to being removed by that party and certainly denied advancement in it if they defy the whip.
So, generally, most of the time most of them follow the party whip, walking through the “yes” or “no” lobbies in Parliament according to direction (all too often with little idea at all of what they are voting on).
For some votes, that’s defensible. No one can be right across the detail of every issue that Parliament votes on. If an MP follows the party line on, say, brewery regulation or police uniforms, I’m not going to be too hard on them over that.
But when it comes to the big questions of the day, “I was following the whip” is in no way a reasonable answer to “why did you vote that way?”
The Green Party doesn’t whip on any issue. We believe representatives should vote according to their knowledge and beliefs on any issue (should that disagree with party policy, we simply ask them to acknowledge and explain that fact).
And we’ve been particularly vocal on issues of war and peace. I cannot see how any MP can justify saying “I voted to go to war because a whip told me to”.
The Brexit decision of the coming days is in a similar category (as would be a vote on declaring a Climate Emergency). This is the crushing, pressing issue of the day – leaving will likely mean greatly restricting the opportunities and freedoms of all (but particularly the young), threaten to bring us even more under the volatile, dangerous influence of Donald Trump and US-backed multinational companies and take us away from the power that comes from working together with the peoples of Europe for the common good.
And it threatens to see the next five years or more dominated by debates about our future relationship with the EU – crowding out space for tackling the environmental, education, economic and social crises causing such suffering and threatening such danger to our communities.
So my final line message for the MP at the beginning of this article, and every other MP, and one I’d urge you to share with them, is: don’t calculate your personal or party advantage. Don’t follow the party line. Don’t try to guess what your constituents now think.
Look at what is best for Britain. Vote to achieve that – which means first choice a People’s Vote, second choice simply revoking Article 50, and then, a poor third, if Brexit is inevitable, remain in the single market and customs union (‘Norway Plus’).
And be prepared to justify why you made the choices you did based on knowledge. Because your constituents aren’t going to be satisfied with any other explanation.
Natalie Bennett is a former leader of the Green Party.