“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you” – the poem, “If”, goes on to make all sorts of worthy but unrealistic demands, and a joker finished the sentence above with “…then you’ve probably misunderstood the situation.” But in politics, all too often people are losing their heads and then blaming it on everyone else. And that’s not just the politicians.
We have representative democracy in Britain. That means people recognise they cannot spend all their time investigating, discussing, and then deciding every issue by a vote of every resident. On Tuesday I led for Labour on the Ivory Trade Bill, I read the previous debates, discussed it with colleagues who had worked on the Bill, and we decided to support the Government but make the strongest possible case for extending the ban to walruses, narwhals, hippos and other creatures. It takes time and effort to get these things right, which nobody could do unless it was their main job.
So people entrust their democratic power to elected representatives. That doesn’t mean each MP has to consult all their voters every time they make a decision. Not only would that be impossible, but it would also be expecting nurses and insurance workers and refuse collectors and lawnmower-builders and teachers and all the other hard-working people who make our society effective, to take an enormous time out of their daily lives to research every issue which their MP might want to consult them on.
That certainly doesn’t mean that MPs shouldn’t listen to what their constituents have to say. Most people who contact me about a particular issue understand the issue that concerns them very well, and I am usually guided by them. But on the big issues which affect the whole country, people need to recognise that not everyone agrees with them. That’s why we have contested elections. That’s why we have political parties with different views. I am often asked why Labour and Conservative MPs can’t just agree – well, when it comes to saving elephants, or protecting emergency services workers, or fighting slavery, then we can and do agree. But when it comes to giving tax cuts to people earning over £100,000 per year and then cutting the money for schools and hospitals, Labour MPs were elected to oppose those things – if we tried to agree with the Conservatives on those issues we would be betraying the trust that the voters have put in us.
Brexit is a very big issue indeed. Labour said we would respect the outcome of the referendum, and we have done so. We complied with the need to start the process, and we have tried at every opportunity to amend the government’s deal in order to make it more workable and less damaging to Britain. We listened to what the Brexit campaigners such as David Davies and Liam Fox were saying, and so we tried to hold them to the vision of Brexit which they had sold to the British people – a Brexit which would be better for Britain than remaining in the EU. Nobody voted to be poorer, or less safe. It would be a dereliction of my duty as your MP to vote to make you poorer or less safe.
Theresa May put David Davies and Boris Johnson and Liam Fox and Michael Gove in positions of power so that they could deliver the Brexit which they had told the British people was such a good idea. They failed, miserably, because they had never cared that much about the details of how Brexit could be achieved, they never bothered their heads with working out the actual facts, they just wanted to pursue their own political ambitions. Is there anyone, least of all these four, who seriously believes they could have done a better job if any of them had been Prime Minister?
May has now survived an internal Conservative coup – although fatally weakened – but the impossibility of her or the Conservative Party leading this country through Brexit or anything else is even more stark than it was last week. The Prime Minister’s so-called “deal” is dead in the water. We have just 3 months before we are due to leave the EU, and after 2 years this shambolic government has failed to come up with any way forward. Surely now, at the eleventh hour, it must be time for them to get out of the way and let the British people decide who they want to lead them.