Politics in the UK has a problem, which desperately needs to be addressed. In June, a small majority of voters opted to leave the Europe Union. This is the most momentous constitutional change for a generation, and it is vital that we get it right. And that takes discussion. Reaching a deal on our continuing relationship with the European will define this Parliament, and the outcome will effect our country for decades to come. Everyone, therefore, can agree that we must work to get a deal which is good for the UK (and in my book, also the EU). This has been one of the Government’s stock responses when asked for their plan – they will work to get the best deal for Britain. Who could argue with that?
The problem is that this is not an answer. It is simply a platitude. I believe that the government should set out its goals in broad strokes – where they stand on single market access, free movement of labour etc – and that the triggering of article 50 should be subject to parliamentary approval for these goals. This would give legitimacy to the tortuous negotiation process, and go some way to ensuring that the final deal is one which the country can broadly support. There is one group which should be hammering that message into the Government, yet sadly Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition seems absent without leave. And without opposition, the Government is free to offer the public platitudes, and pursue its agenda behind closed doors.
This is a problem, because we live in a representative democracy, yet much of the population – both geographically and politically – are not represented by the Conservative Government. Even if I felt the Government did represent me, I would want them to be challenged, because rigorous discourse is how we develop and refine policy in everyone’s interests. If ideas are not challenged, then problems go unmissed, ideas are underdeveloped, and failures are inevitable. We all get things wrong sometimes.
No, if we really want to get the best deal for the UK, we must have open discussion about what is good for the UK as a whole and its various regions, about what issues are priorities, and what people want from our new relationship with Europe. The impetus for this must come from those people who are elected to govern on our behalves, making use of the wide range of parliamentary debates, committees and other means. Discussions in parliament could fuel a wider public debate, using the media as a go-between, and we could have a truly national debate. That, at least, would be a positive legacy for 23 June.
Instead, we have an echo chamber. The Government alone speaks, and has what they say repeated back to them by the media, which is offered no alternative perspective. The Official Opposition are nowhere to be seen. This problem has its roots in the referendum campaign, when the Labour Party seemed unable to attract the attention of a media which was more interested in the internecine strife of the Conservative Party. More recently, Labour has struggled to formulate a clear stance on the issue which balances the competing interests of its London constituencies which voted to remain, and its provincial seats which backed leave. But silence is the worst of all possible worlds. It benefits none of their constituents.
Of course, smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, are working hard to fill the gap, offering substantially different policies, to be debated. Yet with only nine MPs, and in a system which is so dominated by the two major parties, they cannot have the same clout. There are no two ways about it. The Labour Party needs to start to take more public positions. I try to be relatively well informed, and honestly struggle to identify what is Labour Party policy at present – particularly as it is still unclear how far what the Leader says is policy. When Mr Corbyn or his senior team do speak, there is no telling if his PLP or wider party agree with him, and would back such a policy.
This problem extends beyond the EU. A whole host of policy areas, from grammar schools to social care, and online privacy to transport infrastructure, can and should be up for debate at the moment. The Labour Party should be fearless in opposing moves which will hurt the poorest and those most in need of support, and it should be particularly unforgiving in attacking such policies if they have been brought in under Mrs May’s leadership, without regard to previous manifesto policy. Yet, time and again, Labour has little to say.
The failure of the Labour Party to speak to the issues of the day is also, in part, a failure of the media. While there are issues on which the party is undecided or divided, on many issues MPs on the front and back benches have plenty to say. Few in the Labour Party would support cuts to social care budgets, for example. Yet they seem unable to attract attention, perhaps because Labour is currently polling poorly, perhaps because, after the leadership challenge which just wouldn’t end, ‘politics as usual’ is dull. Whatever the reason, the Labour Party must reach out to the media. And if it wants to be taken seriously, it must do so with real, substantial policy – that means more than just Mr Corbyn’s ten pledges.
Labour must take control of its message, through a real media strategy. Only when it does that, can we have the real debate which is so vital to shaping the UK’s future, in the face of an unelected Government.