7 February 2017

An open response to my MP, Heidi Allen

My MP, the Rt. Hon. Heidi Allen, recently posted this response to herviews on the vote for Article 50 (she voted for it) and begin the process of leaving the EU. This is a standard response she has been sending out to anyone asking her about her position on Brexit and A50 - and I have to say, one I find woefully lacking and rather confused.

Before I launch in to why I think this is such an inadequate response, you can ready her full statement here.

Sounds reasonable right? A reluctant Remain MP who wants to 'make the best out of a bad situation'. But how does it really stack up as an explanation of her position, or a response to deeply concerned constituents?
"... I have received a steady flow of emails requesting I act to overturn the referendum result on the basis of the slim majority, it being deemed advisory and concerns about turnout thresholds. So I should start by reminding constituents that Parliament passed the European Referendum Act 2015 by a majority of 491. It followed normal parliamentary procedure and was scrutinised heavily by both the House of Commons and House of Lords."
Firstly, no-one is expecting Heidi to personally overturn the result. It has already happened and can't be overturned. Heidi is confusing the result, with the response to it, which she is basically telling us must be to leave the EU. The whole point is that people are asking her to question this assumption in the first place.

The fact that Parliament voted for the Bill simply means they should be aware of what the bill says - especially as it was 'scrutinised heavily'. It's irrelevant how many voted for it, the question is what did they vote for?
"The European Referendum Act 2015 does not contain any provisions for a minimum or maximum turnout threshold, nor any threshold measures for a gap between the proportional percentage of those choosing to leave or remain in the EU."
Of course it doesn't make any provisions for these things - why would it?. You only need requirements if some action is required upon them being met and no such action is included in the bill - that's kind of the point. The Bill is written as putting a question to the people, to be considered by parliament. It doesn't have certain criteria because it is not written as directly triggering any event.
"The result of the referendum therefore was determined by the majority vote as per turnout on the day and we cannot retrospectively build in rules or criteria and question the value of the result."
Again, not wishing to labour the point, but Heidi keeps missing it. No one is asking for new rules and criteria to be retrospectively built-in - there was no scope for rules based action in the first place. What is being asked for is for certain aspects to be taken in to consideration by yourself when determining how you should respond to the result.

As FullFact explain here, the point that people have been making to Heidi is a perfectly valid one - parliament is legally sovereign and responsible for taking the decision to leave, or not - this has also been backed up by the highest court in the land and those MPs lining up to state that they have abrogated the ability to make this decision to the public should think carefully about what it means, and whether they can really then take any future decision around accepting a final deal alone.

It's perfectly reasonable that people ask her and other MPs to take consideration of the nature of the result and the way in which it was reached.

Obviously the legal status is not the whole picture and Heidi may feel politically constrained by the vote, but she could at least demonstrate she understands what people are asking.
"I believe in democracy and therefore no matter how painful it is, we cannot simply ignore the decision because we do not like it."
What is it about democracy, or the referendum, that Heidi believes requires everyone to support one single position? Democracy is about how people engage in decision making, it is about finding ways to live together that balance peoples needs and desires, and it is about accountability of those making decisions. The people writing to their representative asking them to act on their behalf? That is also democracy. People fighting for a cause they believe in? That is also democracy. To say every representative, and every citizen must get behind any one particular result whether they like it or not is to misunderstand the purpose of democracy. A perfectly acceptable way to show you accept a result, in a democracy, is to redouble your efforts to change the direction your country is going in - within the democratic framework provided for you to do so. People are not ignoring the result - they are painfully aware of it.
"Whilst I accept it was a close vote, there was a decisive outcome."
A decisive outcome? You can't call something a close result and a decisive outcome. We are not talking about trying to find the most popular car, where the closeness of the result doesn't matter, we are talking about how the whole of the UK feels about taking our country in a direction that has monumental social, economic, geopolitical and constitutional ramifications.

The result was that 37.44% of the electorate voted to leave, 34.71% voted to remain and 27.8% didn't vote for one reason or another. I cannot see how anyone can interpret this result as showing the public decisively want to go in one direction, or any urgency in wanting to set off.

What the referendum has shown is that we are deeply divided on this issue, that there is no clear voice ringing out around the country calling for us to leave, that there is maybe some confusion, maybe some apathy, but definitely also some strong voices on either side.
"I know many constituents (myself included) are disappointed in the result but this is the nature of democracy and we must accept the result."
This is not about not accepting the result, it is about asking politicians to really consider what the result means. What Democracy means.

Clearly there are issues of what it means to our democracy, to the relationship between the public and parliament and there are strong arguments as to why parliament should make a move towards Brexit. But, Heidi has declined to tell us anything about why she feels democracy compels her, specifically, to play the part of a leave supporter.
"I have been in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand I fully accept that as a whole, South Cambs voted to remain, but on the other hand, MPs must also consider the national interest."
Why exactly does this put her in an uncomfortable position? During the referendum she was in favour of remaining and even campaigned (though discreetly) to do so. We should give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that was she believed it to be in the national interest, and not a politically motivated decision. It would appear that compared to many of her fellow MP's she is in a fortunate position: her constituents and her view of the national interest actually align.
"We represent our constituency, but we are not delegates. We are elected to exercise our best judgement on behalf of the people we represent, even when this judgement seems at odds with the wishes of our constituents."
This point has been made by her fellow conservative Ken Clarke when defending his position of voting against article 50 in parliament's debate. But why is Heidi using this argument to support voting for A50, when her judgement, that we are better off in the EU, and her constituents view actually align? Heidi appears instead to have decided that, on the issue of leaving the EU, she has to be a delegate for the whole electorate and start a process she doesn't think is in our best interest. We have to ask, why?
"Knowing as we do, that the majority of this country and their MPs support Brexit..."
This is inaccurate and misleading. What we know is that 37.44% of the electorate -  or approx. 27% of the total UK population - voted to leave. It is frankly untrue to say that the majority of MPs support Brexit. Before the referendum only 156 of the 650 MPs supported Brexit a clear minority of just 24%. At best she could say that a majority of MPs are now reluctantly behind the process, but if there speeches are anything to go by I don't think they have been converted to the cause.

"I have analysed how "useful" a vote against this Bill tonight would be. Certainly I could vote against tonight, but what would that actually achieve? If the numbers are against us, I know it would be a hollow gesture."
Or we could ask, what has she achieved by going against both her constituents views and her former 'better judgement'?

What 'use' was there in her vote to trigger A50? It is just as hollow a gesture - and worse, is one devoid of any respect for constituents or integrity with previously held views.
"I do not underestimate the feelings of the majority of my constituents who are desperate for us to remain - but I owe you my pragmatism as well as my fight and my passion...
Even if all MPs voted as their constituencies did in the referendum, the Bill would still pass."
Many MPs did decide that they had to vote with their constituencies and it was quite clear that they were going to do so and that the bill would pass. Some voted against their remain constituencies but with long held personal views we should leave. So why did Heidi feel she had to support it when it was clear it was going to pass anyway?

What exactly was 'pragmatic' about her decision?
"... this Bill is not designed to stop Brexit. It is a procedural Bill, giving parliamentary consent for the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50."
In one respect she is right that is to give consent to the PM to trigger A50. However A50 is the process by which we leave the EU. Politically it is far more than just a procedural bill, it is MPs response to the referendum result. By giving it her consent, Heidi has given clearly stated that she, as MP for South Cambridgeshire believes the result means we should leave the EU - against the majority wishes of her constituents and against her former view of what was in our best interests.
"Deciding not to vote against the Bill tonight does not mean I am reconciled to the result."
Which is odd, because she spent quite a bit of time telling us how we have to be reconciled to the result.
"Even as I write this, amendments to the Bill are being tabled thick and fast. Over the next few days I will ensure I scrutinise all those tabled because this is where I believe I can make a real difference as your MP. Much more so than symbolically voting against tonight."
The question has to be asked: why couldn't she do this having voted against the first time? Its not like MPs waiver any right to amend a bill they voted against at second reading. It may have been, in her eyes, symbolic, but it wouldn't have harmed her ability to amend the bill, and would have been symbolic of the fact that there are people in the country, in her constituency, who are deeply opposed and deeply concerned about this bill. It may just have put the government in a less secure position and feeling they need to make sincere and meaningful concessions during the process.
"In conversation with whips, they know my vote tonight does not come freely nor easily. I have made it clear that if I do not receive assurances, I will support any amendment that provides the protections I believe we need in this deal."
As Heidi's constituents I think we should all expect, irrespective of assurances, or her previous vote, that she would support any amendment that she thought was in the best interests of her constituents and the country. To even suggest this might not be the case is worrying.
"I must be assured that we will not go plunging out of the single market without tariff free trade for our core industries, nor will I allow our hard working EU citizens to be marginalised in anyway."
It's worrying that, even at this stage, Heidi seems unaware that the whole point of the single market was to address regulatory and other non-tariff barriers to trade. Perhaps the words of Margaret Thatcher when she spoke about setting up the single market might help
"Europe wasn't open for business. Underneath the rhetoric, the old barriers remained. Not just against the outside world, but between the European countries. Not the classic barriers of tariffs, but the insiduous ones of differing national standards, various restrictions on the provision of services, exclusion of foreign firms from public contracts. Now that's going to change. Britain has given the lead."
And, what about non-core industries, are they to just be left to fend for themselves?

Her support for EU citizens is very welcome, many across South Cambs are deeply worried about how this will affect them, or their friends, and family. although it is noted with concern that her votes in the commons don't quite match up to this commitment.

And, if these amendments are not passed, what then? The previous content about respecting the vote and abrogation of responsibility to constituents does little to convince me Heidi would be prepared to take a stand and vote against at the final reading.
"But to serve you best, it is critical that I retain the ability to exercise this power; an opportunity that would undoubtedly be closed to me if I voted against the Bill in any form."
This is actually quite a chilling statement. What exactly is she saying here? That she has to have voted with her party whip to be able to exercise any power in support of us? What is it that voting for the bill actually allows her to do that she couldn't otherwise? Is she really suggesting we might be better off without an MP who needs to be mindful of the government position to do anything for us?
"Because of this future legislation, it is critical that I and my parliamentary colleagues have the ability to fully scrutinise and challenge the Government where necessary."
Again, it is extremely worrying that in our parliamentary democracy, when the courts have recently ruled that parliament holds sovereignty, that there is any suggestions this might not be the case. Nothing an MP does, short of being barred from parliament, should prevent them doing this, it is the primary reason they are there. I think Heidi really needs to explain just what she means by this.

"... Parliament will have three further significant votes. A vote for the Great Repeal Bill, a vote on the final deal, and then a vote to ratify the final agreement under the Constitutional Reform Act before the official date of withdrawal."
Leaving aside the 'Great Repeal Bill' which should leave everyone worried anyway, these last two are just votes on the final deal, unless significant amendments pass there is little MPs can do to change the governments negotiations if they do not wish to change - and so far they have indicated little desire to do so. If, a the end the final deal is not acceptable and they vote it down what does that mean? At the moment it means that we would crash out of the EU with no deal, with no provisions in place unless the government decided to apply for extra time and the other 27 EU members agreed to it.

There is an amendment that seeks to give parliament a meaningful vote, but it ha to pass, and even then the government would need to gain agreement from the other EU member states that we could halt or delay the process for it to have any real value.

It seems to me to be irresponsible to have started this bill progressing through parliament without requiring the government to secure agreement with the EU for the measures we would need for parliament to have a meaningful say - it may well now be too late irrespective of how MPs vote on amendments. There was no desperate hurry to implement this bill, the timetable was entirely made up by the government in a bid to appear to be doing something. This could all have been handled better, but MPs seem to have failed to do their job and hold the government to account over its poor handling of the matter.